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Italians among fastest-growing EU nationals in Singapore

Italy’s ambassador to Singapore, Raffaele Langella, shares his thoughts with NARENDRA AGGARWAL on the progress in bilateral relations – and what new to expect, going forward

Mr Langella, who has been in Singapore since August 2017, says the city-state is "challenging and stimulating" for an Ambassador.

Narendra Aggarwal: As the Italian Ambassador to Singapore, how would you describe the state of bilateral relations in various fields - political, business, education, research and innovation, culture, etc?

Ambassador Raffaele Langella: The bilateral relations between Italy and Singapore are strong and long-lasting. Italy was among the first countries to recognise the independence of Singapore in 1965. These ties have been growing over time and are now flourishing. This is reflected in the Italian presence here in Singapore. An increasing number of our companies, now over 300, have decided to make Singapore their headquarters for operations in the region. Our community is one of the fastest-growing among EU countries, and is now constituted by over 4,000 people.

Besides numbers, I can testify to the great affection and fondness that Italy enjoys in Singapore. It may sound romantic but, as I always say, it is wonderful to be Ambassador of a country that is at the heart of the collective imagination of many people. The results that we have accomplished in these years are very important, and I want to thank all the actors of the so called "Italian country system", which encompasses not only the embassy, but also the trade commission and the chamber of commerce. The chamber, despite being run as a private entity, is for us a dynamic and reliable partner with which we have an excellent collaboration on an institutional level.

Mr Aggarwal: In your view, how will the upcoming FTA between the European Union - of which Italy is a key member, and Singapore, help promote Italy-Singapore economic relations?

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Ambassador Langella: The EU-Singapore FTA will be finally signed in Brussels in a few days. This agreement has had a long journey. Sometimes, the internal proceedings of the EU may seem very complicated but, at the end of the day, we always deliver. This is very important because the EU is sending the message that it wants to be a reliable partner, amidst international challenges, for Singapore and Asean. This FTA will be the stepping stone for a larger region-to-region agreement, and will greatly benefit also the bilateral relations between our country and Singapore. Italy aims to be for Singapore a point of entry into Europe, exactly as Singapore is Italy's gateway into Asean. While the presence of Singapore investments in Italy is picking up, there is still much untapped potential. We are confident that the provisions of the agreement on investments will greatly facilitate reciprocal growth and collaboration.

Mr Aggarwal: You say that the EU-Singapore FTA will be the most sophisticated new generation FTA that the EU will sign with any country and, in particular, focuses on IP and consumer rights protection. How will this help to promote stronger business ties between Italy and Singapore?

Ambassador Langella: Our business ties are already strong. Our bilateral trade in 2017 reached almost 2.5 billion euros (about S$4 billion), with a substantial increase from 2016, when it had settled at 2.1 billion euros (S$3.33 billion).

The vast majority of it is constituted by Italian export of goods to Singapore. While Singapore remains our first destination for export in Asean, there is room to increase the flow of goods and services.

Once the FTA comes into force, our trade will be greatly facilitated, thanks to the elimination of many non-tariff barriers, for example on raw meat.

At the same time, Singapore consumers will have higher safeguards, thanks to the creation of a list of "denominations of origin" which will attest to the provenance of specific products, famous all over the world, like Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma or Aceto Balsamico di Modena.

This will limit the phenomenon of the so-called "Italian sounding", for which customers sometimes buy a food because it is advertised as "Italian", while it is actually a lower-quality copy produced elsewhere.

Mr Aggarwal: What does Italy as a member of the G-7 grouping of the top global economies and the second largest manufacturing country in Europe, offer to Singapore and the other South-east Asian countries?

Ambassador Langella: First of all, I would like to underline something that not everybody knows. Italy's first item of export to Singapore is constituted by advanced machinery, oil refined products and electronics, which together account for almost half of our exports in the country.

Some of our most important companies here are manufacturing companies that actually have production facilities in Singapore (such as in semi-conductors and construction materials). Other important areas are leather products, vehicles, chemicals, metals and, of course, food and wine. Now, this list may come as a surprise to many who know Italy mainly for its high quality companies in food, fashion and design. We are proud of our history and of the brands that made us famous in the world, but in Italy there are also a great number of excellences in sectors that may be less known to the wider public, like the manufacturing industry.

Mr Aggarwal: Moving on to R&D, can you share with us Italy's involvement in such activity in Singapore?

Ambassador Langella: A Technological and Scientific Cooperation Agreement was signed in May 2016 between Italy and Singapore, during the State Visit of then-President Tony Tan to Rome. This is a government-to-government accord. In addition, there are a range of collaborations on a bilateral basis, put in place through memorandums of understanding among universities. These are now over 20, and a few more are under negotiation.

Last, but not least, a great role is played by the cooperation between the private sector and universities. We feel the R&D activities conducted in Singapore are among the best in the world: partnering with academia can help companies to innovate, and at the same time, give them a stronger foothold to access local and regional markets.

One example is provided by Leonardo (a global high-tech company in aerospace, defence and security), which has invested in Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to develop research in helicopter engineering.

Mr Aggarwal: I understand that the number of Italians in Singapore has doubled in recent years. Which areas are they involved in? How big is the Italian community here?

Ambassador Langella: As I mentioned earlier, the Italian community here is constituted by over 4,000 registered residents. A lot more are here in a so-called "stable presence": a prolonged stay which lasts less than one year.

"The overall presence may therefore be estimated at almost 5,000. Many of these are businessmen, but there are also many students who come here to complete their education or work on specific projects.

"We don't have the exact numbers, but probably the single largest sector of employment for Italians here is F&B. We have also many companies in the shipping, manufacturing and biomedical sectors.

The number of architects and engineers working for local companies is also very high.

Mr Aggarwal: What are some of the key upcoming Italy-Singapore activities that we can look forward to?

Ambassador Langella: There are many initiatives, but I would like to mention one in particular. In December, we will inaugurate at the National Museum, in partnership with A*Star, a very large exhibition called The Beauty of Knowledge, showcasing some of the most relevant accomplishments of science and research. The main theme is therefore the connection between art and science, which are seen as two separate declinations of creativity. I don't want to give too much away but it will be very exciting. We will find out that research and technology can be beautiful, too! It will be a great event and I hope many Singaporeans will have the opportunity to visit it.

Mr Aggarwal: Please tell us about yourself - since when have you been ambassador here, earlier postings, specialisation, education, family, hobbies and interests.

Ambassador Langella: I started my posting here in August 2017. It's hard to believe that it's been more than one year here already! I think Singapore is not only a wonderful place to live but also very challenging and stimulating for an Ambassador. Everything has a very high standard, so you always have to try and be creative to give an added value when you interact with companies and institutions.

The focus here for Italy is mainly commercial, which fits well with my background. I have a degree in Economics and Management, and my first posting was to the World Trade Organisation in Geneva.

After that, I had my first Asian experience in New Delhi, where I spent over four years as Commercial Attache. It was a very rewarding experience and I was very lucky, as during that time the trade flow between Italy and India almost doubled (but it wasn't all thanks to me!) Before being appointed Ambassador to Singapore, I was deputy diplomatic adviser to the Prime Minister in Rome.

I now live here with my wife, Debora, and my son, Francesco. My daughter, Rebecca, is currently studying in the UK. You also asked about my hobbies. I must confess that I have not had much time to cultivate them in the last few years!