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Going beyond an economic relationship

The conviction - that preserving a multilateral world order is critical - shapes Germany's ties with Singapore and Asean. The EU-Singapore FTA to be signed later this month is a key milestone, and is an important step towards EU's eventual goal of a trade deal with Asean as a whole.

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German Ambassador to Singapore Ulrich Sante and Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan at the official opening of the German European School Singapore on Sept 13.

AS the Berlin Wall began to crumble in 1989, Ulrich Sante, now Germany's ambassador to Singapore, remembers being glued to the television's live footage.

He had just joined the Foreign Office and was studying French in Belgium, but soon decided to fly back to Berlin to join the thousands gathered at the Brandenburg Gate in anticipation of its historic opening.

After the Berlin Wall fell, 40 years of German partition formally came to an end on Oct 3, 1990 - a date now celebrated annually as The Day of German Unity.

Dr Sante knows personally the joy of reunification - his mother's family was from Eastern Germany. But with this year's Day of German Unity, his thoughts are also on the meaning it holds for wider Europe.

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"Barely 30 years later, Europe seems to be forgetting what our history was. We have built up a system with international institutions that safeguard this multilateral system based on democracy, the rule of law, on respect for the sovereignty of nations, on the peaceful resolution of conflict.

"But we now seem to be engaging in a debate that says: let's move history on to a multi-polar world, where not everybody has the same rights but where the stronger tells the weaker where history should head. This is a model that we as Germany are not willing to subscribe to," Dr Sante tells The Business Times.

To truly harvest the fruit sown by the unification process - a "more peaceful, more secure and more prosperous world" - Dr Sante is convinced of the need to "keep the multilateral world as we have built it up in trust over so many years, modernising it where necessary, but by consensus and not against the will of anybody".

With Britain's vote to exit the European Union (EU) and rising Euroscepticism, Dr Sante acknowledges that the EU's situation "may look a little dire".

"But I am convinced that if we remind ourselves of the fact that the EU was not created to be an economic world power, but that it is first and foremost a peace project, then I think we will come to reason again. And, I think that we will overcome the challenges that we have, and that we will have a big chance to become a very strong and attractive continent again."

That conviction - that preserving a multilateral world order is critical - shapes Germany's ties with Singapore and Asean too.

Business linkages between the EU and Asia are strong. "There are dramatic shifts taking place in Asia. Economically, this is one of the most active regions in the world, and we are obviously very, very interested in taking part in its economic development," Dr Sante says.

But Germany hopes for more than an economic relationship. "At a time when pressure on the cohesion of the European Union and Asean is high, we believe that our relationship has to grow to become much more than simply an economic relationship. We believe it is time … for a strategic relationship between the EU and Asean.

"We seek to create an alliance of nations with like-minded countries in this region that continues to believe in multilateralism as the basis of the development of their countries, their region, the global order, and the basic architecture that we need to safeguard peace and prosperity," he adds.

Such things do not happen overnight but Dr Sante believes that Asean and Singapore, as the current chair of Asean, are moving towards that goal too.

One key milestone would be the EU-Singapore free trade agreement (FTA) which is to be signed on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting summit in Brussels on Oct 19. The trade deal will create fresh business opportunities between Singapore and the European Union, and its member states including Germany.

"But the EU-Singapore FTA is more than a simple bilateral free trade agreement. For one, it forms part of a larger momentum of FTAs currently being negotiated and signed around the globe. Second, contributing to that momentum, it is also a strong message of support for multilateralism and against protectionism and a 'me first' attitude," says Dr Sante.

He sees it as an important step towards EU's eventual goal of a trade deal with Asean as a whole. "It is also a benchmark for other trade deals EU is negotiating with Asean member states."

Meanwhile, Germany and Singapore already enjoy a strong, balanced economic relationship.

Bilateral trade grew 8.3 per cent from 2016 to reach S$21.6 billion in 2017. Germany was Singapore's largest trading partner in the EU; Singapore was Germany's largest trading partner in Asean.

"We consider Singapore to be one of the most promising places in Asean, in Asia, to engage in research and development, in new technologies," says Dr Sante.

There are now 1,700 German companies in Singapore, up from 1,600 a year ago. Dr Sante expects this number to rise further.

"I see how Singapore would like to strengthen its own Mittelstand and how it would like to engage more within the region, within Asean. Both are attractive elements to German businesses," he says.

Singapore's wish for more of Germany's Mittelstand companies to come here is understandable, he said, given the reputation these resilient family-owned firms have of achieving a global lead in niche technologies, including advanced Industry 4.0 technologies that Singapore is now pushing local manufacturers to adopt.

But Singapore is attractive to the Mittelstand too, thanks to its role as a business, R&D and technology hub in Asean.

"Singapore is, for the moment at least, the most attractive place in Asean for German businesses, as it offers the most interesting set of instruments that one needs in order to develop a business," said Dr Sante. Education, infrastructure and financial support for startups are some of key elements that are present here in a density not found elsewhere in the region, he adds.

"One big 'but' is: if more companies - not just from Germany, elsewhere too - are coming to Singapore, they will need qualified workers. Qualified in the sense of not least being able to also take up management positions. So, having more businesses come to Singapore will definitely augment the demand for a highly qualified workforce, including people speaking German."

This is being addressed in part by Singaporean-German cooperation in vocational training. Mittelstand companies with operations have backed the "Poly goes UAS" programme, which sponsors Singapore's polytechnic students to obtain a degree at one of Germany's universities of applied sciences, while gaining work experience at sponsor companies.

Indeed, beyond government-to-government and business-to-business links, Dr Sante sees an increasing need for "people-to-people relations" - the exchange of language, culture, values and beliefs.

The globalised world of today requires more. "So, we don't only need tourism, which brings people to a place for a limited amount of time, but more people-to-people contacts that are sustainable over time, such as a sound student exchange (programme)," he says.

A recent example of cultural exchange is the Beethoven im Garten concert, where Wong Kah Chun, the Singaporean chief conductor of the Nuremburg Symphony Orchestra, and five of its key members performed with students of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. "It's a strong cultural message about building bridges between Germany and Singapore, between the EU and Asean," says Dr Sante.

Last month, the German European School Singapore (GESS) - the largest German school in Asia with 1,600-1,700 students of 60 nationalities - officially opened its new S$135 million campus. To give back to the local community, GESS has offered the use of facilities such as its Olympic-sized swimming pool, football field, cooking laboratory and 400-seat auditorium to community groups that write in with their requests.

These are some ways in which Germany-Singapore relations are moving beyond formal government and business ties into ones that connect people, including the estimated 8,000 German citizens living in Singapore.

"If apart from that, people don't get together, when they don't share their views on what values they believe should drive their societies and how, the rest of the relationship may not be sustainable," says Dr Sante.