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A relationship that spans business, diplomatic ties and culture
Q: This year marks 30 years since the Treaty of Unification was signed in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Looking back, what was your most vivid memory?
A: Standing at the wall near the Brandenburg Gate while it was being torn down. The joy on all faces was indescribable. Since then, Berlin is a city that many people associate with freedom, individuality and tolerance. But I also remember vividly how before the wall fell, my car was regularly thoroughly searched by East German border guards when crossing the German-German border.
I can still recall how afraid we were to leave the highway when transiting Eastern Germany before 1989, because we wanted to see the beautiful panorama of Dresden, Saxony's capital. Leaving the prescribed transit route could easily have got us into serious trouble.
Today, you can travel to these beautiful landscapes and cities of some of the Eastern states and feel double joy as a German - like how my wife and I did so again this summer.
Q: From your point of view, how has Germany grown and transformed in these three decades?
A: When the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, it meant not only the end of 28 years of separation of families, friends and neighbours. It was the end of the Cold War and the start of an ever deeper European integration.
The Cold War ended. France, the United Kingdom, the United States - whose troops had protected us over so many years - left Germany, as did the Russian troops in the East. Germany's unification brought us much happiness, but enormous responsibilities, too.
Domestically, you will notice how much has been achieved since, in terms of infrastructure, restoration of city-centres and also economic success. For instance, Saxony, dubbed Silicon Saxony today, is Europe's largest microelectronics and IT cluster. Its Minister-President Michael Kretschmer visited Singapore in March.
Still a lot of "mending" remains to be done. When we celebrate the Day of German Unity this year, especially my compatriots in the western part of Germany, should remember and pay tribute to those brave countrymen and women who dared to bring about a peaceful revolution in Eastern Germany, when just a few months earlier had seen the cruel crackdown in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Q: How has the Germany-Singapore relationship grown over the last year, and in what areas? How do you think that will change in the future with new opportunities arising?
A: Our bilateral relationship is as close as ever. High ranking business delegations from five federal states - led in most cases by the states' minister president - have come or will visit Singapore this year. I'm starting to "regret" that we are continuously reporting back home to government and businesses on how Singapore and the Asean region is striving. It's great to see this dynamism develop. Stable growth rates, young populations, a lot of optimism.
Are things clouding over? Are geo-politics dampening hopes? They are. So we have to work on resilience and Singapore is doing its part. Moreover, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept 27, our multilateralism alliance garnered interest from some 50 countries.
On our side, Germany's Mittelstand - comprising German small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) - remain interested to check things out. What they need more than ever is easy access and even lower barriers between Asean members, formal and especially informal ones. If Asean sticks together politically and economically, I have no doubt that its centrality can be preserved and help keep the region stable.
With more than 1,800 German companies in Singapore and growing, and 10,000 Europeans in all, we are very present here. We contribute not only to Singapore's prosperity but also to its stability, which is vital for both countries. As we are known for our engineering skills, we are firmly expanding our global "Made in Germany" brand into the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industrie 4.0 (or Industry 4.0) world.
Our cooperation in the field of research and development is growing nicely as well. Earlier this year, the inauguration of the Max Planck-NTU Joint Lab for Artificial Senses added another "beacon" to the existing German-Singapore partnerships with German research institutions, such as Europe's largest application-oriented research organisation Fraunhofer and TUMCREATE, of the Technological University of Munich. Technische Universität Braunschweig was the latest name added to the long list of German universities collaborating with Singapore's science institutions.
I'm very confident that our bilateral relations - which started for me with the first ever visit of a German President to Singapore in 2017 - will continue to thrive.
Q: What are your thoughts on the upcoming European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA) that the European Parliament approved on Feb 13, 2019?
A: The European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement is one of the most progressive FTAs the EU has concluded, and will serve as a stepping stone towards other bilateral FTAs in the region. Ultimately, we want to pave the way to an EU-Asean Free Trade Agreement. The more Asean integrates, the more German business and in particular German Mittelstand companies will dare to enter this promising market.
Not only Germans, of course. I am sure that the EUSFTA will provide a substantial additional impetus to bilateral trade. It will stimulate trade with other Asean States as well, because Asean companies operating through Singapore can, under specific conditions, benefit from it too. An impressive 10,000 European companies are already active in Singapore today so there is enormous potential.
However, let's not only look at the business side of the issue. This FTA, all the other FTAs, and even more so an EU-Asean FTA, send a strong political signal - that free trade is alive, the market economy is working, and multilateralism, against all odds. Together, we can withstand an alternative of the return to an era where might is right.
To make that message very clear, we need to work more with the younger generation that is unaware of multilateralism being at the outset of peace and stability also in Southeast-Asia after World War II. Therefore, the EU member states started a wonderful initiative in May this year, called the "European Union comes to your school" (EU@School) to raise awareness of the EU and its relations with Singapore. It reached more than 10,000 students in 21 secondary schools and junior colleges. They met ambassadors here from 17 EU member states, as well as the EU's ambassador, and other diplomats.
Q: We know German and Singapore companies have close business partnerships in areas such as science, engineering, manufacturing and education. Are there some lesser known areas that you wish to highlight?
A: Let me answer from a cultural perspective. Our excellent business-to-business and government-to-government relationships can only grow and prosper, if they are complemented by a strong base of people-to-people relationships that also reflect German and European presence in Singapore. In the end, it is all about people who move a partnership forward.
There is one event we would like to develop into a signature event of Singaporean-German connections. Everyone is warmly welcomed to enjoy what we have branded "Beethoven im Garten", an encounter with Beethoven's symphonies in the illustrious Singapore Botanic Gardens, on Oct 5 at 6pm.
This is a gift of music from the German people to all Singaporeans, to celebrate German-Singaporean friendship. It is presented by the German Embassy in Singapore in partnership with the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra and the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.
Why do I make a special point out of that? The conductor is none other than Maestro Kahchun Wong, Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra chief conductor.
Singapore's wunderkind conductor made new strides early this year when conducting the prestigious New York Philharmonic's annual Lunar New Year Concert in February. He will lead more than 15 principal musicians from the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, and the orchestra from his alma mater, the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, to play Beethoven's 6th Symphony, also known as Pastorale (or the Pastoral Symphony).
I should not miss mentioning our cultural institute Goethe-Institut which is very active in promoting cultural exchange and offering more German language classes. One of their latest projects, "Modern Resonance", drew great crowds into the old power station in Pasir Panjang - celebrating 100 years of Bauhaus design this year.
Bauhaus developed a new holistic way of thinking, combining art, architecture, education and society. Walter Gropius was Bauhaus' master. The school that he founded still inspires today.
In celebrating Bauhaus, arts space Objectifs at Middle Road will host an exhibition in November, and the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (a national research centre of Nanyang Technological University), in Gillman Barracks will add to this by looking at the influence this new way of thinking had on South-east Asia. We hope visitors will come and perhaps arrange for a trip to Weimar or Dessau in Germany to experience the Bauhaus spirit.