The Future of Japan and Singapore

Date September 14, 2022
Speaker Peter TAN (Ambassador of the Republic of Singapore to Japan)
Moderator WATANABE Tetsuya (Vice President, RIETI)

Even though Singapore is a relatively young country, it has forged a strong relationship with Japan. Singapore learned a lot from Japan during its development, including adapting Japan’s neighborhood police force system. Additionally, the two countries have benefitted from working with each other in many areas, including the economy. Japan has played a major role in the prosperity and security of the ASEAN region. Japan and Singapore have great potential for cooperation, including in digitalization, the environment, and infrastructure. However, much of this cooperation will depend on both countries pursuing common interests.


The Relationship between Japan and Singapore

Singapore is a relatively young nation, gaining independence in 1965. Singapore is about 710 square kilometers and lacks natural resources. The development of Singapore since 1965 owes much to the support of foreign friends and partners, such as Japan. Japanese companies invested in Singapore during the 1970s and 1980s. Singapore has also learned much from the best practices of Japan, such as improving productivity and quality standards. Also, Singapore has a network of neighborhood police posts based on Japan's system. In our earlier industrialization period, we learned a lot from Japan.

The foundations of our friendship with Japan were led by Singapore's founding prime minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. He visited Japan regularly and had forged very close ties with Japanese leaders. Subsequent prime ministers, Mr. Goh Chok Tong and Mr. Lee Hsien Loong have built on this foundation to strengthen the bilateral relationship between Singapore and Japan.

The frequent visits between the prime minister of Singapore and Japan, including many other ministerial and official delegations, highlight how our friendship has grown over the past decades. A key pillar of our bilateral relations is our strong economic cooperation. Singapore and Japan ranked among each other's top trading partners with bilateral trade standing at close to 6 trillion yen in 2021, which was nearly a 9% increase from 2020. Singapore is Japan's second largest investment destination in Asia, and Singapore is also Japan's top Asian investor. We host over 5,000 Japanese companies, a number of which have set up their Asia Pacific headquarters in Singapore. Many companies also use Singapore as a base for innovation, talent, and leadership development. Singapore and Japan also share common interests in maintaining regional peace and stability and upholding an open and inclusive regional architecture. We have joined hands on many multilateral initiatives including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). We welcome efforts by Japan to strengthen engagement with ASEAN in line with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore and Japan have been cooperating very closely to navigate the challenges. When countries started to shut borders following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were concerns that the supply of essential goods would be affected. Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry then held discussions with Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to release a joint statement on facilitating resilient economic activities for combating the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2020. This statement expressed our shared commitment to maintaining supply chain connectivity, showed concerns on the scarcity of goods in Singapore, and reinforced Japan's reputation as a trusted and important partner. Both countries also work closely on vaccine multilateralism with other partners through the COVID Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) facility. Singapore and Japan also launched the Business Track/Reciprocal Green Lane and Residence Track in September 2020 as both sides saw the need to maintain economic activities to keep our partners and businesses going. Singapore was the first country with which Japan established the Reciprocal Green Lane, reflecting our close and strong economic and personal ties and the high level of trust that we have in each other.

Future Areas of Cooperation

In the future, there will be many opportunities for cooperation. With our excellent relations, our shared commitment, and convergence of views, there is much more we can do together, specifically in three specific areas. The first area is digital cooperation. Digitalization has already been rapidly transforming the economic landscape in Asia and the world; It has disrupted the traditional models of commerce and how companies conduct businesses. The pandemic has made our reliance on digital platforms more pronounced; It has become a catalyst and made us go online, voluntarily or otherwise. The future lies in the adoption of digital tools, and we need to develop common frameworks and global standards to ensure that cross-border transactions and data flows are kept safe, secure, and efficient.

In May of this year, the two prime ministers witnessed the signing of memorandums of understanding (MOUs) on digital government transformation, and startup and innovation. We also welcomed the establishment of the Singapore-Japan Economic Dialogue, which will facilitate exchanges on green economy and digitalization. There is much scope for Japan and Singapore to work on regarding Japan’s Digital Garden City Initiative and Singapore’s Smart Nation Initiative.

The second area is green cooperation. In Singapore, we launched our Green Plan 2030 to make a strong push for sustainable development, and Japan plans to be net carbon neutral by 2050. In this space, we have very aligned interests and a convergence of views, and Singapore and Japan can build on our common stake for a more sustainable future.

We signed a memorandum of cooperation on low emission solutions in January this year when then-METI Minister Hagiuda visited Singapore. Such cooperation will help foster closer partnerships in areas including long-term emissions reduction strategies and pathways, including green technology and green finance.

The third area is infrastructure cooperation. One of Singapore's government agencies, Infrastructure Asia and Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) signed a memorandum of understanding on March 5, 2021, to promote cooperation between Japan and Singapore-based companies on regional infrastructure projects.

One of the successful cooperation projects that is currently being done is in the Philippines, New Clark City, which shows cooperation on developing smart city infrastructure in Southeast Asia. It is a project that had Singapore and Japan work together in the area of infrastructure cooperation to provide infrastructure solutions in the Philippines. As the Southeast Asia region looks towards post-COVID-19 recovery, there will be opportunities for Singapore and Japan to work together in this sector.

The friendship between Singapore and Japan has indeed flourished over the past five and a half decades. Now, the people-to-people ties are strong. Through visiting each other’s countries pre-COVID-19 and interaction among the citizens, trust and understanding has been enhanced. There is the potential for us to do much more, and much will depend on the people, companies, and governments of both sides to pursue a common interest and path to enhance our livelihoods.


In the very difficult global environment and current geopolitical tensions, how are relationships between the two countries and also Japan and ASEAN to stabilize the region, and also globally?

Peter TAN:
With the global environment and geopolitical tensions at the same time, it is even more pertinent for small countries like Singapore to play an active role in maintaining close relationships with its neighbors and partners, including Japan. In the bilateral relationship between Singapore and Japan, we could help each other to promote the importance of multilateralism, open trade, and free trade—one that should not look inwards.

For countries like Japan and Singapore, trade is necessary. We cannot be inward looking without being crowded out. In this sense, it is important for like-minded countries to work together both politically and economically to preserve the space. In addition, Japan has a big role to play with ASEAN to ensure that the regional peace and prosperity is maintained.

I’ve outlined several initiatives which Japan has been an active partner in. The most significant is the CPTPP where the late former Prime Minister Abe played a strong role. We can work together on the bilateral, regional, and multilateral levels. The contributions will help to preserve regional peace and prosperity. Major power relations are an important element because they will shift the global environment and shape strategic considerations, but some of these are beyond our control. However, behind these major power relations, I think countries like Singapore and Japan can help preserve an environment that is conducive for cooperation.

Japan and Singapore have a role to play in this difficult global environment, and also preserving multilateralism, regional order, and peace and stability.


Singapore is one of the big countries in terms of the advancement of high tech and digital technology, whereas Japan is behind in such fields. Could you tell us one of the secrets to the education in Singapore? Could you give some advice from your experience and educational background to the Japanese people to enhance technology on the digital side?

Peter TAN:
It will take time for the digitalization process to evolve. We have come a long way in terms of our digitalization process. Even from the 90’s, it started with the e-government, and then in 2012, we started the Smart Nation Initiative to push forward our digitalization process. It is about trying to inculcate a certain level of understanding and educating our people, but more importantly, in the whole process of digitalization, it is about accepting changes that result from digitalization. People's mindsets are often very fixed, and it will take a long time to change people's mindsets. However, if people can understand that digitalization can help their livelihoods, I think that is a step towards generating understanding and acceptance. We have found that the COVID-19 pandemic has quickened the pace of digitalization in Singapore. Additionally, people have found digitalization to be very beneficial, efficient, and effective, especially because our work culture has changed.

When we first started our so-called electronic technology age in the ‘90s, we made sure that our students, even in elementary and middle school, are computer literate. Of course, in university, you start having computer science courses, technology courses, infocomm courses, and all of these slowly build up. You can prepare the education, but it is up to the people to accept it or not. In Singapore, we believe in the philosophy of leaving no man behind. So, even if the younger generations could adapt very quickly to these changes, there will be a segment where it will take time for them to change, and that segment is the elderly.

In Singapore, young students and young professionals volunteer to help the elderly to become familiar with modern technology, smartphones, and the use of e-commerce. This is done at a community level, spread out across Singapore. I believe Japan has the capacity to push through because it has the technology. What needs to be elevated is a change in mindset.

Mindset is quite important, and I think Singapore is very flexible in responding to changes in terms of technology and the regional and global environment. In that respect, we can learn a lot from Singapore.

You also served as an ambassador to the Republic of Korea, could you tell us about the difference between Japan and Korea, and what makes each country attractive?

Peter TAN:
I believe that the difference probably lies in the ways things are done. In Japan, there is a very strong culture of nemawashi. It is now normal in all Japanese business management. There are strong points for it, because you really come together and work as a group, and when you make a decision, you move forward with it.

Koreans also have discussions, but they are very adventurous. There is one particular phrase in Korean, "ppalli ppalli," which translates to "hayaku hayaku" in Japanese or "quickly, quickly" in English. I think that is a strong statement in Korean culture and about the way of doing things. They like to do things in a very quick manner. So, this is a very interesting contrast. It is difficult for me to draw any conclusions, but for a Singaporean, being posted to both Korea and Japan, I have to adapt to how both societies work, as the Japanese saying goes, "Go ni ireba, go ni shitagae."

One of the reasons for Singapore’s competitiveness is its human resources and its competent government that made Singapore a prosperous nation. Do you think this model will be adopted in Japan?

Peter TAN:
Each country will need to adapt any model to local peculiarities. Each country will have their own local environment and factors to consider. Sometimes, I think that size is important, and it is important in many ways. Singapore is small, but in this case, precisely because we are small, we are able to maneuver flexibly, and we can move as a nation. Can this model work in other countries? I don't know. What I think we need to remember is: in everything that we learn, we will have to tailor it to our local conditions and make it work within the local constraints.

As I mentioned in my presentation, in the late ‘60s and the early ‘70s, we learned a lot from Japan. We picked certain things that would help our own society to move along. What was our concern at that time? Security. We needed to have strong homeland security. How did we do it? We came to Japan, and we saw your koban system. A system that is localized, a system that you can put in any part of a local precinct that can help a group of communities. That system was replicated, and of course, we had to tailor it according to our local conditions as well. Today, if you go to Singapore, you will find many koban lookalikes, or as we call it, the neighborhood police force. So, is it a question of adapting fully? Yes and no. I think we have to tailor it according to what fits us.

I cannot advise you whether you can take the entire Singapore model and put it into Japan. I think it is probably not possible in any country, but I think along the way, we can learn from each other, we can share our experiences, and then you will see how to fit it into your society.

Yes, we can learn a lot from each other, but in the end, we have to think for ourselves. What is your assessment of the IPEF? Also, when do you expect Japan will join the DEPA framework or something like it?

Peter TAN:
There are many initiatives that Singapore and Japan have been a part of and have been working together on, as we have seen with the CPTPP. The IPEF news is a welcomed development. It is also an initiative that puts together like-minded countries to have the shared vision of making this region a better one. I do not think it can replace the CPTPP, but it is a good supplement, and it gives an important message about the U.S.’s continued interest in the region.

I have been working closely to convince your colleagues at the METI and my friends in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to think much deeper about DEPA. I do not know when Japan will come onboard. However, these are some networks that we should come together on. Whether it is an FTA, CPTPP, or DEPA, it is something that can help bridge the gap and find ways for like-minded countries to make the region better.

We understand that Singapore is preparing to hand over power to the next leader. How do you think Singapore will change in the next decades?

Peter TAN:
Singapore’s leaders always plan succession in a systematic way. It has always been a self-renewal policy or a self-renewal approach where each leader will prepare, in a systematic way, their successor for a very simple reason; We want to continue the policies that we have always done. Of course, specific policies will need to be adjusted in accordance with the time of that era. As a general policy, the interest of all partners will be: will Singapore continue to be investment friendly? Will our policies continue to be friendly to our partners? Singapore would still need to welcome foreign investment and attract foreign talent. So, I do not think that the overall policies in terms of being an investment-friendly environment, and policies and schemes to help foreign partners and investors will change much.

Every Singaporean leader has only one thing in mind: whatever the policies are, they have to improve the livelihoods of people. So, in terms of foreign partners, I am certain that we will still be equally welcoming when there is a change in the leadership.

How does the price increase and currency fluctuation impact the Singaporean economy?

Peter TAN:
In Singapore, we are clear that this is going to be one of our biggest challenges going forward, not just about the changes that have been brought about in Singapore, but also the global economic situation due to inflation. This will eventually trickle down, which will be the livelihoods of people. Therefore, it is even more important for countries like Singapore and Japan to work together to see how we can navigate these challenges. To that end, I think there has to be a multitude of various measures, cooperation, and partnerships. It is about how we deal with the global economic situation, and herein, cooperation is needed more than before.

Japan has enjoyed a long period of peace and stability, but in this difficult global environment, its security needs are high on the policy agenda in Tokyo. Singapore has considered for a long time its national security as a top priority of the policy agenda. Do you have any advice for Japan in that respect?

Peter TAN:
If you look at our policy in Singapore, our first concern will be the region around us, and that is why we have ASEAN to make sure that our region continues to be peaceful and prosperous. From ASEAN, we have branched out to what we call dialogue partners, of which Japan is one of the oldest partners. It is about trying to come together to forge a common understanding, build mutual trust, and ensure that with any problems that arise, whether bilaterally or regionally, we can come to some kind of common understanding, agreement, or acceptance, and ensure that the region continues to be prosperous.

Security in itself is also linked to the economy. If the region is not secure or in order, you will never be able to attract foreign partners. So, we make sure that we have a welcoming environment and policies for foreign investors, and in our region, we play our part in working with our ASEAN partners to make sure that ASEAN is attractive to outside partners. With like-minded countries, we work with the U.S. to make sure that the whole Asia Pacific is an attractive area.

We cannot take security for granted. Over the decades, we have worked closely with Japan in the security area. For the whole concept of the Indo-Pacific outlook, Japan was one of the active contributors. As long as it helps the region prosper, to keep our economies open, to have a belief in multilateral trade, a belief in multilateralism, and a belief in the principles of the rule of law, and something that can help the region prosper together, we are indebted as partners. This is important where both security and economics are closely intertwined.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.