Inauguration of the High Commission of Singapore in Dhaka: A New Chapter of Bangladesh-Singapore Diplomatic Relations

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The High Commission of Singapore in Dhaka held a reception on May 7, 2024, to commemorate the official inauguration of its premises in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The event was graced by the presence of H.E. Dr. Hasan Mahmud, MP, the Hon’ble Foreign Minister, who attended as the Chief Guest and delivered a keynote address. Dr. Mahmud hailed the inauguration of the Singapore High Commission in Dhaka as a significant milestone in the longstanding bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and Singapore. He emphasized the historic nature of this moment and expressed optimism about the prospects it brings for fostering closer cooperation and deeper ties between the two nations. Highlighting the importance of diplomatic ties between Bangladesh and Singapore, Dr. Mahmud discussed the potential for mutual collaboration across various sectors, including trade, investment, education, and cultural exchange. He lauded the role of diplomatic missions in facilitating dialogue and strengthening bilateral relations, reaffirming Bangladesh’s commitment to enhancing its partnership with Singapore for the mutual benefit of both countries. Moreover, Dr. Mahmud expressed confidence that the establishment of the Singapore High Commission in Dhaka would pave the way for the exploration of new avenues of cooperation and the realization of shared goals, ultimately contributing to the advancement of bilateral relations and the prosperity of both nations.

Bangladesh and Singapore share similar historical backgrounds. In 1965, Singapore faced expulsion from the Federation of Malaysia, leading to an unexpected independence marked by skepticism from development experts. However, under the dynamic leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore emerged as one of the world’s most progressive economies, despite constraints posed by limited space, resources, and population. Similarly, Bangladesh gained independence in 1971 under the visionary leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, amidst doubts about its potential for development. Like Singapore, Bangladesh defied expectations and showcased a remarkable journey of growth. Lee and Bangabandhu, the founding fathers of their nations, harbored a common vision to liberate their people from oppression and propel them towards development. Recognizing the shared aspirations, Singapore and Bangladesh established formal diplomatic ties on February 16, 1972. As the Singapore-Bangladesh relationship celebrates half a century, it’s crucial to reflect on the strengths, challenges, and potential opportunities that have emerged from this unique bilateral partnership.

In 2022, Singapore recorded exports worth $4.68 billion to Bangladesh. The primary commodities exported from Singapore to Bangladesh include Refined Petroleum ($2.45 billion), Gold ($214 million), and Jewelry ($204 million). Over the past 27 years, Singapore’s exports to Bangladesh have shown a steady growth rate of 8.32% annually, rising from $542 million in 1995 to $4.68 billion in 2022. Conversely, Bangladesh exported goods worth $190 million to Singapore in 2022. The key products exported from Bangladesh to Singapore were Non-Knit Men’s Suits ($35.4 million), Knit T-shirts ($26.4 million), and Non-Knit Women’s Suits ($24.3 million). Over the past 27 years, Bangladesh’s exports to Singapore have demonstrated an average annual growth rate of 4.57%, increasing from $57 million in 1995 to $190 million in 2022.

Figure 1: Bangladesh-Singapore Bilateral Trade Volume

In November 2021, the two nations commenced discussions for a free trade agreement (FTA) aimed at expanding trade opportunities across the Southeast Asian and Asia-Pacific regions. Singapore stands as the third-largest investor in Bangladesh, with investments primarily concentrated in sectors such as power, energy, transport, logistics, and marine trade. Yet, with Bangladesh’s evolution from a provider of low-skilled labor to a reservoir of skilled professionals, Singapore should explore potential investments in the nation’s burgeoning human resource sector. Both countries have embarked on similar initiatives—Singapore’s “Smart Nation” and Bangladesh’s “Digital Bangladesh”—to provide technology-driven solutions to their populations, integrating information technology, networks, and big data. Consequently, there is significant potential for enhanced cooperation between the two nations in areas such as ICT, digitalization, and cybersecurity.

Figure 2: Employment and Remittance Flow from Singapore to Bangladesh

Historically, Singapore, being reliant on human resources, has augmented its local workforce with foreign talent. Fortunately, Bangladesh ranked as the world’s eighth-most populous nation, serves as a natural reservoir of manpower for Singapore. Presently, approximately 160,000 Bangladeshi migrants are employed in Singapore, primarily in sectors such as construction, maritime, and processing. The favorable working conditions and wages in Singapore attract Bangladeshi workers, who remitted around $625 million back home in 2021. Bangladesh Bank data reveals that remittances from Bangladeshi workers in Singapore are three times greater than the value of Bangladesh’s exports to Singapore.

There are huge opportunities for both countries to cooperate for mutually beneficial economic relations. Over the past two decades, Bangladesh has witnessed consistent annual economic growth averaging six percent, a remarkable achievement that has propelled it from being perceived as a “bottomless basket” to earning recognition as a “South Asian miracle.” This sustained growth trajectory has positioned Bangladesh on the path to graduating from the category of Least Developed Countries (LDC) by 2026. On the other hand, Singapore stands as a pivotal node in the global supply chain, renowned for its strategic location, efficient infrastructure, and proactive trade policies. As a core member of prominent regional and trade regimes, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), Singapore exerts considerable influence in shaping regional economic dynamics and fostering trade partnerships.

As Bangladesh endeavors to secure its sustainable graduation from the LDC category, it faces critical issues, including negotiating an extension of duty privileges at the upcoming WTO Ministerial Conference (MC-12). Bangladesh’s graduation from LDC status entails at the cost of certain benefits and preferential treatment under the WTO framework, potentially impacting its policy autonomy and trade competitiveness. In this context, Bangladesh seeks the support of like-minded partners such as Singapore, a leading member of the WTO, to navigate these negotiations effectively and safeguard its national interests. Singapore’s collaboration with Bangladesh in advocating for fair and equitable trade policies at the WTO reflects its commitment to fostering inclusive and sustainable global economic development. Moreover, Singapore can benefit from Bangladesh’s large market comprising approximately 170 million consumers. It can also leverage Bangladesh’s pivotal role as a regional connectivity hub bridging South and Southeast Asia, facilitating the transportation of its goods to these markets.

Geopolitically, Singapore holds a strategic position at the confluence of the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea, while Bangladesh is situated in the heart of the Bay of Bengal. Both nations occupy pivotal geostrategic positions in the Indo-Pacific region. Thus far, they have pursued a balanced foreign policy approach, steering clear of geopolitical rivalries to safeguard their national interests.

Moreover, Singapore and Bangladesh share similar perspectives on various global issues in international forums. Bangladesh faces a diplomatic hurdle due to the ongoing Rohingya crisis stemming from military actions in Myanmar. Since the influx of Rohingyas, Singapore has complemented Bangladesh’s humanitarian efforts and has pledged continued support to find a lasting solution to the crisis.

Concerning climate change, Bangladesh ranks as the seventh most vulnerable country, according to the 2021 Global Climate Risk Index (CRI) by Germanwatch. Similarly, Singapore, being a low-lying island with a significant portion of its territory just five meters above mean sea level, faces high susceptibility to climate change. Motivated by shared concerns, both nations must collaborate to address environmental challenges and strengthen cooperation in natural disaster management.

Beyond trade negotiations, Bangladesh and Singapore have the opportunity to deepen cooperation in various sectors, including infrastructure development, technology transfer, and human resource capacity building. Singapore’s expertise in urban planning, sustainable development, and innovation can complement Bangladesh’s efforts to address its evolving socio-economic challenges and achieve its developmental aspirations.

While Bangladesh and Singapore share some historical connections, the time has come for Bangladesh to further strengthen its ties with Singapore to diversify and enhance its economic and regional engagements. The relationship between Bangladesh and Singapore holds immense potential for mutual growth and prosperity. By capitalizing on their respective strengths, fostering dialogue, and forging strategic partnerships, Bangladesh and Singapore can chart a course towards a brighter future characterized by sustainable development, economic resilience, and shared prosperity for their peoples and the region at large.

– Syed Raiyan Amir is a Senior Research Associate and Muhammad Estiak Hussain is a Research Assistant at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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