SINGAPORE: The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how countries and peoples have become “closely linked,” Chief Minister Teo Chee Hean said on Tuesday (February 23).
In a speech at the Middle East Institute (MEI) annual conference, Mr. Teo said it has become even more imperative that countries “rethink, refresh and revitalize our traditional relationships” and build more diverse networks and wider.
Countries are also expected to explore new areas of cooperation in the areas of technology, digital economy and people-to-people relations, added Teo, who is also the coordinating minister of national security.
“Asia, including both the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East, is responding to a changing world. The center of gravity of the world is shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, especially in the economic arena, ”said the Chief Minister.
“This includes energy and trade flows, and increasingly in two-way trade and investment, capital flows and technology. Many economies in this vast region have grown much faster than their counterparts in North America and Western Europe, pulling the center of global economic activity steadily eastward. “
Both regions are responding to new national imperatives and are undergoing “significant demographic changes”, he said.
Beyond facing similar external and internal circumstances, the Indo-Pacific region and the Middle East have “unique characteristics” that make engagement and exchanges interesting and fruitful, he added.
The Chief Minister focused on three key areas: economic partnerships, religious exchanges and interpersonal interactions.
“Trade between our regions is growing and diversifying,” said Mr. Teo.
Singapore was the first country outside the region to sign a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), he noted.
The GCC-Singapore FTA, which entered into force in 2013, has helped strengthen economic ties over the years and laid the groundwork for Singapore’s trade diversification with the GCC, he added.
“When traditional supply chains were disrupted by COVID-19 last year, Singapore turned to the Middle East to diversify our supply chains and safeguard our food supply, for example by importing shrimp from Saudi Arabia – something not so traditional, but a useful source for us nonetheless, ”Teo explained.
New partnerships are forming in areas such as technology, sustainability, and information and communications development.
“The two sides can work together to accelerate their modernization and diversification efforts,” Teo said.
Thanks to globalization, societies around the world have become increasingly multicultural and diverse, he noted.
The Middle East has “inspired and influenced the religious beliefs, values and practices of many faiths,” Mr. Teo said.
“The main world religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism trace their origins there. In particular, the Middle East is of particular importance as the origin of Islam and the seat of its most sacred sites, ”he said.
“Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa make up only 20% of the world’s Muslim population. Here in the Indo-Pacific, collectively we have the largest number of Muslims in the world, at 62%, ”he added.
“The top four countries with the largest Muslim populations in the world, in 2015, are all in the Indo-Pacific – Indonesia with 12.6%, India with 11.1%, Pakistan with 10, 5% and Bangladesh with 8.2%.
“As the seat of Islam, the way the Middle East understands religion and Islam’s relationship with other faiths will shape the practice of Islam around the world, including in Asia.
He said that many aspiring Islamic religious teachers in the Indo-Pacific region, including Singapore, are studying in the Middle East and North Africa.
In Singapore, high school students can learn Arabic as a third language since 2008.
“Learning Arabic will strengthen our interpersonal relationships and promote a better understanding of the Arab world and of Islam,” said Mr. Teo.
“In fact, it has taken on greater importance today. Islam has unfortunately been misinterpreted and misused in some circles.
“The Indo-Pacific can work together with the Middle East to firmly fight violence and terrorism and promote more tolerance, moderation and accommodation among all religions. We must also work together to promote a better understanding of Islam, especially its fundamental beliefs and values, around the world.
While the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East have their own cultural characteristics, there are also many similarities, Teo noted.
“It gave the impetus for regular engagement. For example, Korea and Japan have not only been major investors in the Middle East in recent decades; they also had important historical, cultural and commercial exchanges, ”he added.
China established relations with the Middle East in the 7th century, during the Tang Dynasty, and is now re-engaging the region in various ways, including the Silk Road economic belt of its Belt and Road initiative.
“India, given its proximity, shares deep civilizational roots, cultural exchanges and historical ties with the Middle East,” said the Chief Minister.
“Southeast Asia also has a long-standing relationship with the Middle East.”
The discovery of a shipwreck – a dhow loaded with Chinese porcelain decorated with Islamic motifs – off the island of Belitung, Indonesia in 1998, shows the people-to-people exchanges that linked civilizations along the Maritime Silk Road there more than 1200 years ago.
He confirmed that land routes were not the only trade links between East and West and that Southeast Asia was at the heart of a global maritime trade network.
“Muslim traders brought Islam from the heart of the Arabian Peninsula to Southeast Asia. Some Arab traders have their roots in Southeast Asia, of which the Hadramis of Yemen were the most important, ”said Mr. Teo.
“The Aljunied, the Alkaff and the Alsagoff are among the well-known Arab families of Singapore.”
He said the regions share a “more recent history”.
“Many Gulf countries became independent from European powers at about the same time as those of the Indo-Pacific, from the late 1940s to the 1960s. This shared historical context and political experience unites us,” a he added.