The West

Singaporeans are quite simply obsessed with WA.

In 2004, a film director from the city-state released a movie simply called Perth to local critical acclaim.

Chronicling the life of a taxi driver fantasising about retiring to the city he considered paradise, the movie only just missed out on consideration for the Oscar for best foreign language film when Singlish — the local English-based creole language — was ruled ineligible.

Singaporeans also proudly joke that the University of WA is the country’s fourth official university along with their own NUS, NMT and SMU, such is their desire to study there.

And multiple airlines now make the short five-hour hop between Perth and Singapore in recognition of the booming exchange.

But all this points to a much deeper reciprocal love story north of the border that the east coast of Australia is yet to wake up to.

Since the introduction of a free trade agreement almost a decade ago, Singapore is now Australia’s fourth biggest trading partner.

But you would not know it.

The reality is that the value of the bilateral relationship has been largely overlooked on our side of the ocean, other than in WA.

While 20,000 Australians live in the tiny country that stretches only 23km by 42km, more than 50,000 Singaporeans live in WA, including 10,000 students.

For a country of just 4.9 million, including 1.2 million foreigners, this is vastly disproportionate.

And while 500,000 Australians also visit each year — many largely because of its now competitive role as the obligatory stopover to Europe — more than half of that figure deliberately make the reciprocal trip south to our shores.

But this neglect of one of our nearest and most similar neighbours has not always been the case. The site of Australia’s first diplomatic representative office independent of Britain was in the city of Singapore, a full two years before one was opened in New Zealand.

And when the “red dot in a city of green” city emerged from its savage past to independence in 1965, Australia was one of the first to recognise the new country.

In 1971, the relationship was extended again with the Five Powers Defence Arrangements entering into force between Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore, largely designed to hedge against a rising Indonesia.

As a country where 40 per cent of citizens marry foreigners, Singapore has always looked beyond its own shores.

In 1978, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore to catch a glimpse of how the country had transformed itself from virtually nothing into a prosperous economy. During the trip, he met Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who reportedly told him that if Singapore could do so as the descendents of peasants, then China could easily do so as the descendants of scholars, mandarins and literati.

Ultimately, the trip inspired Mr Deng’s famous Open Door policy, with a former Singaporean finance minister appointed to oversee the development of the first four special economic zones.

And today, Singapore’s place in the region is as strong as ever.

Billions of dollars of commerce and trade flow through its markets and port each year. And a powerful figure in the Association of South-East Asian Nations, Singapore also plays host to the region’s all-powerful security gathering, or Shangri-La Dialogue, each June and is the site of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation’s secretariat.

Luckily, WA has long understood the importance of the county. Premier Colin Barnett has now made two official visits to Singapore, in October 2010 and most recently in March to open the WA Trade and Investment Office.

During the latest trip Mr Barnett met Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, when he announced that he saw the country as the State’s “prime sphere of influence in South East-Asia”. But at the Federal level the relationship continues to be underused. And while Singapore has announced its support for our UN Security Council campaign — and even named a flower after Julia Gillard — we are yet to reciprocate.

The Prime Minister’s own trip last month was more a matter of convenience than recognition — the stopover was arranged only when it appeared that a longstanding trip to Turkey would allow for a short stopover to finally respond to a standing invitation for a bilateral visit.

Even during Kevin Rudd’s travel-frantic time as foreign affairs minister he only left Changi Airport once for a few hours, despite passing through dozens of times. Perhaps that was a result of a lingering bitterness with Singapore’s Ambassador-At-Large, Tommy Koh, who rallied strongly against Mr Rudd’s push for an Asia Pacific Community.

More recently, Australia’s diplomats also failed to pick up the phone to Singapore for advice when issues flared with their historic sparring partners Malaysia and Indonesia over asylum seekers and live cattle exports respectively.

Ultimately, a good litmus test for the relationship — or potentially a point of correction — will be its prominence in the Government’s White Paper on the Asian Century, due out soon.

So while the rest of the country plays catch-up, for the moment at least WA is not wasting any time.

Thom Woodroofe is an associate fellow of The Asia Society and was recently hosted in Singapore for a study tour

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