Sri Lanka received two very important visitors this week – the leaders of Singapore and Indonesia. The leaders of the two countries, who happen to be close neighbours, came to Sri Lanka within a span of just four days. This is perhaps the first time in recent memory that two world leaders arrived in Sri Lanka almost back-to-back on normal State visits.
This is indicative of how far we have come as a nation in the eyes of the international community. During the Mahinda Rakjapaksa regime, Sri Lanka’s ties with the rest of the world fell to a nadir, with some countries labeling Sri Lanka as a “failed state” for not adhering to international human rights norms. The only leaders who came here were from similarly accused countries and their visits did not translate into monetary or material gains for Sri Lanka.
This Government has completely transformed this negative picture of the country and boosted ties with all countries in the East and the West. Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have been warmly received in world capitals. Several high-profile world leaders have visited Sri Lanka during the last three years.
The previous Government ignored many Asian countries as it looked elsewhere for deliverance from Human Rights Resolutions et al. But Asia is our home and it is with those countries that we should strive to develop better, stronger ties. It is in this context that we should analyse the visits by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
Sri Lanka has had excellent relations with these two Asian countries for decades. Apart from diplomatic relations, people-to-people contact is in very good shape as both countries offer visa-free access to Sri Lankans. The late Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was an ardent admirer of Sri Lanka who was dismayed that it was facing ethnic troubles. He learned from that experience and strove to achieve unity and reconciliation in Singapore, a goal which he achieved with aplomb. Ethnic reconciliation and a zero tolerance for corruption helped Singapore to climb to its present heights. It is not surprising that Sri Lanka and other developing countries look up to Singapore as a source of inspiration for their development plans. Indeed, there are many lessons we can draw from Singapore on issues ranging from ethnic harmony to environmental conservation.
The highlight of the Singaporean leader’s visit was the signing of the Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement which will mutually benefit both countries. Trade between Singapore and Sri Lanka has steadily grown, after bilateral trade crossed US$ 1 billion in 2006. Singapore is now Sri Lanka’s seventh largest trading partner, with total trade in goods amounting to US$ 1.14 billion.
Despite the misgivings of certain sectors of local business, having an FTA with a much larger economy such as Singapore will eventually benefit our industry and economy. It is trade, not aid, that will matter in the future. Singapore is already a leading investor in Sri Lanka and the FTA will add to this momentum since the FTA will allow companies in the two countries greater access into each other’s markets covering sectors such as e-commerce, telecommunications, goods and services, investment, government procurement and intellectual property rights.
In the wake of the FTA signed with Singapore, it has been revealed that Sri Lanka and Indonesia are also mulling a similar FTA. “During their bilateral meeting, the leaders drew their attention to sign a free trade agreement to promote bilateral trade between the two countries,” the President’s Office said in a statement after the Sri Lankan and Indonesian leaders held official talks.
This is a step in the right direction that will augment Sri Lanka’s existing FTAs with India, Pakistan and Singapore. Sri Lanka-Indonesia trade hovers around the US$ 700 million mark annually, though the potential is much higher. The FTAs with Singapore and Indonesia will be vital in another aspect – both island nations are seen as gateways to ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), one of the most economically vibrant regions in the globe. From their point of view, Sri Lanka is ideally located as the gateway to the rest of South Asia – India, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
There is another link that binds these three island nations – Buddhism. Indonesia is proud of its Buddhist past and has meticulously restored Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple complex in the world with astonishingly detailed Buddha statues and carvings. The three nations should collectively promote pilgrimages to each country from ASEAN and SAARC nations. Many parts of Indonesia are culturally very similar to Sri Lanka with Sinhalese-sounding place names, which should spur further people to people contract.
Sri Lanka should also collaborate separately and collectively with Singapore and Indonesia to address challenges such as maritime security, cross border terrorism, human smuggling, sex trafficking, illegal fishing, narcotics and gun running. The visits by the leaders of Singapore and Indonesia have paved the way for the strengthening of bilateral relations, trade and investment and augur well for a brighter future for all three nations.
Daily News, January 27, 2018