With similarly sized populations and a shared emphasis on the rules-based system, it is little surprise New Zealand and Singapore enjoy close ties. But those following the relationship believe it deserves more attention – and there is room for further growth

An island nation with a population of roughly five million, pushing for advances on international trade and carefully managing relations with Great Powers.

That this description could apply to either New Zealand or Singapore helps to explain why, other differences notwithstanding, the two countries hold such a tight relationship on the world stage.

Singapore was the site of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s first international trip since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta describes the countries as “close friends”.

“The way we think about international relations, geopolitics and the like is often very similar. We have a very different context, sure, but we value the way in which we can keep the lines of communication open to discuss common issues within the region,” Mahuta tells Newsroom.

But compared with the headlines devoted to the United States and China, as well as Australia and the United Kingdom, ties with Singapore rarely receive much media or public attention – to the frustration of some.

“It’s one of the closest relationships New Zealand has: there’s a huge overlap of common interests, there’s a lot of commonality in the way that as small states we see challenges and opportunities in the world, and it’s a shame that it’s not quite as well appreciated, publicly, as it probably deserves to be,” says David Capie, the director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

As the Government grapples with how to walk the ever-narrowing diplomatic tightrope between the US and China, Capie says it could do worse than look to Singapore which has long had to balance its relationships with Washington and Beijing.

“They’ve got some real insights about how you can try to safeguard your autonomy and your options in a world in which you’ve got these two big powers that can sometimes seem to be pulling in different directions.”

Nicholas Lee, president of the NZ Chamber of Commerce in Singapore, likewise looks to geopolitics to explain the importance of the relationship, noting the shared Commonwealth tradition and emphasis on the rule of law in a region where that is not always the case. 

NZ Chamber of Commerce president Nicholas Lee says Singaporean ministers have expressed their gratitude for New Zealand keeping food supplies flowing during the pandemic. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

“Singapore is keenly aware of who it’s surrounded by and how reliable those partners are, and New Zealand, although it’s separated by 9000km, is seen as a reliable rules-based economy.”

Trade has long been a fruitful area of cooperation between the two nations, with $6.56 billion in two-way trade in 2021 making Singapore New Zealand’s fifth-largest trading partner.

But the nations’ ambitions are often higher than bilateral benefit. The 11-nation CPTPP trade deal grew out of the P4 agreement signed between Singapore, New Zealand, Chile and Brunei in 2005. More recently, the countries (with the exception of Brunei) signed the Digital Economic Partnership Agreement, intended to set out clearer and more helpful rules for trade in the online world with other countries able to join.

When Covid-19 started to choke supply chains in early 2020, New Zealand and Singapore signed a joint commitment to ensure the free flow of essential goods.

The agreement is the first thing Mahuta mentions when asked about the value of the Singapore relationship. That feeling is mutual according to Lee, who recalls a pandemic-related meeting between the various chambers of commerce and the country’s then-trade minister, Chan Chun Sing.

“Singapore is dependent on other countries for its food supply and New Zealand is a big supplier into the country. [Chan] literally looked across the table, looked me in the eye and said, ‘I really appreciate the friendship, and what New Zealand did in our moment of need’ – those things, they’re never forgotten.”

Further evidence of that comes from the recent decision of Singapore-based agribusiness multinational Olam to open its own dairy processing plant in Waikato by late 2023.

The company’s connection with New Zealand dates back to the late 2000s, when it bought a stake in Open Country Dairy. Naval Sabri, the senior vice president of dairy at Olam Food Ingredients, says the decision to open its own plant reflected its ambitions to expand its range of exports from the country and meet demand.

Singapore has the potential to act as a global hub for New Zealand’s agriproduce, Olam’s Naval Sabri says. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

“To be honest, you can’t be in a dairy business and not be in New Zealand. New Zealand dairy is recognised all across the world as one of the best quality, and also they maintain the best food quality standards globally, so I think it’s a logical thing to have a presence in New Zealand,” Sabri says.

He believes more can be done to make Singapore a global hub for New Zealand’s agricultural products, helping to mitigate recent supply chain pressures and get Kiwi products out to the world.

That potential goes beyond agribusiness: the Kiwi couple behind property developers Du Val Group recently made headlines with a move to Singapore to set up a global headquarters, and Lee says the chamber has already seen a spike in interest as international travel has resumed in earnest.

“New Zealand businesses recognise that perhaps you can’t always take for granted that travel will be there … if you want to be fast and agile and flexible, and be where the customer needs you to be, it’s probably a good idea to have a base here, have a few people and then start to build that up.”

While trade ties fit with New Zealand’s long-held emphasis on that aspect of foreign policy, the two countries also work together closely in an area where Aotearoa is considerably less assertive – the military realm.

Both countries are members of the Five Powers Defence Arrangements grouping, the “quiet achiever” of regional security which marked its 50th anniversary last year.

“I think there are hard questions to be asked about what New Zealand has to offer other than a flag. There’s goodwill for New Zealand, but New Zealand has operated for many years with a mentality that problems are somewhere else over there.”
– Dr Euan Graham

Set up after the withdrawal of British forces from Southeast Asia as a means of providing support to the fledgling states of Singapore and Malaysia, the agreement has endured beyond its transitional origins and expanded to include anti-piracy and humanitarian work.

Dr Euan Graham, a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says the deal offers New Zealand the benefit of military access to Southeast Asia it might not otherwise secure – but what it offers in return is a matter of debate.

“Fifty years ago, New Zealand had bombers, had fast jets – now it has neither, and it’s just only now really starting to reinvest in new capabilities with the P8 maritime patrol aircraft, but otherwise it’s a very small force …

“I think there are hard questions to be asked about what New Zealand has to offer other than a flag. There’s goodwill for New Zealand, but New Zealand has operated for many years with a mentality that problems are somewhere else over there.”

While Aotearoa does provide some training exercises for Singaporean troops through the annual Exercise Thunder Warrior, plans to host a fighter jet squadron were ultimately scrapped over concerns about environmental impacts and the likely effect on the NZDF’s own work.

‘Friends need to stay close’

Capie says there is a “reservoir of goodwill” dating back to New Zealand’s role in helping safeguard Singapore’s defence during the Cold War, but at the same time a sense of missed opportunity when it comes to military cooperation.

“It just seemed to me that if somebody had wanted to really look for a bold opportunity to have a step up in the relationship, that that would have been a good thing to grab with two hands.”

Lee believes Kiwi businesses could also do with a more proactive approach in some areas, grabbing with both hands the possibilities presented by the countries’ trade agreements and the warm reception on offer in Singapore.

“In general, New Zealand and the Prime Minister punch a long way above their weight … coming here as a New Zealand organisation and New Zealand business, not only is the door open, but it’s actually warmly open, so there’s a very positive impression.”

And with the enduring global uncertainty, a close relationship across the board is no bad thing to have, he says.

“There’s a lot going on at the moment, geopolitically, trade-wise, and in those moments, friends need to stay close together and look each other in the eyes and say, ‘We’re here for you, and you’re here for us’.”

* Sam Sachdeva is in Singapore courtesy of a travel grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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