Celebrating the Diamond Jubilee: Queen and Commerce (Part IV)

Over the years, the bilateral ties between Britain and Singapore have strengthened, helping both to become economic leaders of today.

One of The Queen’s most remarkable accomplishments is the extent to which she has travelled the globe, strengthening Britain’s commercial ties. Since the Coronation in 1953, The Queen has visited an impressive 161 countries and spent a total of three-and-a-half years abroad.


During this time, The Queen has visited Singapore three times – in 1972, 1989 and 2006. Behind the veil of handshakes and bouquets, the royal visits are a beacon for 'Britishness'. In an era when the oncesprawling Empire has narrowed, state visits promote Britain and all it has to offer.


The HSBC building decked out in celebration of The Queen's Coronation in 1953

The HSBC building decked out in celebration of The Queen's Coronation in 1953


Businessmen, diplomats and dignitaries vie for a spot on the royal-visit itinerary to demonstrate their endeavours in industry, commerce and international relations.


The bilateral relationship between Britain and Singapore is as strong today as ever. Visiting Singapore in early 2012, Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, William Hague, reinforced the bond in a speech, saying: “Today Britain is looking East as never before.


“Britain’s presence in Singapore is considerable, and growing: 32,000 people and at least 700 British based companies. Many of them make significant contributions, whether it be Arup engineering and the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel, or Rolls-Royce opening their state-of-the art campus.”


A 200-Year Relationship


The island city-state is an attractive draw for many British businesses today, the relationship between Britain and Singapore extends far beyond The Queen’s reign.


There are unmistakable signs of British influence everywhere. English is among the country’s four official languages and is taught in schools and Singapore’s legal system, is based on the British structure. Even the administration is founded on British principles – Singapore is a democracy with a parliamentary system of government.


Singapore is a vital world trade hub, as it was in Raffles’ day. It is Britain’s largest trading partner in Southeast Asia, in 2011 receiving some 55 per cent of Britain's total exports to the region. In 2011, Britain's exports of goods and services to Singapore totalled $7.6 billion (or S$15.2 billion), up seven per cent on 2010. Goods exported from Britain to Singapore were also up 23 per cent on 2011 in the first four months of 2012.


With significant economic leaps and bounds in both countries, Britain remains a commercial powerhouse. From internationally recognised educational institutions to pioneering industries — it is a leader in many fields. Energy, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals are some of the frontrunners.


Singapore is on par as a world leader in several important economic areas too. The country’s port is the busiest worldwide, and Singapore is home to the world's fourth leading financial centre (behind London, New York and Hong Kong). It is also recognised internationally as a global pioneer in the fields of sustainability and urban planning solutions.


The Changing Nature of Business in Singapore


Singapore in 1965 was an underdeveloped country with a GDP per capita of less than US$520 (S$1590 at that time). Infrastructure was poor, and residents were primarily involved in manufacturing and small-scale trade. In 2012, the GDP per capita stood at US$50,123 (S$62,697), showing the huge strides the economy has made in a relatively short number of years.


Post-independence, the Singapore government aggressively promoted export-oriented industrialisation, which was designed to attract foreign investment. By the eighties, Singapore's international banking and financial services sector had boomed and the nineties welcomed the information age.


In 2000, Singapore steered its focus towards knowledge and innovation-intensive activities. R&D is now a cornerstone of the island country’s economic development, attracting globally recognised companies such as Rolls-Royce and Dyson. In 2005, a science and innovation partnership was signed between Britain and Singapore to promote collaboration in these areas.


Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the Rolls-Royce Seletar Campus official opening; work in progress at Rolls- Royce Seletar

Work in progress at Rolls- Royce Seletar; Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the Rolls-Royce Seletar Campus official opening


Today, British companies continue to choose Singapore year-on-year to pursue opportunities in this growing knowledge based economy, whilst exploring and benefiting from the evolving nature of a rapidly growing nation. As a result, British business features in every industry sector, be they start-ups, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), or world-renowned multinational corporations.


Marine and Shipping


Shipping remains a cornerstone of the Singaporean economy. Boustead, one of the oldest British businesses that still has a presence in Singapore, started out as a trade company. However, it now has influence in a number of other areas including infrastructure and technology. Many other internationally renowned names in the marine and shipping fields have a base in Singapore, including JCP Marine, SembCorp, APL and NOL.


Currently Singapore’s port sits on the edge of the city’s central business district, but radical plans have been proposed to relocate it further west as the shipping industry expands in tandem with the city centre.


From Aviation to Innovation


Engineering is a well-represented field in Singapore in a number of respects. The country is the largest manufacturer of jack-up rigs, which are used to extract oil. Singapore commands 70 per cent of the world market thanks to its engineering expertise.


Aerospace engineering is another growth area. Rolls-Royce was one of the first large British businesses to set up in Singapore in the 1950s. It now employs more than 1,500 people, accounting for five per cent of the country’s aerospace industry workforce.


Most recently, in 2012, Rolls-Royce opened its largest operation in Asia, the 154,000-squaremetre Seletar Campus. Trent 900 engines for the Airbus A380 and Trent 1000 engines for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner will be built at this impressive location.


Singapore is well equipped to capitalise on the demand for aviation-related services. It is the number one centre in Asia for aerospace maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO). The country is home to the internationally renowned Singapore Airlines, as well as Changi Airport, which handles 100 airlines and has won over 350 awards.


For more than seventy years British Airways (BA) has made Singapore a 'home away from home'. BA currently operates 14 flights a week from Heathrow in London to Singapore's Changi airport, transporting millions of business travellers and tourists each year. Imperial Airlines, as the airline was previously known, introduced a flight from the UK to Australia in 1920. In 1935, together with Australian airline Qantas, it operated a flight between Singapore and Australia. Originally the service existed to transport British personnel between Britain, Singapore and Australia to improve trade. During this time, The Queen made a number of journeys as a passenger on British Airways flights boundfor Singapore.


As Singapore has grown and developed, so has the physical nature of the city. Many of the nation’s most iconic architectural projects have had a British influence, and this is reflected in Singapore’s ever-changing skyline. The country’s latest attraction, Gardens by the Bay, opened its doors in 2012. Like many other groundbreaking feats of engineering and design, the project was the work of a number of British companies. British architectural firm Grant Associates was appointed in 2006 by the National Parks Board of Singapore to create a master plan for Bay South Garden, the first and largest of the three planned gardens at Gardens by the Bay.


Gardens at the Bay, the newest addition to Singapore's stunning skyline

Gardens at the Bay, the newest addition to Singapore's stunning skyline


Andrew Grant, Director of Grant Associates, said: “Our brief for Gardens by the Bay was to create the most amazing tropical gardens in the world, incorporating cutting-edge environmental design and sustainable development principles. We had to factor in the challenges of both the Singaporean climate and working on a reclaimed waterfront. We wanted to capture people’s relationship with nature and use innovative technology to create rich lifestyle, educational and recreational experiences for both Singapore residents and visitors from around the world.”


Engineering, design and consulting firm, Arup, also has a big influence on constructing the changing face of Singapore. Headquartered in London, the company that was founded in Britain in 1946 has a large regional presence in Singapore. With a history of iconic projects to its name, Arup was involved in designing a natural smoke-venting system for the huge conservatories at Gardens At The Bay. In addition, the company designed the innovative glass-facade system that supports the conservatories’ microclimates. Arup has also been involved in other iconic projects in Singapore, such as the Marina Bay redevelopment, the Singapore Flyer, The Helix bridge, the Labrador Nature & Coastal Walk, and the design and construction of the Fusionopolis building.


In collaboration on the Gardens by the Bay project, Arup and Grant Associates worked alongside a British design team that comprised Wilkinson Eyre (architects); Atelier Ten (environmental design consultants); Atelier One (structural engineers); Land Design Studio (museum and visitor centre designers) and Thomas Matthews (communication designers).


Finance and Marketing


Singapore’s financial sector is one of the country’s oldest and most established industries. While this segment may have expanded rapidly during the eighties, British banks made the island city-state their home long before then. In 1877, HSBC opened in Collyer Quay, where it remains to this day. A spokesperson for the company said: “HSBC is proud of the contribution it has made to the British and Singaporean economies. We were a start-up when Queen Victoria sat on the British throne, aiming to be where the growth was and connect business with opportunities. Much has changed in the world during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II but, like Her Majesty, we remain constant in our values.”


Like HSBC, RBS has a long history in Singapore. Through its acquisitions of ABN AMRO, the company has been a fixture in the lion city for more than 150 years. Today it employs some 1,500 employees in Singapore, which is one of the company’s six trading hubs for RBS globally. The bank offers a broad range of products and services to help major corporations, financial institutions and governments. On 12 September 2008, The Duke of York attended the bank’s official rebranding event at Eden Hall as the Guest of Honour. Other financial powerhouses such as Barclays, Coutts, and Standard Chartered also have offices in Singapore.


Owing to the country’s geographical position the fast-moving consumer goods market is a big employer in Singapore. British-based Unilever, a prominent manufacturing giant, has had its regional operation in Singapore since 1954. The company is responsible for bringing many well-loved brands, such as Wall’s ice cream, to the stores. Unilever Singapore is now home to the company’s global operations hub, housing more than 900 employees, across 70 nationalities.


In addition to established and traditional business sectors, modern Singapore is focusing on developing creative industries and digital media, a sector where British companies have a strong presence.


Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) is acknowledged as an institution in the advertising world. However, before its foray into global advertising, the British-based company’s first overseas operation was in Singapore. BBH chose Singapore for its “obvious proximity to the rest of Asia” and the company “recognised the potential and opportunity Singapore could offer as a hub to access the region.”


Today, the roll call of creative companies in Singapore reads like a who’s who of the advertising world, with names such as Ogilvy & Mather and Saatchi & Saatchi all present. Several respected British news organisations also have bureaus in Singapore, from the BBC to the Financial Times.


The British theatre and live entertainment scene has also strengthened its appeal in Singapore over the years, particularly through the work of the British Theatre Playhouse. Established in 2004, the company promotes live British theatre in the region, bringing prominent actors and artistes from Britain to take part in inventive productions.


Sir Stamford Raffles would barely recognise Singapore today. In 1819, the city was far removed from the modern skyscraper skyline we see now. Despite the changes, some aspects have remained intact. Singapore may have gained independence from British rule in 1963, but the bond between the two nations has endured.


In his 2012 speech, William Hague concluded: “In 1819, Raffles wrote of Singapore: ‘Here is all life and activity; and it would be difficult to name a place on the face of the globe with brighter prospects’. How right he proved to be. So in this hub of ideas and enterprise and at this time of change in world affairs, I can confidently assert that far from turning away from your region, Britain embarked on an entirely new effort to enhance ties across the region."