CANBERRA: Relations between Singapore and Australia got a further boost on Thursday as the prime ministers from both countries reaffirmed their commitment to enhance economic links.
At a joint news conference, both sides described each other as a partner and trusted friend.
And this friendship has helped forged the Singapore—Australia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), which has been in force since 2003 to enhance trade links.
That said, outstanding issues still remain since a second ministerial review of the agreement came into effect in September 2011.
For example, Australia wants mutual recognition of its law degree, while Singapore is pushing for further air liberalisation.
"It is not just to look at the fine print but to see what new areas we can move forward on and, of course, from Singapore’s point of view, as a transport hub, we always like to build up our aviation links and we believe we can enhance our civil aviation links and freedom of air services between our two countries and beyond, that will be beneficial to both sides," said Mr Lee.
Singapore wants the issues resolved as a package.
Mr Lee said: "We all have political timetables to take into account. These items have to be seen as a bundle because you don’t deal with them one by one but an overall package which both sides will find palatable and saleable. And I hope we can put the package together for very long because the issues have been there for some time."
There was no indication though from the Australians on whether the impasse will be resolved soon.
Ms Gillard said: "Clearly, the easiest things have been done and were done a long time ago, otherwise we wouldn’t have had the development of the FTA and have had it endure and be of such long standing. But you always have to look again at the issues.
"The world keeps changing, the nature of trade demands keep changing so we always have to be prepared to look again and see what more we can do."
Economic relations between Singapore and Australia have been growing from strength to strength. Bilateral trade for the first eight months of this year rose by eight per cent compared to the same period last year.
Tourism figures have also improved. Singapore expects visitor arrivals from Australia to cross the one million mark for the first time this year.
One area of cooperation that has been sealed is a new agreement on combating transnational crime signed between the police forces from both sides.
The agreement facilitates partnership in capacity building, information sharing and training.
Commissioner of the Singapore Police Force Ng Joo Hee said: "Criminals do not care about international boundaries, they will go to whatever country that offers opportunities to commit illegal enterprise. Law enforcement however is bounded by international borders and police officers can only operate within our own jurisdiction. That as it may, we must not allow criminals to profit from this asymmetry.
"We already have a very good relationship with the Australian federal police and this MOU I’ve just signed, commits our officers to cooperate in these areas. Over the years we have worked on many cases with the Australian federal police which have resulted in convictions on both sides of our borders."
Both sides are also keen to explore cooperation in areas such as education, sports and environment.
Reflecting the close links between the two countries, Singapore is supporting Australia’s bid for a United Nations Security Council seat.
Australia faces competition from Luxembourg and Finland for a seat in 2013 to 2014.
Mr Lee said Australia is an important part of the regional architecture and it’s beneficial for Asia—Pacific to be well represented in the Security Council.
At lunch where Mr Lee met other Australian Cabinet ministers and MPs, Ms Gillard referred to former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s remarks made in the 1970s.
Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard said: "We never forgot his warning that without reform, we will be the white trash of Asia. They were words which haunted a generation of Australian decision makers. It is not a future that an objective observer would foresee for Australia today.
"Both our two nations have changed great deal in the intervening years. We have both grown in strength and prosperity as leaders in the region and the world.
"Over the decades we came rather to look forward to Lee’s regular visits and we will always welcome his again. For us they have resembled the arrival of a respected if rather forbidding uncle, come to awake us from our indolence and insist that we be our best selves."
During his visit, Mr Lee also visited the Australian War Memorial where he laid a wreath in memory of Australians who died serving with armed forces in allied countries. He also met Australian Governor—General Quentin Bryce.
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