Singapore Must Increase Its African Connectivity

By Thomas, David | African Business, August-September 2016 | Go to article overview

Singapore Must Increase Its African Connectivity


Thomas, David, African Business


There is much to be done to build relations between Singapore and Africa. Shabbir Hassanbhai, chairman of the Africa Business Group at the Singapore Business Federation and non-resident high commissioner to Nigeria, talked to African Business about how to firm up ties.

HOUSED WITHIN A GRAND colonial facade and furnished with a smart wooden interior, the Singapore Cricket Club recalls a time when the city-state was a valuable but little-developed trading post in the far eastern reaches of the British Empire.

Yet despite the glittering skyscrapers now dwarfing its manicured lawns, the club has lost none of its relevance as a meeting place for the great and the good of the Singaporean business community.

Walking into the shaded bar past cabinets teeming with long-forgotten trophies, club member Shabbir Hassanbhai, one of Singapore's most influential African go-betweens, tells African Business that the journey from imperial subjugation to thriving independent nation is one which resonates whenever he speaks to audiences of African policymakers.

"In my speeches in Africa, I show them a picture of Singapore in the 1950s. It's like any country on the continent --chickens running around, water from the well, mud houses. And I show them the picture you see today ... Singapore has a model to share of economic growth. We went through the same pain these African countries are going through," he says.

It's an optimistic vision that Hassanbhai is dedicated to helping bring about. As chairman of the Africa Business Group at the Singapore Business Federation and non-resident high commissioner to Nigeria, Hassanbhai straddles the worlds of business and politics, lobbying for a revolution in ties between the continent and the citystate. Those ties, long hampered by outdated Hews of Africa among Singaporeans, stronger opportunities in the Asia market and intermittent bouts of instability on the continent, finally began to firm up after a concerted push from 2008, according to Hassanbhai.

"In that span of seven or eight years there have been a lot of people working in a collaborative manner to ensure we get away from old perceptions of Africa ... there was finally a difference in awareness, from government, business people and policymakers. All the building blocks are in place and it's now a question of taking it to the next level," he says.

Yet the statistics show that there is much to be done if the relationship is to emerge as a crucial one for either partner. According to government figures, Singaporean exports to Africa declined from $12.1bn in 2011 to $8.4bn in 2015. By contrast, China sent $102bn worth of goods to the continent in 2015, according to its customs office. To improve those figures, Hassanbhai is attempting to pull strings within government and convince policymakers that the continent must be labelled a priority area.

The need for political buy-in

"Our major problem first and foremost is that we must get political buy-in into the African story. It can only work to a certain extent without that. While we have told the government about economic engagement, there must come political will. If this is done, our financial institutions will start investing."

Hassanbhai points to bilateral investment treaties and double taxation avoidance agreements as potential new areas of cooperation. Yet attracting Singaporean financial institutions to the continent is also dependent on a sea-change in the opinions of top bankers and asset managers. …

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