President of Singapore Tony Tan's recent state visit to Egypt commemorated 50 years of ties between the two countries. While the media covered the visit extensively and focused on its political and economic aspects, in separate interview Ambassador Premjith Sadasivan highlighted deeper cultural and social bonds between Egypt and Singapore. For Egypt, Singapore's iconic renaissance is an inspiration as it embarks on the path of building a new Egypt.
Enhancing the Singapore-Egypt partnership
Mr Sadasivan is the first ambassador of Singapore to oversee two historic presidential visits between Egypt and Singapore.
Appointed as Singapore’s ambassador to the Arab Republic of Egypt as well as to the State of Libya in 2013, he witnessed many major events affecting the region firsthand. In interview, it is clear he has a genuine passion for Egypt. Despite his low key appearance, Sadasivan works non-stop to build close social and cultural bonds between Egypt and Singapore.
Although the state visit was uppermost on Mr Sadasivan's mind at the start of the interview, he quickly looked to the big picture. "Looking into Singapore-Egypt relations one can only describe it as a complementary partnership. Both are crucial maritime nodes in the world. Once the Suez Canal area develops into an integrated logistics hub, our two countries' connectivity will improve vastly. Singapore is ready to partner Egypt in this endeavour."
Having followed the developments of the Suez Canal area closely, he said: "We believe President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is committed to the vision of the Suez Canal economic zone, which when realised will transform Egypt's economy. It has the potential to be a turning point for Egypt's development. The project is executed with excellence, which will send a clear message to the world that Egypt is going forward."
Sadasivan added that, "Widening the canal in a very short timeframe was a miracle indeed." He also pointed out that Egypt has managed to solve its energy shortages. Through these two examples, Sadasivan said, "Egypt has shown what it is capable of."
Strengthening bilateral economic cooperation between Egypt and Singapore was one of the announced goals of the presidential visit. When asked about the level of commitment shown by the Singapore business community to working with Egypt, Mr Sadasivan replied: "I accompanied President El-Sisi during his visit to Singapore, and I think he left a great impression on Singapore's business community by his honesty. Everyone appreciated the fact that he was clear; he didn’t try to make the situation sound better than what it is on the ground. Immediately after the visit, members of Singapore business community were interested to explore investment options in Egypt."
When asked to provide a timeframe, Sadasivan explained that, "Singapore's government always keeps what we call an arm's length approach, meaning that the government keeps a distance from all businesses and projects. It does not make decisions for them. The companies have to evaluate the projects on a commercial basis. Our role as government is to open doors and lay the ground for stronger economic relations with Egypt."
Referring to solutions to Egypt's current economic challenges, Mr Sadasivan did not mince his words. "Foreign direct investments and exports are two key solutions. Tourism will bounce back gradually, but it will take some time." Asked what qualities are required for Egypt to succeed, he said: "Passion and excellence. Egyptians have lots of passion and when this is combined with excellence, the country will take off and witness new horizons."
Egypt in the middle ground
Egypt has been regarded as promoting moderate Islam against radical streams. Mr Sadasivan stated that "Egypt's gift to Asia is moderate Islam. It is important to know that the largest Muslim country in the world is located in Southeast Asia, where Al-Azhar is widely respected, representing Shafi'i and Hanafi Madhabs, which are embraced by Asians. This always explains the direct connection between Asia and Egypt."
On a question of religious harmony, Sadasivan disclosed that, "When President El-Sisi visited Singapore, he chose the Religious Harmony Centre as his first stop where he was received by 10 religious leaders. And during the recent visit of our president, he was keen to take a tour of Al-Azhar. This mutual interest indicates a deep understanding and great respect for religious diversity."
Sadasivan noted that, "Practicing religion in Egypt is up to the individual, which explains why Egyptians avoid extremes. This is the same type tolerance that we see much of Asia. If Egypt remains in the middle ground in the practice of religion, then Asian countries with Muslim communities would benefit."
Asked whether Singapore is involved in fighting extremists, he replied in the affirmative but pointed out that Egypt's role is more important.
"We believe Egypt, through Al-Azhar, is uniquely placed to keep the world away from extremism and extremist ideology. This is going to be a long journey; it will not be accomplished in one or two years, and Singapore is committed to support it."
Singapore's miraculous renaissance
An important aspect in the Singaporeane experience is the multi-cultured nature of its people.
According to Mr Sadasivan, "Singapore is a nation of immigrants coming from different backgrounds. We have no choice but to take the middle ground, to join all of our diverse roots, cultures and religions together. And that was our major challenge and now we have created a common identity as Singaporeans. And we agreed that in order to stay united, race and religion should not be used to define ourselves."
He added: "The focus was our commonalities. This began by Singaporeans going to the same schools, so by the time we reach 18 years old, the community is already blended. We learnt an important lesson from the histories of other countries. One lesson was if you belong to a majority ethnic or religious group, then you should be far more generous to the minority. This was the recipe for peace, stability and harmony. Everyone in the country, regardless of race or religion, should be treated fairly and equally."
The issue of fighting corruption and nepotism was raised. Mr Sadasivan said that in Singapore this fight started with the civil service. "Civil servants are recruited on merit. It is very rare to find members of the same family working at the same ministry, so getting a government job doesn't depend on your family connections or status — only your own skills matters. I am the only civil servant in my family; my other siblings work in the private sector."
"In Singapore, civil servants are not allowed to take on a second job. They are well-paid and are expected to perform their roles," he added.
When highlighted that Singapore has invested huge sums in arts and culture, Ambassador Sadasivan answered, "The aim is to make Singapore into an arts and culture hub for the region and the world. The vision goes beyond the economic benefits."
With cities like Milan, Paris, New York and Hong Kong already regular destinations as established cultural hubs, what does Singapore offer? Ambassador Sadasivan explained: "We have set our eyes on becoming a culture hub of Asia. Today millions of tourists visit Singapore because of its cultural menu. Tourists can choose from a wide menu, be it arts, culture or lifestyle. It is because of the variety and quality that people keep coming back to Singapore. They know they are guaranteed to have a unique enjoyable experience."
Asked about how Singapore sticks to long-term planning, Mr Sadasivan said: "We believe it is not enough to set policies and expect people to just support it. For the government, success means executing projects. Policy and implementation are both sides of the same coin. This is the mind-set that enabled us to achieve rapid economic development in a considerably short time."
Asked about the next big project for Singapore, the ambassador said: "We are turning Singapore from a smart city into a smart nation, which means using fiber optics technology to connect information and big data throughout all sectors in the country. The data will be analyzed and customised to each individual to make life easier … literally information on your finger tips. We started the smart nation project four years ago and hopefully it will be completed in eight years' time, making Singapore the first smart nation that is fully-wired up in the world."
Hailing longstanding ties
Asked how he would describe ties between Egypt and Singaporr, Mr Sadasivan replied: "What keeps Egypt and Singapore close always is the fact that both are cultural melting pots."
Mr Sadasivan's interest in culture and the arts is evident. He stated: "Egypt is an arts and cultural hub for the region. Though this has been a very busy posting for me, I have found time to visit local galleries, and I did collect some artworks by Sobhi Gergis and Farid Fadel. But I would like to devote more time to the vibrant art scene. I enjoyed the recent Cairo jazz festival, and I am frequent visitor at the Cairo Jazz Club. I love listening to Um Koulthom … She remains a magical sensation in the Arab world."
Asked if he visited sites outside of Cairo, Mr Sadasivan answered: "I have been to almost everywhere in Egypt, including Luxor, Aswan, Hurghada, El-Gouna, Sinai, Fayoum, Alexandria. I visited so many places, but my favorite place is Siwa, especially the Adrere Amellal Desert Ecolodge. This magical place is owned and managed by Dr Mounir Neamatalla who I believe is Egypt's finest cultural entrepreneur. I visited Siwa in October 2014 and went there again last month. I can't wait to go back!"
Egypt has an eclectic soul, I cannot quite describe it in words, and after being here for more than 3 years, I think one of the precious assets that Egypt possess is its civilisation and identity. Even overseas Egyptians who have been away for 40 years still come back to Egypt and call it their home. If there is one thing that I would like to take back to Singapore from Egypt is the passion and rootedness of Egyptians. You can feel this everywhere you go in Egypt." ,