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103 Meridian East » Diplomacy »  "The Russian Fever is Still Alive". Interview with Ambassador Michael Tay
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(left to right) Michael Tay, Lee Kuan Yew, Igor Shuvalov

In the lead-up to the fifth Russia-Singapore Business Forum, which will be held between 26 and 29 September this year, 103rd Meridian East speaks to Ambassador Michael Tay, its founder, former Executive Director of the APEC Secretariat and self-proclaimed "Singaporean with a Russian soul".

Ambassador Tay, we met last year, just before the RSBF 2009. What has changed since then? What was the outcome of the fourth RSBF?

Last year's Forum was surprising because it was the first organised from Singapore, while I had organized the previous three from Russia, where it was easier to approach companies and potential speakers. Managing it from Singapore proved to be very difficult. However, the results were quite amazing as not only did we bring many Russian companies to Singapore, but we also attracted some Vietnamese, Japanese, Indonesian and Taiwanese representatives.

As for specific examples of the outcome, we have a Singaporean company that has partnered with a Vietnamese counterpart to look at the Russian market and do business together in Vietnam and the Middle East. I think the Forum has become a business platform that goes beyond regions. We have crossed boundaries, which is very good. When you put two businessmen together, you cannot expect them to do business in just their two countries they naturally wish to venture into the global market. Another example is that Aeroflot has started to send its flight staff to Singapore for training, to the centre recommended by Singapore Airlines. This is a very simple but tangible result. There are also some Singaporean companies that are looking at possibilities of setting up medical centres in Moscow and Tatarstan.

In addition, the level of speakers and sponsorships were quite impressive last year, with Russian Railways as the major sponsor. This year, they are going to continue to sponsor the Forum and Mr. Yakunin, its head, will come again. Such is the vote of confidence in the RSBF.

Could you please share some ideas about what the upcoming RSBF 2010 will look like?

A year ago, our focus was on how to get out of the crisis. Today, it is more about what steps to take in the medium- to long-term by companies looking to invest. On the Russian front, we are looking at the theme of modernisation and innovation, as recently announced by President Dmitry Medvedev. I think it's time for Singapore, in the form of the RSBF, to offer a hand to Russia, whose modernisation will touch areas where Singaporean and Asian countries have a lot of expertise, such as waste management, water treatment, building roads and railways, housing, education and healthcare.

We are going to change the structure of the RSBF a little to better suit the needs of the participants. Having realised that with only a one-day conference we inadvertently reduce networking opportunities, we decided to split the conference into two half-days, so that mornings will be for business matching and site visits, with afternoons reserved for conference sessions. Bringing the same people together twice will allow them more opportunities to follow-up and to be more flexible with their own meetings.

We will also wait until the registration of all participants is over and only then introduce the site visits, knowing their areas of interest. For example, if there are companies engaged in the airport management business, or retail companies interested in having their outlets at the airport, we might organise a trip to Changi Airport for them to meet each other and not just go and see the sites as tourists.

As for the conference part, this year we still have Senior Minister Goh and Minister Mentor Lee as the major Singaporean speakers. From the Russian side, we already have Mr. Gref, Mr. Ruben Vardanyan and Mr. Yakunin. We are hoping that Mr. Vekselberg, who is also involved in the Innograd development, will be our speaker, as well as Mr. Sobyanin, as the counterpart of SM Goh in the Russia-Singapore intergovernmental committee.

Photo courtesy of the RSBF

Being the Executive Director of the APEC in 2009, you accumulated some profound knowledge in this field. As you told us earlier, you are writing a book about it. Can you give any details?

During my one year of leading the APEC, I realised that very few books and articles were written about it. This is the reason why many people don't really understand what the APEC is and criticise it for the wrong reasons. First of all, the APEC is not trying to be something like the European Union or ASEAN. For one, legalistic organizations such as the EU were unable to deal with the crisis as effectively as the APEC. Why? Because the APEC has a very strong business component, with the top businessmen from 21 member economies, some of whom are the richest and most influential people in the world. They meet together four times a year and, by year-end, they bring business matters directly to the policymakers: the government leaders.

The APEC is a bit like the World Wide Web - you cannot anticipate it, it just happens - having started with no rules, no treaty, no formal agreement. That's why it is called a "forum" and not an "organisation", which is my starting point for the book. I want to make it really interesting not only for scholars but for businessmen and the general public as well. Part of it might be in the form of a cartoon, or one chapter may be virtual, like "go to this website.

Relations between Russia and Singapore are mostly confined to the economic sphere: Russia is an emerging market and Singapore is an expertise provider. Any other spheres of mutual interest?

Culture is a very important element of our relationship. I started with the symphony (Michael Tay had earlier commissioned a Russian composer, Vladimir Martynov, to write a symphony about Singapore 103rd ME), and now interest in Russia is still high. If you look through Singaporean newspapers and magazines, every few days there will be an article on Russia or the Russian community in Singapore. So "Russian fever, as I call it, is still alive and, also thanks to 103rd Meridian East, which raises awareness about the two countries, it is spreading.

Now, I am working on bringing to Singapore some world-class Russian musicians and the Mariinsky Theatre, but this is a long shot. This helps to bring the soft side of Russia, still not very well-known in Singapore. I also have some ideas connected with filmmaking. I want to have one of the modern Russian writers write a story based in Singapore and Russia. Boris Akunin would be the right choice, if I'm able to persuade him, because he combines popular and literary approaches. Then we can probably transform this book into a film. But these are big projects that need a lot of time and resources.

By Natalia Makarova


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