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German Chancellor recounts historic 182-year bond between Hamburg and Singapore

SINGAPORE – In 1840, two friends from Hamburg arrived in Singapore and began trading spices, silk, cotton and tea across the oceans – between Singapore, Indonesia, China and the Philippines, and back to Germany.

The Behn Meyer Company – founded by Theodor August Behn and Valentin Lorenz Meyer – still exists today, but now provides high-end products in areas such as the agriculture and life science sectors, and has more of 1,000 employees in Southeast Asia, the visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz noted on Monday.

Scholz, a Hamburg native and first mayor from 2011 to 2018, said that like his hometown, Singapore owes its economic success to free trade, its global network and openness to the world, as well as its central location in one of the most dynamic economic regions.

Free trade could turn a company like Behn Meyer, which owned three ships in the 1800s, into a global player, he said. It has also enabled the transformation of a small port city of 5,000 people into a global metropolis like Singapore, he added in a keynote address at a gathering of German businesses.

“Free and fair trade benefits all parties involved. This is still the basis of our prosperity,” he told the 17th Asia-Pacific Conference for German Business at the Raffles City Convention Centre. The conference, organized by the Singapore-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is the largest and most important German business conference in the Asia-Pacific region and is held every two years.

Mr. Scholz noted that on November 5, 1890, a Straits Times article about the Germans in Singapore – marking the golden jubilee of the establishment of the Behn Meyer company on the island – read: “If the Straits bought goods to Germany, it is because these particular goods suited our trade; if the straits sold products to Hamburg, it was because Hamburg was willing to pay the market price.

The article may be outdated, but the concept of free and fair trade is not, Scholz said.

Today, Europe and Asia have both benefited from greater integration within their regions, and it is important to work towards greater free trade between the two regions, said he added.

Deepening cooperation is essential in a tense geopolitical environment, he said. And if Germany wants to diversify its trade relationship, that doesn’t mean decoupling, he added, saying it’s an important distinction at a time when concepts like nearshoring, deglobalization and self-sufficiency are on the rise.

Often these ideas are nothing more than covert protectionism. And protectionism gets countries nowhere, he said. A world with new or re-erected trade barriers and disintegrating economies is no better place, he added.

Scholz noted that when former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt traveled to Singapore 10 years ago to visit his old friend, Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, they talked about globalization, and the late Mr. Lee said then that globalization had opened the whole world to Singapore. Mr. Scholz said the statement was also true for larger, more populous countries.

The key to tackling global challenges such as climate change, global health crises and food insecurity, or to moving towards carbon-neutral economies lies in innovation, he added. However, more trade barriers would lead to less competition and less innovation, he said, calling for more cooperation and collaboration.

At the same conference, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong highlighted various German companies that came to Singapore. There are over 2,100 German companies in Singapore today.