Hariz Baharudin – Assistant News Editor (The Straits Times)
SINGAPORE – The Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has said that there is great potential for Singapore and Pakistan to work together, particularly in trade, and entrepreneurs from both sides should continue to create opportunities to collaborate.
In an exclusive written interview with The Straits Times before his visit to Singapore, Bilawal Bhutto said that Pakistan places great importance on its relations with Singapore bilaterally as well as in the context of ASEAN, as he made the case for his Country’s emerging market.
Bilawal noted how Pakistan was among the first Countries to recognize the Republic soon after independence, and how its expatriate community has contributed to Singapore’s development in its early years.
The foreign minister pointed out how the two nations have exchanged high-level visits in the past, including then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s visits to Pakistan in 1988 and 1992, and his late mother Benazir Bhutto’s visit to Singapore in 1995 as then Prime Minister of Pakistan.
“Over time, we lost the momentum in our bilateral relations,” said Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, adding that he was coming to Singapore “to revive that momentum and intensify our bilateral exchanges. Pakistan is keen to strengthen this relationship in all dimensions”.
During his visit here from Thursday to Saturday, Bilawal will meet President Halimah Yacob and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, discussing how the two countries can promote private-sector collaboration.
There is a need for the world to have a fresh look at Pakistan that is away from its stereotypical image, he added.
In the last few decades, the Country has gone through hard times including financial crises and political turbulence. Bilawal Bhutto’s mother was assassinated at an election campaign rally in 2007. His grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – also a former Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister – was hanged by a military dictator in 1979.
“As a young political leader, I strongly feel that the world needs to have a fresh look at Pakistan, away from its stereotypical image,” said Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is 33 and was made Foreign Minister in April.
“There are so many opportunities in Pakistan awaiting the world, for which the first step is to lift the travel advisories against the Country. I strongly feel that the world needs to look at us more objectively, as a promising emerging market.”
The Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto highlighted that Pakistan has a young population, where 114 million of its 220 million people are under 25, and that it has the fastest-growing middle class in the world, after China and India.
In particular, online trading is on the rise, with the Pakistani e-commerce market going up by 45 per cent in 2021. He added that based on data from German research firm Statista, Pakistan’s e-commerce market is projected to generate US$7.67 billion (S$10.4 billion) in revenue in 2022.
Bilawal also said Pakistan has many freelancers who are providing services in IT, telecom, e-commerce, data analytics, financial services, music and health.
“Singapore and other ASEAN Countries outsource many IT-related activities and financial services and can benefit immensely from our young talent.”
The foreign minister stressed that relations with the regional grouping are a priority for his country, and said Pakistan, which is the oldest sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN, wishes to upgrade to a full dialogue partnership.
It is also keen on forging closer cooperation with South-east Asia’s digital economy, and wants to build institutional linkages with ASEAN, especially in the technical and vocational education sector.
“Some recent initiatives of ASEAN are of great interest to Pakistan which we believe are bound to unlock immense trade and investment opportunities for emerging economies including Pakistan. We believe our start-up and fintech ecosystem can contribute a great deal by connecting with South-east Asia,” said Bilawal.
When asked about his mother and how he might be following in her footsteps, he said she is a symbol of democracy and empowerment of women not just in Pakistan but also around the world.
But beyond a leader, she is also an inspiration in his personal life, he added.
“As a mother, she taught me compassion, humility and patience. And as I grow in my political role, I am reminded of her emphasis on the importance of dialogue, coalition building and basic decency.
“She continues to inspire me every day.”