HE Andy Mariette J Detaille, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium to Singapore shares some of his past experiences and how would like to take bilateral relations between the two nations forward, in a lively discussion with IN Diplomacy editor-in-Chief Mrs Nomita Dhar
Good morning your Excellency and welcome to Singapore and readers of IN Diplomacy. Is this posting also your first visit to Singapore?
I came through Singapore in the 90s en route to Australia and again in 2010, when I spent a couple of days here. In fact, there were several reasons why I actively lobbied to be posted here. Chiefly because I have had many very difficult postings and now that I have small children I wanted a more comfortable place to live. Apart from that, Singapore is also home to the biggest community of Belgians living in Asia. Very important for me is the concentration of Belgian companies in the island republic. There are 220 registered firms doing many exciting things and we support them in their endeavours. We see how Singapore is constantly reinventing itself in order to stay relevant in the future. This is a very exciting environment and I also feel it’s the perfect base from which to visit the other countries in the region.
You mention you had some very difficult postings. Can you share some of those experiences with us?
When I completed my diplomatic training I was sent to Beijing for almost two years. Thereafter, I’ve done postings almost exclusively in the Arab world. A major reason for this is that my wife, an Italian, is a translator of classical Arabic. I also became somewhat of a specialist in that and still intellectually find that region very attractive, if not easy to live in. I’ve been to Damascus (Lebanon), Cairo (Egypt) and Tripoli (Libya) from where we were evacuated. My last posting before I came here, was Kuwait.
As a diplomat how easy or difficult was it for you to live in such places?
Beirut is not such a bad posting, after all people from the region come to holiday there. There are cultural challenges in these countries as they are more conservative. Situations are very diverse. Kuwait, for example, was a big challenge with regards to the climate.
Temperatures can reach 54.6 degrees Centigrade in the shade, 62 under the sun! You have to arrange for your children to live elsewhere for three months as they can’t be outside. In Libya we gradually slid into life-threatening situations such as when the convoy I was travelling in was attacked during the bombing of the French embassy, which was just 500m from the Belgian embassy. My family left and subsequently I too left.
Given situations like these it appears that diplomacy is still very relevant in today’s world.
Yes, things can become very difficult as in the case of Libya, when the state is disintegrating. In such a situation and at a certain moment in time all your high-end diplomatic contacts are not so important as who you know at the local level. I knew the mayor of Tripoli who helped me secure our embassy after that attack on the French. It boils down to such a practical level of who you know at that level, because sometimes at the higher levels they change so quickly and do not stay long enough to make a difference to your situation and what you have to do. In Libya it was just about keeping the embassy going…there was no output. In the end because of the high costs of security we had to close it down. Things came to a head when a militant group kidnapped an Arab diplomat then almost all the embassies closed down.
Now that you’re in Singapore’s more peaceful and progressive environs how are bilateral relations between our two nations?
Excellent! And this is mainly because we have the same strategic outlook. Our exports are higher than our GDP. Both countries have small populations and we both try and make the most of our locations, which are our biggest assets. We are also both strong proponents of multi-lateral deals, free trade, freedom of navigation, liberalisation of trade, rule of law etc; so it’s natural that we have no irritants in our bilateral relations.
Singapore is also represented prominently in Belgium through the PSA which runs the most important terminal located in Antwerp, the second most important and busiest port in Europe. PSA employs 2,600 people there and is probably the company’s most important investment outside Singapore.
On the other hand our companies have very important factories or projects here. Chief amongst them is a dredging company implementing a S$2.67 billion project. Another firm is involved in an experiment with driverless trucks that involve the biggest logistics operator here.
Politically we have many exchanges. Belgium has the advantage of being the home of the European Economic Union and NATO, with all kinds of people passing through with whom meetings can be arranged.
What is the mark you would like to leave behind at the end of your tenure?
I think on the political front I would like us to have a more intense relationship between the two countries. I hope I can make this happen. I’d like to see more political delegations coming to Singapore to engage with people on matters that are not so much in the forefront as they are today such as counter-terrorism, climate change, smart nations, smart cities and such.
On the economic front we need to keep supporting the companies that are here and to bring in more delegations from Belgium and see how Singapore can serve as a hub for them and add value to their activities.
On the culture-public diplomacy level, I’d like to do more to show people that there’s more to Belgium than its beer, chocolate and lace image. We are also about bi-chemicals, environmental technologies, about world class companies involved in many fields of relevance today. We are high on education No. 4 in the World Economic Forum ranking and have excellent healthcare. I want to spread the message on all these aspects and let people identify Belgium with all these other things.