PM’s Singapore mission lacking a world stage

Jacinda Ardern’s return to the world stage has been a long time coming, yet for much of her time in Singapore it wasn’t at all obvious where she was, writes political editor Jo Moir.

Comments: When people imagine Singapore, they picture skyscrapers on steroids.

Images of big bold lit-up landscapes dotted with stylish and revolutionary infrastructure spring to mind.

There’s no better way for an international leader to let the world know they’ve gone global than standing in front of every iconic structure the country they’re visiting has to offer.

The Singapore Flyer, Marina Bay Sands, The Esplanade or Merlion Park – there’s plenty on offer.

Yet in a two-day schedule packed full of events and new locations, Ardern has barely been seen outside of a hotel or conference room or behind a podium with stock-standard national flags in the bag drop.

This trip has been six weeks in the making with officials both in New Zealand and on the ground in Singapore planning and preparing for the Prime Minister’s big reconnection, yet the pictures being broadcast back to New Zealand tell a different story.

Ardern’s trip kicked off with a breakfast panel in a hotel conference room with the usual podium and big screen back-drop.

The afternoon took her to The Istana, the presidential palace, which is glamorous and full of pomp and ceremony but also has the usual bilateral pictures stood in front of podiums with respective flags strategically placed behind.

The evening saw the delegation head to the stunning Gardens by the Bay, yet New Zealand media weren’t given the memo Ardern would do a walkabout, stopping to take in the waterfalls and precious local horticulture.

Arguably the most stunning pictures of the trip ended up being reserved for the Singapore media, who were the only ones looped in on the jaunt.

Jacinda Ardern chats with guests at the business breakfast on Wednesday morning in Singapore. Photo: Supplied

Day two also began with a business breakfast and while it was held on the 27th floor in the heart of the city-state, the New Zealand organizing committee hadn’t sought security clearance to use the balcony to soak up the view.

Instead, Ardern addressed her audience from behind a podium in front of large fogged up windows.

Things improved in the final hours of her Singapore sprint when she headed to a viewing balcony at the Port of Singapore – the scale of which was almost beyond what the eye could see.

There’s no doubt there have been wins on the ground in Singapore and many of those – part of the business delegation were adamant, as was Ardern – were that the trip had been worthwhile.

The Prime Minister and Trade Minister Damien O’Connor overlook the Port of Singapore alongside its chief executive. Photo: Supplied

Though Fonterra chief executive Miles Hurrell, who flew in and out of Singapore Commercial, told Newsroom the trip had been a great opportunity to meet with his company’s own staff, customers, and partners.

Visiting Fonterra offices in Singapore doesn’t require a Prime Minister’s mission or being part of a delegation.

And while he said partnership agreements being signed in Japan were another positive, Hurrell isn’t sticking around for that leg of the trip despite the importance of the Japanese market to Fonterra.

Tuesday’s bilateral meeting with Ardern’s counterpart, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, was worthwhile and timely – especially in a global climate where political friends are a necessary life (and supply) line.

“There are some leaders where you simply don’t drop a WhatsApp to, I would consider President Xi and President Biden to be among those.” – Jacinda Ardern

Keeping communication lines open with Singapore and Japan serves New Zealand well and while the trade and culture announcements made in Singapore were relatively small fry, they will no doubt lead to greater opportunity in the future.

The Indo-Pacific region is under increasing geopolitical strain, with different influences and powers at play and work being done to try get the United States into the conversation while China plays by its own rulebook.

Ardern was visibly uncomfortable with news China and the Solomon Islands had signed a security pact overnight on Tuesday that could potentially lead to increased militarization in the region.

Asked by Newsroom why she hadn’t made efforts to have a direct conversation leader-to-leader with her Chinese counterpart, Ardern was borderline defensive.

“There are some leaders where you simply don’t drop a WhatsApp to, I would consider President Xi and President Biden to be amongst those.”

While Ardern’s not alone in being unable to pick up the phone direct to Xi to have a frank conversation, it does make it even more crucial to have allies in the region like Prime Minister Lee, who she can.

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