The UK-Singapore Free Trade Agreement of 2020 was a lost opportunity. This new trade agreement was rushed through to suit the UK’s domestic political needs, the need to show that, post-Brexit, this country could form other trade links outside the EU. However, the opportunity was lost to strengthen labour rights and good governance that Singapore could lead in the region to Asian prosperity.
Money, well-being and security
The cost benefits for partnerships and trade should not solely be the monetary flow but the cost for depth and quality which reflects the well-being of citizens. The service firm Dezan Shira & Associates, with expertise on the Belt and Road Initiative, wrote an article that the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (‘CPTPP’) and post-Brexit trade agreements, can potentially allow UK businesses to access an £18 Trillion market (Devonshire-Ellis, 2021). Such trade numbers are attractive but what is the actual cost? Would we be further weakening Britain’s position in the world?
The Australian satire Utopia has an interesting scene on Australia’s defence policy. It describes a military strategic paper on spending $30 billion a year to protect trade routes with China, from China. It turns out the Morrison ministry increased both military spending and rhetoric against China, sending both relationships with neighbouring countries and trade with China plummeting. Australia’s neighbours want their opportunity to build networks and they do not wish to be forced into an arms race. UK’s allies will be in similar positions.
Secondly, taking the post-Brexit UK-Singapore Free Trade Agreement as an example, it was a lost opportunity to strengthen international oversight over labour rights and modern slavery. For the UK, Singapore is a free port and already readily accessible to its markets. However, the UK lost the opportunity to set up institutions or organisations to strengthen anti-slavery regulation and labour laws. The UK could have harnessed Singapore’s expertise and capability to develop a network for Britain’s trade deal. After all, Singapore is a key influence in the region and is a reliable free and open state. UK-Singapore historical links are present. A good multilateral approach would have been that the trade deal focus on supporting Singapore as a partner to develop a resilient supply chain which promotes labour rights and anti-corruption and good governance. This would have allowed traded goods to be scaled for their integrity towards human dignity. The 2020 treaty has loopholes and will come at a cost to Britain. Under the current framework, goods in Asia subjected to modern slavery in the manufacturing and supply chain will outsell British goods manufactured under stronger labour laws.
Moreover, we could be trading at the expense of our EU neighbours whom we would need support in other areas, such as has occurred with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is the Australian scenario as mentioned above. We would also be harming the security resilience of like-minded neighbours and it will cost in diplomacy, national security and monetary terms to remedy.
In short, trying to be Singapore-on-Thames ourselves is a bad idea. Singapore already had its unique position. In a post-Brexit engagement, we should have the foresight to look into strengthening regulation and governance and engage our partners to develop a strengthened network in Asia. Right now, the loopholes are degrading both UK resilience and that of our trading partners.
1 Devonshire-Ellis, Chris. “How British Business Can Access China’s New £18 Trillion Asia RCEP Free Trade Agreement Via the Back Door.” China Briefing News. Last modified August 9, 2021. https://www.china-briefing.com/news/how-british-business-can-access-chinas-new-18-trillion-asia-rcep-free-trade-agreement-via-the-back-door/.
2 Utopia S03E07 On the Defence