Covid-19 pandemic reinforced importance of maintaining links between countries and peoples: Teo Chee Hean

SINGAPORE – The Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the importance of maintaining links among countries and peoples, Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean said on Friday (Aug 21).

It has shown how such connections cannot be taken for granted, Mr Teo added.

He was speaking at the opening of an online conference titled “China and the Maritime Silk Road: Shipwrecks, Ports and Products”, organised by the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM).

The three-day event comes ahead of the opening of an exhibition at the Shanghai Museum next month that will showcase highlights of the ACM’s Tang Shipwreck Collection in China for the first time.

“The Tang Shipwreck Collection gives us a sense of the history of past eras, and allows us to better appreciate the links that have connected civilisations through the ages,” he said.

“This is especially important in an increasingly interconnected world which offers much promise, but in a world where, unfortunately, isolationist sentiments in many countries can also be amplified. So, it is all the more important that we continue to reach out to each other and strengthen the interconnections that we have.”

In his speech, Mr Teo noted how the digital format of the event is part of a “new normal”, and shows how history is replete with examples of how people find ways to continue to interact between societies and civilisations, in spite of obstacles and challenges.

“It is when interactions take place, with open exchanges of trade, goods, cultures, ideas and people, that human civilisation as a whole advances,” he said, adding that the online event enables the ACM to reach an even wider audience.

ACM will also host the “Yongle, Wanli – Emperors of the Ming” exhibition in November, which will feature loans from the Palace Museum in Beijing, and Mr Teo said he was glad that the museums have made efforts to carry on with these exhibitions within current restrictions, “as it is important to continue our cross-cultural exchanges and collaborations”.

Both exhibitions commemorate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Singapore and China this year.

“They showcase the historical breadth and depth of our bilateral relationship, which continues to grow from strength to strength with each generation,” said Mr Teo.

He added that the Tang collection is a tangible demonstration of the longstanding historical links between China, South-east Asia and the Middle East, which continue to flourish today.

Mr Teo had, on Thursday, visited the Tang collection at the ACM with China’s top diplomat, Mr Yang Jiechi, who was in town on a three-day visit.

The collection contains some 60,000 ceramics, as well as luxurious objects of gold and silver, that paint a picture of the rich exchanges since at least the 9th century, along the Maritime Silk Road that runs from the Middle East to India, South-east Asia and China.

The shipwreck was discovered near Belitung Island off Sumatra in 1998, and confirmed that South-east Asia lay at the heart of this maritime trading network.

On Friday, Mr Teo said the vessel itself demonstrates these interconnections – an Arab dhow made of timber sewn together in the style of the Persian Gulf, with wood from Africa and repaired with materials native to India and Southeast Asia, likely bound for present-day Iraq and Iran.

He noted that one of the artefacts that will be on display in Shanghai is a blue-and-white decorated dish – produced in China, but decorated with brilliant blue cobalt glaze, which was mined in Iran and unavailable in China at the time, and a lozenge motif with flowers or leaves at the corners, a design favoured in the Middle East.

Mr Teo added that Singapore has been a key node along the ancient Maritime Silk Road, and continues to be a hub for trade and exchange of ideas today.

He also reiterated Singapore’s support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to rekindle these Silk Road links – over land and sea.

Singapore, he said, “sees the benefit of enhanced connectivity and development in the Silk Road Spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit”.

A key part of building mutual respect and understanding lies in cultural and historical exchanges, he added, noting that both countries’ cultural institutions have built strong relationships over the years, and enjoy frequent and extensive exchanges.

“The Tang Shipwreck Collection tells the story of how we have all connected and worked together over centuries to overcome challenges together and achieve shared prosperity and human progress,” he said.

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