Conversations | By Zhou Xizhuang Michael, Editor-in-Chief
For Mr Abensour, Singapore's responsiveness to global trends was what first struck him.
In Singapore, “you can perceive global trends immediately and what is going on in the world,” the French Ambassador shares about his first impressions of the city-state in an interview with The Convergence.
HE Mr Marc Abensour currently serves as the Ambassador of France to Singapore and is a career diplomat. Previously, he had served at the French Embassy in China, in the United States and at the French Permanent Representation to NATO in Brussels.
Since Mr Abensour’s arrival in November 2016, France and Singapore have witnessed a deepening of relations and strengthening of partnerships.
Common among these new partnerships is a focus on innovation and digitalisation.
In 2018 alone, France and Singapore celebrated the Year of Innovation (YoI) and inked numerous Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) aimed at deepening partnerships and cooperation.
“Instead, we thought that we have something in common, which is that we are promoting what I would characterise as a responsible and inclusive innovation. So, we decided that innovation should also serve social purposes" - HE Mr Marc Abensour, French Ambassador to Singapore
When asked about the strategic value behind the YoI, Mr Abensour highlights that a cornerstone of the partnership is a shared understanding that innovation development is not an end in itself.
“What is also very important is that we, since the very beginning, thought that we are not engaging in this year of innovation just for the sake of developing innovation.”
“Instead, we thought that we have something in common, which is that we are promoting what I would characterise as a responsible and inclusive innovation. So, we decided that innovation should also serve social purposes,” says the veteran diplomat.
Besides from YoI, Prime Minister Lee and French President Macron had also signed the Road Map for Deepening Cooperation in Digital Innovation, Internet Governance, and Cybersecurity last July.
Speaking on the Roadmap's significance, the Ambassador suggests that it all comes down to the need for a “framework”, especially for the private sector.
“If you don't provide them with a certain framework, what I would call as smart regulations, actually the private sector has not had all the tools to develop innovation," Mr Abensour elaborates.
Besides, the roadmap helps to create "broadly-shared rules of the game within the cyberspace.”Such rules, in turn, ensure the cyberspace "remains open, mutual, accessible to everyone,” Mr Abensour adds.
Optimism remains for Singapore and ASEAN amid U.S.-China trade tensions
While the United States and China might have taken a step back from the brink of an all-out trade war, trade relations between the two global powers remain tenuous at best.
Singapore and other regional economies have begun to feel the ripples of the trade war. As a small and open economy, Singapore is heavily reliant on global trade.
However, the trade impasse between the United States and China has led to disruptions to global supply chains and affected business confidence and consumer demand.
Should a global economic slowdown persist, this would naturally have strong repercussions for Singapore's economy.
But Mr Abensour thinks that the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA), which was approved by the EU earlier this year, can do much to lift the region's dampened economic mood.
Calling the FTA a “timely measure”, the French diplomat posits that the agreement sends out a positive signal that free and fair trade remains a relevant proposition.
Even that is not enough, however.
At the moment, numerous FTAs are also under discussion with other ASEAN members.
“The perspective is to have several FTAs with some ASEAN members, to have building blocks leading to an EU-ASEAN FTA in the long run,” says the Ambassador on implications the EUSFTA may have on ASEAN.
“It is important to have this perspective in mind because it is politically meaningful,” he explains.
Multilateralism is not going away
On whether youths will continue to have faith in multilateralism amid global setbacks, Mr Abensour rejoins that it is less of having faith than a “belief” in multilateralism as the guarantor of “peace and stability”.
The strength of a multilateral system, Mr Abensour emphasises, lies in its predictability and consensus-based mechanisms.
Unexpectedly, the Ambassador admits that a multilateral process may seem frustratingly “slow” and “exhausting”.
Nevertheless, Mr Abensour stands firmly by the belief that the ability to bring people together makes multilateralism "a very strong process" that builds “predictability and consensus.”
More important, however, is the ability for governments to see youths as responsible actors and strong assets to solve global problems such as climate change and immigration.
“We should welcome and invite them to be more involved,”he urges.
Different cultures, shared purpose
As the interview gets into the topic of culture, the Ambassador’s eyes are all light up, perhaps in delight of finally engaging in a topic less heavy.
After all, the interview has been on 'big' topics like bilateral relations, globalisation and trade.On a more serious note, cultural cooperation between France and Singapore has been nothing short of remarkable.
For example, Singapore signed a government-to-government agreement in 2009 on cultural cooperation with France – the first of its kind.
But Mr Abensour thinks that cultural cooperation between France and Singapore “is not by chance”; neither does he think that cooperation would be impeded by geography.
Instead, Mr Abensour suggests that the two countries are drawn together by a shared appreciation of what culture can do for the betterment of society.
“At the same time, we also believe that the government should serve some social purposes. In culture, you can create an environment which will be beneficial for the society,” he says.
Making reference to Singapore’s diverse collection of museums, Mr Abensour also suggests that a well-developed cultural infrastructure has helped Singapore to boost its attractiveness.
And as France and Singapore see eye to eye on culture as a “factor of attractiveness”, he continues, bilateral cooperation in culture intensifies.
A diplomat like no other
When The Convergence asked Mr Abensour what advice he would give to aspiring youths who wish to join the foreign service, he said that they have to “remain curious”.
Being a diplomat is more than having the ability to adjust to diverse situations. Instead, a good diplomat needs to be curious enough to appreciate and understand different cultures, too.
"By this, I mean that you should try to get real insight about what is specific to what culture and not making judgements but just trying to understand how things work," Mr Abensour elaborates.
This is not the first time in this interview that Mr Abensour impresses with his down-to-earth, charismatic, yet straightforward reply.
Though not a sophisticated or polished response one would typically expect from an ambassador, his point on curiosity says much about his character and demeanour as a diplomat: sincere, humble and pragmatic.
Then again, as Monsieur l'Ambassadeur had claimed at the beginning of this interview, “I am not typical French diplomat”.
Merci et au revoir!
For more information on events and activities organised by the French Embassy in Singapore, please visit https://sg.ambafrance.org/-English-.
Check out French cultural events in Singapore here: https://www.voilah.sg/.
Want to know what is the Ambassador's favourite local food or what he does first thing in the morning? Check out our video below!