Investment pathways in Singapore for Italian firms

A year after his appointment, Ambassador Mario Vattani shares his commitment to support the Italian businesses in the Asian city-state, presenting its achievements so far and its plans for the future.

Could you give us your impressions of your new role and describe some of the challenges?

We have just moved the embassy headquarters. This is more than a simple relocation; it represents a clear sign that Italy is conscious of Singapore’s growing relevance in this region. Southeast Asia will play an increasingly strategic role over the next 20 years, and Singapore is of special importance. Previously, the Singapore embassy was relatively small, with limited staff. However, our companies have long used Singapore as a base for access to the region. The opening of the new Embassy headquarters is part of a shift to having a greater presence here, coinciding with the arrival of a scientific attaché and the opening of the defense office and a Bank of Italy office.

In the post-pandemic phase, we have seen an increase in geopolitical tensions and uncertainties. Singapore has strengthened its position as a safe harbor in these turbulent seas. What are the factors behind the success of the city-state?

There are various factors. Changes in Hong Kong in recent years have, of course, contributed. We are also witnessing a constant flow of professionals and companies from China, especially from Shanghai. When I arrived, this process had already begun, so we could expand on it. The advantage is that we can now show Singaporeans there has been a change of pace. The result is that Italy has greater visibility now, both for our representative offices and our companies. 

Mario Vattani

Since I have taken office, we have launched visible initiatives in the city. For example, the first Italian Festival was organized following a formula I had already used successfully in Japan, where I was head of the Economic Department of the Tokyo Embassy. The basic idea is to launch a series of activities under the same brand without limiting ourselves to classic Italian industries like food, fashion, and tourism. We have also promoted events on science, technology, and research. We must raise awareness about Italy’s scientific, technological, and innovation excellence. Singapore is not a manufacturing hub and, unlike other countries, it is not intimately acquainted with our production systems and mechanics. Japan has been importing high technology made in Italy for decades, while in Singapore our products are better known above all. Yet we have large companies present here, such as Fincantieri, Leonardo, and hi-tech brands like MER MEC. One of our most prominent construction materials companies, Mapei, is active in the construction of the new Tuas Mega Port. Italian technology is present in many iconic Singapore locations, from Gardens by the Bay to the subway system. We took advantage of the recent Formula One Grand Prix, which truly represented Singapore’s return to the international stage after the pandemic, showcasing all the top Italian companies that are linked to the world of Formula One. Not only the racing car manufacturers, like Ferrari, but companies that provide infrastructure, like DZ Engineering, or tires like Pirelli.

What approach should start-ups, entrepreneurs, or business people adopt when thinking of doing business in Southeast Asia?

Our method is to observe the priorities which Singapore identifies for its future vision, such as the Green Plan or the 30-by-30 challenge to increase local food production, and adapt to their strategy by offering partnerships and collaborations with operators in the Italian economy. Singapore’s administrators are rightly proud of their accomplishments in the last decades, and we must show them that we are the right partner. Italy was selected as the only partner country to host the National Design Centre during Design Week, with a very interesting exhibition on new sustainable materials and with Italian startups who recycle in an innovative way. Now, thanks to the relocation, we have the tools to ensure a more proactive approach. We have a new showroom, Sala Italia, at our headquarters at the center of the city’s Financial District where we can put on exhibitions. It is already in operation, and the renowned historian Giordano Bruno Guerri has just come here for a conference on D’Annunzio. Pirelli has also held a show here. I have signed two provisions that make both the residence and the Sala Italia available to companies for their promotional needs.

What is the situation in terms of scientific and technological cooperation?

The agreement was signed in 2016, but the executive protocol was missing. Since we arrived we have set about reactivating it. Now it’s finally up and running. There will also be several projects linked to startups where we have some ground to cover. The advantage of Singapore is that there is a vast pool of talent here. It is like a giant research laboratory; it has enormous potential.

Is Singapore an attractive place? 

It absolutely is. Singapore’s administration is top-level, and Singaporean representatives are listened to and respected all over the world. Singapore is playing a challenging role, thanks to its stability and strategic position. I would add that for Italy, it is also interesting to learn lessons for managing a multi-ethnic society effectively. In the same way, we value the opportunity to share experiences in the fight against terrorism and radicalization. These are issues on which bilateral dialogue can be deepened.

"Jewel" at Changi Airport, Singapore

In your opinion, what do Singaporeans think about Italy?

There is a great deal of curiosity on the part of the Singapore authorities toward the new government. One of the reasons is the role of Italy in the Mediterranean. We are seen as a country that has managed to build a very close network with all the countries of the Mediterranean. There is also interest in how we responded to the problem of energy supply and the way our companies operate. Furthermore, in terms of corporate partnership, Italian companies are seen as capable partners that can closely analyze the needs of Singapore and adapt their offerings to the reality of the city-state. The affinity between Singapore and Italy also concerns the way in which the Peninsula is perceived– not too dissimilarly from how Singapore sees itself.

They look a lot to Europe and to partners like Italy. We, too, are considered something of a frontier country, extending deep into the Mediterranean, with North Africa, with all its opportunities and problems, just on the other side. The dialogue goes beyond just economic issues. They see us as partners with whom to compare and share insights for the near future. 

Singapore is an open country, where it is easy to open offices and which can be an ideal platform for business ventures in Southeast Asia. Technology and investments play a leading role: with two sovereign funds, GIC and Temasek, Singapore is present, through the latter, in the port of Genoa and in the Moncler brand.

It’s not surprising that in recent years we have seen a significant increase in the number of Italian companies operating in Singapore. This growth is a concrete demonstration of the opportunities and benefits that Singapore offers to our companies today.