BUSINESS TIMES - FRI, JUN 10, 2022
THE discovery of a new trade route between Europe and Asia around the Cape of Good Hope by the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, in 1498, was a pivotal moment in history. The encounter of continents and cultures brought about by the Portuguese voyages led to the rise of global trade and showed the need for a common set of norms for commercial interactions, safety of navigation and various exchanges, a process which many consider the first globalisation.
The legacy of the Portuguese presence in Southeast Asia through the 16th and 17th centuries can still be found in many dimensions of our lives: from linguistic influences to clothing, from religious celebrations to, of course, gastronomy. If it is common knowledge that Portugal’s iconic pastel de nata inspired the famous egg tart, fewer appreciate that, for instance, the curry puff initially arrived in the region by the hands of Portuguese spice traders in the form of empadas, a popular Portuguese snack.
Five centuries later, Portugal is once again setting the tone of globalisation. With an economic strategy emphasising sustainability and digital transformation, the country is strengthening its position as one of Europe’s main innovation hubs and top investment destinations.
A new centrality in the digital revolution
Due to a successful Covid-19 vaccination programme and the early lifting of restrictions, the recovery in Portugal began in 2021 and the economy is now growing consistently above the Eurozone average. Despite the geopolitical uncertainties and risks of inflation, the country is consolidating a knowledge-based economy within the European Union’s single market, with a unique connection to Portuguese-speaking countries and a vibrant startup scene.
The major strategic challenges taken on by Europe in the last decade, notably the green and digital transitions, have profoundly changed Portugal’s position on the global scene. Unlike past industrial milestones, where the lack of natural resources or its geographic location have put the country at disadvantage, digital transition is the first major economic revolution where Portugal has an excellent starting point.
In addition to having some of the best wines, olive oil brands and seafood dishes in the world, my country hosts many digital nomads and companies developing technologies that are reshaping the global society in several industries. High profile technology events like the Web Summit were brought to the shores of Lisbon too, raising the country’s profile as a tech and innovation hub in recent years.
But let’s face it: this is also happening because Portugal is an incredibly enjoyable place to live in and visit, as a growing number of Singaporeans are realising. With high levels of peace and stability – ranked 4th by the Global Peace Index in 2021 – Portugal is blessed by long hours of sunshine, mild temperatures, amazing beaches and the Atlantic winds. Ingredients that have made the tourism sector thrive and, simultaneously, helped Portugal accelerate its shift to renewable energies.
On the road to a decarbonised economy
Just like Singapore, Portugal is a maritime nation increasingly affected by climate change. For that reason, Portugal is leading the energy transition process in the EU and was the first country in the world to take on the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Due to a favourable geography and a sound investment in green energy, Portugal’s share of electricity from renewables is among the highest in the world (62 per cent) and representing around 1.6 per cent of the country’s GDP.
One of the most successful stories in this journey has certainly been the one of EDP Energias de Portugal, a global energy transition leader. EDP has recently acquired the majority of Sunseap Group, a Singapore-based company and reference in solar generation, with more than 600 employees and exposure to 8 countries in the region. This movement uniting two leaders in energy strengthens the ties between both countries in the quest towards cleaner, more reliable, more affordable and more secure energy.
But there is more. The Portuguese government also plans to invest 3 per cent of the country’s GDP to support climate-related research and innovation by 2030. A good example of this commitment is the 7 billion euro investment foreseen in the framework of the National Hydrogen Strategy. This strategy aims at increasing the share of hydrogen in the final energy consumption to 5 per cent by the end of the decade, reducing natural gas imports and creating thousands of jobs.
Rediscovering the seas
Between June 27 June and July 1 this year, Lisbon will host the United Nations Ocean Conference, co-hosted by Portugal and Kenya. An event that comes at a critical time as the world is strengthening its efforts to realise the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, starting a new chapter in international ocean governance. The fact that this conference is held in Portugal is no coincidence.
With the largest Exclusive Economic Zone in the EU and the 10th largest worldwide, Portugal has a fundamental strategic priority in the sustainable management of the oceans. Our seas are a key development vector through fishing, shipbuilding and repair or marine transport, not to mention tourism. However, the importance of the oceans goes far beyond traditional maritime activities.
Portugal holds a strategic position in the Atlantic front and in the crossroads of important shipping routes, notably through the deep-water Port of Sines. In fact, Singapore’s investment in the Port of Sines, where PSA’s subsidiary – PSA Sines – operates the Sines Container Terminal since the 2000, contributed tremendously to Portugal’s emergence in global logistics and in the world economy. PSA Sines is currently investing in the terminal’s expansion with a view to double the terminal’s handling capacity from the current 2 million to 4 million containers a year by 2025.
The Portuguese government, in turn, is investing in a new motorway stretch and improved rail links which will greatly reduce the transit length, as well as time and cost of operations between the Port of Sines and the rest of Europe. At the same time, a call for bids on a second Sines Container Terminal (named after Vasco da Gama) will soon be launched, raising the terminal handling capacity to 8 million containers per year.
Shaping the globalisation of tomorrow
In an open and connected world, talent is second to none. In addition to being a welcoming society, the availability and quality of talent, as well as creativity, audacity and a high level of English proficiency have become key factors to make Portugal a premium investment destination. Recognising the challenges of globalisation, Portuguese universities and research centres have been at the forefront of the country’s recent transformations.
Allow me to share a few important figures. According to the OECD, Portugal has currently the third highest ratio of graduates in engineering at European level and nearly 30 per cent of higher education graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In economics and management, four Portuguese business schools were once again placed in the Top 50 of Financial Times Executive Education Combined Ranking of 2022. In this journey, a growing number of foreign students (including many Singaporeans) have found in Portugal an ideal environment in which to fulfil their dreams. Foreigners represent over 15 per cent of the total number of students enrolled in Portuguese universities.
In the same way that Vasco da Gama’s expedition was made possible by great improvements in maritime technology and oceanographic information, investments in knowledge and people will continue to be at the heart of Portugal’s development strategy, shaping the globalisation of tomorrow.
The writer is Ambassador of Portugal in Singapore. Portugal celebrates its National Day on June 10.