Seminar on “Portuguese Influence in Southeast Asia: The Past and the Future by João Cravinho”

In this hybrid seminar, Portugal’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, João Gomes Cravinho, presented on the diplomatic relationship between Portugal and Southeast Asia.


Friday, 20 January 2022 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute played host to Portugal’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, João Gomes Cravinho, to hear his thoughts about the historical and contemporary relationship between Portugal and Singapore as well as the broader region. Before taking office as foreign minister, Dr Cravinho was the Minister of National Defence (2018-2022) and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation (2005-2011). He also served as the European Union Ambassador to India (2011-2015) and Brazil (2015-2018). The hybrid seminar was attended by over 70 participants both onsite and virtually.

Speaker Dr João Gomes Cravinho (right) with Dr Ian Storey as moderator. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Cravinho noted the longevity of Portuguese ties to the region, which began five centuries ago. As one of the first Europeans to arrive and establish contact with the region, the Portuguese presence was first in Siam (as Thailand was then known) and Hoi An (in Vietnam) in the 16th century.

The legacies of the Portuguese presence continue to trickle down today. The language and culture of the region continue to bear traces of the colonial encounter with Portugal. For instance, Kristang, which features a mix of Portuguese and Malay, is still spoken in Malacca and Singapore. There is also the influence of Malay on the Portuguese language and vice-versa. Additionally, it was the Portuguese Jesuit priest Francisco de Pina who, after having been the first European to learn Vietnamese, invented the first Latinized script of the Vietnamese language. Portugal also had a hand in seeding Singapore’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. Jose d’Almeida, a former naval surgeon-turned-merchant from Portugal and an early settler in colonial Singapore, was one of the two co-founders of what would later evolve into the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Dr Cravinho also noted how an event in February 1603, which intersects Portugal and Singapore, continues to have ramifications today. It concerns the seizure of the Portuguese vessel Santa Catarina by Dutch sailors off the coast of Singapore. To defend the seizure of the bounty in court, the Dutch East India Company hired Hugo Grotius. To advance his legal arguments, Grotius developed the concept of “mare liberum”—or freedom of the sea—an important idea in international law that persists up till today.

Dr Cravinho underscored the importance of the maritime domain, describing how Portugal sees the sea as a “space of connectivity”. After all, it was maritime routes that brought Portugal to Southeast Asia. In that vein, he identified the freedom of navigation as the “cornerstone” of the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). He regarded UNCLOS as “customary international law” while praising Singapore’s role in 1982 in facilitating such a “significant breakthrough”.

According to Dr Cravinho, Portugal and Singapore, both share the belief that freedom of navigation and free trade is the basis of economic development. However, maritime nations that prioritise free trade and connectivity must be aware of the consequences of climate change, including rising sea levels. This is why, Dr Cravinho explained, Portugal is greatly committed to the protection of the oceans and advocates for the “ocean-climate nexus” to be brought to the international agenda. He added that the responsibility to protect the oceans should not be seen as a “burden” since the oceans are also a potential source of economic opportunities, such as in aquaculture and pharmaceuticals.

Dr Cravinho briefly discussed what he saw as the “significant erosion of international norms, international law and the international order”. He commended Singapore’s “clear position” with respect to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He warned that issues in the European continent are not too “remote” from Southeast Asia and thus deserve close attention, acknowledging that Europe will similarly be scrutinising the developments in the Indo-Pacific. He affirmed the need to strengthen EU-ASEAN relations, especially in terms of a commitment to multilateralism, sustainable development, open and inclusive seas, and cooperation to address global challenges such as protecting marine biodiversity and fighting against marine pollution, and promoting cybersecurity. Dr Cravinho also mentioned Portugal’s “fraternal relations” with Timor-Leste, expressing Lisbon’s hope that the fledging state will be made a full member of ASEAN soon.

During the Q&A session, Dr Cravinho fielded questions on Timor-Leste’s future, enhancing people-to-people relations. and prospects for business and trade cooperation between Portugal and Singapore. He also shared his insights about how to maintain stability amidst the potential stresses and strains on the international system as well as Portugal’s stance on the South China Sea issue and the idea of “sovereignty”.

The hybrid seminar was attended by over 70 participants both onsite and virtually. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)