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Meet one of Singapore’s few female High Commissioners; New Zealand representative Bernadette Cavanagh

By: Katie Roberts

Vast mountain scenery, All Blacks rugby, kiwifruit and the Lord of The Rings films all spring to mind when you hear New Zealand mentioned. The High Commissioner of this beautiful country on the far side of the southern hemisphere, Her Excellency Bernadette Cavanagh, chatted with Expat Living about representing New Zealand in Singapore.

Bernadette Cavanagh 

The sun is barely up on a sweltering, sticky morning and there’s no hint of a breeze to cut through the humidity. It’s a normal Friday for Singapore, but at Kranji War Memorial, New Zealanders and Australians are chatting after the annual ANZAC Day dawn service, a traditional gathering for both countries to remember those who have served in the armed forces, past and present.

Having laid a wreath and given a speech, New Zealand’s High Commissioner Bernadette Cavanagh, in a tailored suit, cheerfully meets people, pausing to chat with decorated soldiers, fellow diplomats, children and adults alike. This is just one community aspect of the diverse role performed by New Zealand’s top representative in Singapore, one that highlights the past and bolsters the ongoing relationship between the two countries.

Many expats only interact with diplomatic representatives for passport and visa assistance, but it’s reassuring to know, when living so far from home, that a high commission, embassy or consulate is nearby. “In a country like Singapore, New Zealanders don’t need that much support from government agencies. So most of the 3,500 New Zealanders here carry on with their lives, and we don’t really come into contact with them. They get on with it, which is good,” she says.

Bernadette is 18 months into a four-year posting, having moved here from New York in January 2013. This shift was a change of scene for Bernadette and her husband Martin; in New York she was Deputy Permanent Representative at New Zealand’s Mission to the United Nations. “For small countries, the UN provides an international legal framework and a platform to speak from, something that is hard to find elsewhere,” she says of that incredible experience.

“When this opportunity arose we were excited to move to Singapore. I had previously worked as head of the Southeast Asia unit in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, so we were keen to live and work in Asia. Not to mention that it’s closer to New Zealand, and Singapore is an important partner of ours,” she says.

After completing school in Wellington, Bernadette, who hails from Te Kuiti, a small town on the North Island, did a public policy degree at university, also in the capital. Initially she found a job at the Ministry of Defence, but was soon seconded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. “It opened up a whole new world and I didn’t look back, working across a range of roles. My first posting and first time living overseas was in Moscow, which was incredible. We then went back to Wellington for a term and then to New York. It’s been an amazing opportunity and a huge honour to represent my country in three such diverse locations.”

New Zealand has maintained a resident High Commissioner in Singapore since independence in 1965, and Bernadette follows in the footsteps of the first female High Commissioner to Singapore, who was here from 1982 to 1985.

“The High Commission is here to advocate for New Zealand’s interest across a range of areas, but a key focus is trade and economic,” says Bernadette. “We support NZ exporters or Singaporean exporters to NZ; build defence, tourism, business, political and cultural links; offer consular support. We also support incoming visitors and delegations, and link them with appropriate Singaporean counterparts. Our population size is quite similar – roughly five million – so there are many things we can learn from each other.”

After the devastating Christchurch earthquake more than three years ago, Singapore contributed substantial fundraising efforts. A Singaporean army group that was in NZ at the time doing military exercises, immediately came and helped with the initial response.

“The media attention moved on, but for a year after the first quake, which caused dramatic damage, the ground did not stop moving. It was tough for people in Christchurch, the waiting. Now the land is stable, enormous work has gone into planning and demolition, and a lot of reconstruction will start this year. It’s taking time, but the city is recovering and there are exciting years ahead for Christchurch.”

As with most expats, Bernadette believes the benefits of a foreign posting definitely outweigh the negatives of living far from home and family. “Living in someone else’s country is special, and experiencing their culture gives you a useful view of your own country – both positive and negative. Certainly it gives you a greater appreciation and puts things into perspective.

“I’m now acutely aware how geographically isolated New Zealand is. From Singapore, it’s a two-hour flight to numerous countries; yet after two hours of flying from NZ we’ve not even made it to Australia or one of our Pacific neighbours yet! So, as a New Zealander, you have to work hard just to get out into the world, as often the rest of the world doesn’t see any reason to come to you, which can be a real challenge.

 “For me, it’s important to go back regularly to New Zealand to touch base. Countries change, and when you’ve been out of them for a few years you need to take a fresh look at the interests you’re representing.” 

Did You Know?
There are 12 female High Commissioners or Ambassadors in Singapore, a small percentage of the total number, but covering a range of countries big and small including Israel, Sri Lanka, Germany, Laos, Mongolia, Denmark, Nigeria, Canada, Egypt, India and South Africa.


New Zealand is responsible for a lot of food exports to Singapore 

Trade Talk
At 4.5 million, the size of New Zealand’s population is similar to that of Singapore and, despite the geographical distance, Singapore features in many of NZ’s Top 10 lists:

•Fourth-largest source of foreign investment

•Sixth-largest bilateral trading partner

•Ninth-largest source of visitors to NZ

New Zealand food exports to Singapore meet the need for high quality and a safe and secure supply. As well as dairy products, produce includes fish, beef, lamb, honey, fruit and vegetables – and let’s not forget the wine. NZ oil is shipped and refined here. Numerous high-tech products are available here, and star of the recent Yacht Show was the NZ-made super-yacht, Vertigo. And after nearly a decade’s absence, Air New Zealand is seeking approval to fly between NZ and Changi again from the end of this year.