Sunday, 24 November 2019

Singapore must build bridges, not walls: Heng Swee Keat at ST Global Outlook Forum

Republic needs to work with like-minded partners to keep world open, says DPM
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 23 Nov 2019

As the world builds walls, Singapore must go against the tide and build bridges, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.

To do so, it must work with like-minded partners to keep the world open, he added. There would be severe implications if the conflict between China and the United States "bifurcated" the world.

"The free, open and rules-based international order is under stress. If countries wall up, or if there is a new Iron Curtain, the cost to Singapore will be significant," Mr Heng said. "Trade is our lifeblood, and multilateralism is how small countries like us have a place in the world."

He was speaking at the annual The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum, which focuses on the political and economic situation in Asia. OCBC Premier Banking is the event's presenting sponsor.

In his speech, Mr Heng highlighted three events that deepened existing fault lines and erected new walls across the world.

These are the Sept 11 terror attacks in the US, the global financial crisis of 2008, and the escalation of the US-China trade war this year.

The conflict between the two big powers is not just about trade, but a contest for global influence and leadership, Mr Heng said, adding that the bifurcation of technology and supply chains is "a real possibility".

"The implications would be far greater now than during the Cold War, because in the decades since, our economies, our societies have become increasingly intertwined," he added.

"We have to go against the current tide, as we cannot afford to be a walled community. Our economy must remain open because trade is our lifeblood. Our society must remain open because diversity is our strength."

At the same time, ASEAN countries must come together. "All of us need to start thinking and acting regionally," Mr Heng said, noting that the region is a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy global outlook.

Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, stressed the importance of a strong economy in keeping Singapore relevant and creating good jobs for Singaporeans. Trust in society breaks down when people lose hope in the future, he added.

But even as Singapore undergoes an economic transformation, the Government will stay committed to investing in its people so that they can access new opportunities.

Mr Heng reiterated the Government's commitment to strengthening social safety nets for those who are unable to keep pace with change.

"Our commitment to our people is that even as we create new opportunities, no one will be left behind, no one will be shut out," he said. "As long as they are willing to work hard, we will support them to make a better life for themselves and their families."

Mr Heng also took part in a dialogue moderated by Mr Warren Fernandez, editor of The Straits Times and editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/ Malay/ Tamil Media Group.

Mr Heng said that any strain in the US-China relationship would affect not just Singapore, but all the ASEAN members.

Beyond the trade war, the US-China tension is "a contest of government systems", with differences on a range of issues such as the environment, human rights, free speech and the economy.

Calling the current state of the relationship "worrying", Mr Heng said it is "a difficult adjustment for both sides" with one being an emerging global power and the other the incumbent power.

Singaporeans ought to know ASEAN neighbours better: Heng Swee Keat at ST Global Outlook Forum
More students will be exposed to Asia and region through internships, study exchanges and work attachments
By Fabian Koh, The Straits Times, 23 Nov 2019

When he was Education Minister, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat was told by his staff that the budget for students to travel to Asia for education programmes was underutilised.

Unlike the funds allocated for trips to America and Europe, which are more popular destinations, the Asia account was not used much, and they asked if the funds could be reallocated to the more popular programmes.

"I said 'no', I disagreed. We should help our people understand Asia better. Young people should not assume that just because we are in Asia, we know Asia. So I'm not going to make a change - on the contrary, I may reallocate more to Asia," said Mr Heng.

He shared this anecdote yesterday at a dialogue at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum, moderated by Mr Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/Malay/Tamil Media Group and editor of The Straits Times, to emphasise the importance of Singaporeans knowing their immediate neighbours.

"Today, with global travel, budget airlines and social media and the Internet, our people, especially our young, are exposed to all parts of the world," he said. "We sometimes assume that we know our closest neighbour, but we don't."

In his speech, Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, said Singapore will encourage Singaporeans to venture into South-east Asia through study exchanges, work attachments and internships.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) is doing more to support students keen to learn a third language, especially regional ones such as Malay and Bahasa Indonesia, he noted.

"We will also work towards exposing more students to Asia and the region through internships and overseas learning journeys," he said, adding that MOE is reviewing how it can further enhance tertiary students' engagement with the region.

There will also be opportunities for Singaporeans in their working years, Mr Heng added, citing the Global Innovation Alliance that links companies to overseas tech and business communities, and has set up nodes in three ASEAN cities - Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok - as well as 10 other cities.

At the dialogue, Mr Heng said "ASEAN as a group is not a small entity" and can work together to engage major powers, especially with tensions high between the United States and China. Emphasising the need to uphold the concept of ASEAN centrality, he said Singapore has to maintain its links to all parties.

With ASEAN projected to become the world's fourth-largest economy by 2030, Mr Heng said it is still "a work in progress" and its success will be determined by how well member states work together.

"The projection is a projection. Whether or not we can reach it depends very much on how hard we work at it in the coming years. In terms of the ideal of a common market, a common production base, it is always a work in progress."

Mr Heng identified areas that ASEAN needed to cooperate further, including the service sector and the removal of non-tariff barriers, such as regulatory ones. It should create a common standard, particularly for protecting the integrity of data and ensuring cyber security in the digital economy.

There could also be greater cooperation in areas such as food, drugs and medicine, he said. "I don't think we are ready for an ASEAN common currency, but step by step there are many things we can work towards."

He added: "If you look at ASEAN year by year, it looks like a snail's progress. But if you look at it over a decade, you wonder, wow, there's so much progress made. I think we need to take the same attitude, and just keep making progress with like-minded countries. We start with whatever can be done, and be practical about it and address each other's concerns."

During the dialogue, Mr Heng also shared his thoughts about the protests in Hong Kong since June.

"I think it is very worrying, in particular, the violence. I used to be a police officer. So when I look at the videos and what is happening, the police officers in Hong Kong have been facing a very tough time. They are doing their best to maintain law and order. It's not easy when you have that level of violence. It is of concern to everyone."

Mr Heng said that "a very deep fault line" has opened up in Hong Kong society, and the protest has moved beyond the immediate cause of the since-withdrawn extradition Bill, to other socio-economic issues.

He also said Singapore's history, celebrated in this year's Bicentennial celebrations, has always been one of adaptability and planning for the future.

"If you look at Singapore's developments over the years, our fortunes float with the world. Whatever happens, we are always a part of the world, and regional powers and regional rivalries cause us to go up or go down. But the fact that we survived and prospered over the years, is because we have very adaptable people," said Mr Heng.

"It is not realistic for us to expect the world to adapt to us. And whatever changes in the world, whether it's geopolitics, whether it's new economic relationships, whether it's new technology or new social trends, we have to adapt to the world and make the best of it."

Mr Heng said that, as a small country, Singapore is not in a position to threaten or dominate anyone in the world. But it has its own way to remain useful and relevant to others, and can operate nimbly.

"Because we are small, hopefully we can be far better coordinated in Singapore, and in that way we can be a pathfinder for many things."

He said Singapore having one layer of government makes experimentation easier for things such as digital and financial technology.

"Let us think not in the short term, what is going to happen in the next three months or six months or the next one year. Let us think far ahead," he said.

For example, since Singapore knows that the climate change battle is going to cost $100 billion over a hundred years, it can start saving up for that, he added.

Singapore must build bridges as walls come up
The Straits Times, 23 Nov 2019

Trade is Singapore's lifeblood and diversity its strength. For these reasons, it must continue to seek connections even as the world becomes more divided, says Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum yesterday. This is an edited excerpt of his keynote speech.

As we close a very eventful 2019, many of us look to 2020 with both hope and anxiety.

Let me add some historical context to our discussion. Because this month 30 years ago, the Berlin Wall fell. This was a significant moment, not just for Europe, but the whole world. It marked the end of the Cold War.

There was a sense of triumphalism and even hubris among Western liberal democracies. They believed that the world would henceforth have no alternative to the values of Western-style democracy, civil liberties and capitalism. Francis Fukuyama went as far as to call it "the end of history". But the world did not turn out that way.

True, the end of two blocs enabled a freer flow of people, goods and services. But the world we are in today is still marked by conflicts, divisions and differences.

The Berlin Wall came down, but other walls went up.


Let me talk about three watershed events that have brought underlying fault lines to the fore, and caused new walls to be erected.

The first is Sept 11, 2001. The attacks were devastating, and left a deep and profound impact on our psyche and worldview, even for those who were not directly affected by the event.

It changed our approach to security, and how we deal with religious extremism and non-state actors. It also fractured many societies and turned communities, some which had lived side by side for decades, against one another.

Walls along ethnic and religious lines were erected - between nations and within societies.

Almost two decades since the 9/11 attacks, these divides have not gone away. Conflicts along racial and religious lines have intensified. Through social media, these divides have been amplified. Some segments of society have now retreated into exclusive circles and echo chambers and are no longer able, or willing, to see the views of those who are different from or who disagree with them.

The second event is the Global Financial Crisis in 2008.


That was the worst global recession since the Great Depression. It exposed the imperfections of capital markets. The hubris that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall unravelled. It was followed by the Occupy Movement that started in Wall Street, but was replicated in many parts of the world, including Asia. It was a protest against the greed and recklessness of the elites, and the governments that bailed them out.

While the global economy has recovered, the benefits of growth continue to be unevenly distributed. The playing field has become more uneven due to globalisation and technology. With digital technologies, where the winner takes all, the pressure will intensify. Jobs and livelihoods are being disrupted.

Governments around the world have not done enough to address this. The unhappiness is now boiling over. We see these played out in the Yellow Vest movement in France, Brexit in the UK, unrest in Chile; and protests in Hong Kong - which have turned increasingly violent.

The social compact is fraying in many societies. The gap between those with the resources and skills to thrive and those without is widening. If left unaddressed, this would lead to worsening social unrest, making cities and states ungovernable.


The third event is the dramatic escalation of US-China competition this year.

Global economic growth has dampened. Singapore avoided a technical recession in the third quarter, and our growth in 2020 is expected to pick up modestly.

The latest talk of a "Phase 1" limited trade deal offers some respite, but both sides are still quite far from a new model of constructive cooperation.

The US-China conflict is not just about trade. It is a strategic competition between two major powers - the incumbent and an emerging one - for global influence and leadership.

It is also about differences in their systems of governance and how their societies are organised, which stem from their own histories, cultures and values. And how they should share global responsibilities and opportunities, in areas like trade and climate change.

The bifurcation of technology and supply chains is a real possibility. The implications would be far greater now than during the Cold War because in the decades since, our economies, our societies have become increasingly intertwined.

The free, open and rules-based international order is under stress. If countries wall up, or if there is a new Iron Curtain, the cost to Singapore will be significant, because trade is our lifeblood and multilateralism is how small countries like us can have a place in the world.

It has been 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but many more walls have come up, between the competing major powers, and also within societies, across cultural, social and economic lines.

Looking ahead, our world will remain fragmented, volatile and uncertain. How should Singapore respond?


Navigating the challenges will not be easy. We have to go against the current tide as we cannot afford to be a walled community. Our economy must remain open because trade is our lifeblood. Our society must also remain open because diversity is our strength.

In short - in a world of walls, we must build bridges.

To do so, we must stay united as one people, we have to renew and strengthen our social compact, we need to work with like-minded partners, especially in our region, to keep our world open.

We have come a long way as one people. A mosque in Joo Chiat has been distributing oranges to its neighbours for Chinese New Year for more than 20 years. Earlier this year, a church hosted members of the Muslim community to an iftar in their church during Ramadan. Just last week, I witnessed a Teochew foundation donate millions of dollars to an arts college founded by a Catholic order.

Collaboration across races and religions may be a common sight in Singapore. But it is not the case in other parts of the world today.

We too had to learn cohesion the hard way. Our early days of nationhood were marked by racial tensions, and our diverse cultures and ethnicities mean that our social fabric continues to feel the tugs and pulls of events happening in other parts of the world.

Therefore, we must never let our guard down, especially when the world around us has become increasingly polarised.

Over the years, we have taken deliberate steps to strengthen cohesion. These include:

• Institutional structures, such as the Inter-Religious Organisation, which strengthens understanding and trust across different faiths;

• Policies - such as the Ethnic Integration Policy for HDB flats - to improve social mixing; and

• Legislation to deal with hate speech and misinformation.

The aim of these policies is not to minimise or paper over our diversity. We want to prevent walls from being erected and instead create more common space for our peoples to share their experiences and views, to deepen mutual understanding and respect. In this way, our differences will become a source of strength, and not a source of fear and division.

This is also why I launched the Singapore Together movement earlier in June; to create more opportunities for Singaporeans to come forth and build our society; to harness the passion, creativity, and can-do spirit of our people to build our future Singapore.

Because Singaporeans today are more diverse than ever before - we have different hopes and dreams for Singapore, and harnessing this can be a great strength.

We want to work with Singaporeans so that we can bring everyone together, expand our common space, and harness our diversity as strength; so that we build up a reservoir of mutual trust and respect, that will allow us to collectively navigate the challenges and uncertainties ahead.


To stay united as one people, we must progress together so that every individual has the opportunity to build and enjoy a better life, for themselves and their children. This is a basic premise that underpins every society.

And when it frays - when people lose hope in the future - their trust in society breaks down.

To give everyone a stake in our future, we must continue to transform our economy and businesses. We need a strong economy to remain relevant globally, to create good jobs for the broad majority, and to have the resources for our development.

Given how small we are, we would be inconsequential if we were not economically successful.

To keep our economy vibrant and growing, we have to build good connectivity with Asia and the world; leverage on our status as a trusted financial centre, with a strong rule of law; and build up frontier capabilities, such as the national artificial intelligence strategy.

At the same time, we must stay committed to investing in our people, to enable them to access these new economic opportunities. And we have done so - from preschool, to schools, to higher education, and lifelong learning.

But this alone is not enough, as not everyone is able to keep pace. Therefore, we have to strengthen our social safety nets to ensure housing, education and healthcare remain accessible and affordable to all, to do more for the vulnerable among us.

And our commitment to our people is that even as we create new opportunities, no one will be left behind, no one will be shut out. As long as they are willing to work hard, we will support them to make a better life for themselves and their families.


Finally, we need to work together not only as one nation, but also internationally with like-minded partners. In particular, we must be connected to our region.

Without a peaceful, stable and prosperous South-east Asia, Singapore will not do well either.

South-east Asia is a bright spot in the global economy, and our regional integration efforts have borne fruit. South-east Asia is projected to be the fourth largest economy by 2030, after the US, China and the EU.

With a growing middle class, the demand for goods and services will grow, ranging from online retail to hipster coffee. South-east Asia's digital and start-up economy is growing rapidly. The many success stories bear testament to this.

Companies like Tokopedia and Gojek from Indonesia are unicorns; Vietnam has built its own 5G network and is even looking to export this to its neighbours; the start-up scene is buzzing in cities like Jakarta, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City.

ASEAN member states are coming together to support each other, and to grow and develop to create new opportunities. Singapore will play our part in this.

As a region, ASEAN is working with other like-minded countries to keep the international system free, open and rules-based. We recently concluded negotiations on all 20 chapters of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and we hope to sign the agreement next year.

While India has decided not to be part of the RCEP for now, the RCEP is still a significant achievement. I very much hope that India will in time reconsider its position.

We have also been exploring other areas for collaboration, such as in sustainable development, a focus under Thailand's ASEAN chairmanship this year.

At the bilateral level, Singapore has been deepening our cooperation with South-east Asia.

Our leaders have regular exchanges - for example, we have annual Leaders Retreats with Indonesia and Malaysia, and many opportunities to meet leaders of not just Indonesia and Malaysia, but all other ASEAN countries, when we make bilateral visits, at multilateral meetings and at forums such as this. Through these regular interactions, we have developed good personal understanding, so that even when there are difficult bilateral issues, we can discuss them amicably. This is crucial because we have more common interests than differences. Given the challenges confronting the region, we can achieve far more by working together, by focusing on opportunities that are presented to both sides and the challenges that we all have to resolve.

We are exploring cooperation in many areas, including the Kendal Industrial Park in Indonesia, the Singapore-Johor Baru Rapid Transit System Link, Vietnam-Singapore Industrial Parks, and the Singapore-Myanmar Vocational Training Institute in Yangon. But we can do more - not just at the G-to-G (government-to-government) level. We should do more in different spheres and across different levels.

All of us need to start thinking and acting regionally and globally, and there is much more we can do to venture into South-east Asia at the people and business levels.

For a start, we will better prepare and encourage Singaporeans to venture into South-east Asia, through study exchanges, work attachments and internships.

We will broaden the minds of our next generation in our schools.

First, language is critical to understanding culture, and accessing businesses and opportunities. So I am glad that MOE (Ministry of Education) recently announced enhancements to encourage students to deepen their learning of mother tongue languages.

And we are doing more to support students who are keen to pick up a third language, especially regional languages such as Malay and Bahasa Indonesia.

We will also work towards exposing more students to Asia and the region - through internships and overseas learning journeys.

Today, about half of our students from our institutes of higher learning participate in overseas trips. Many of these trips are in Asia. MOE is reviewing how we can further enhance our students' engagement in the region.

We will also provide opportunities for Singaporeans in their working years. We set up the Global Innovation Alliance to connect our people with their counterparts, and with tech and business communities.

So far, we have set up three nodes in South-east Asia - Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok. We have 10 nodes in other parts of Asia, Europe and the US, and will continue to grow the Alliance.

We also welcome our regional partners to use Singapore as a base to explore the world, to build more bridges between our region and the rest of the international community.


To conclude, there are many uncertainties on the horizon, but I am confident that we can navigate them deftly, and turn the challenges into opportunities for Singapore and for the region.

We can do so by staying united, and pooling our different perspectives and strengths; creating opportunities for all to progress together; and by thinking and acting regionally and globally, so that we can work together, grow together and improve the lives of our peoples.

When walls are erected, it is easier for us to retreat into our own little zones than to find ways to bridge the divides.

But it has never been the Singapore way to take the path of least resistance. Staying open and building bridges have been our way of life.

Indeed, a key lesson when we reflect on our Bicentennial is that by staying open, connected, multiracial and multi-religious, we are better connected to the world and to our own people.

With a spirit of self-determination, we can navigate the way forward. Let us stay united as one people, collaborate with people in the region and beyond, and build a better Singapore and a better world.

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