DPM Gan Kim Yong at the Q&A Segment of the 29th Nikkei Forum

Transcript of remarks by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong at Nikkei 29th International Forum on the Future of Asia: "Asian Leadership in an Uncertain World" Q&A segment on 24 May 2024.


Moderator: As you mentioned in your speech earlier, conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, as well as the conflict between the US and China, have intensified global divisions. Conflicts between nations have led to a shift towards protectionism and home-first policies, which has also affected supply chains. On the US-China issue, Singapore has taken a position that is neither pro-US nor pro-China, but rather one that focuses on national interests. On China and Taiwan, Singapore has developed friendly relations with both sides based on the principle of “one China”. What role can Singapore play in times of division?

DPM Gan Kim Yong: Thank you very much. Indeed, we are living in a world that is very complex and increasingly dangerous. There are many flashpoints around the world and we are already seeing conflicts in Middle East, conflicts in Ukraine; we are also seeing potential flashpoints in the Taiwan Strait, and further north in DPRK. Any of these flashpoints, if not managed well, are likely to escalate. None of us would like to see escalation. And it is in our collective interest to find a way forward to ensure, strengthen peace, security, and stability for all of us. Particularly from an economic point of view, our regional economy will grow and prosper if we are able to enjoy peace and stability in the region.

From Singapore’s perspective, it is not a matter of remaining neutral. We do have our position, and we take a principled, consistent approach to our international relationships. We always want to look at how we can work with countries in the region and around the world in a positive and constructive way, always bearing in mind Singapore’s interests at the core. Because it is our duty, as the Government, to always look after the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans. This is the approach that we will take consistently, historically and going forward.

Moderator: ASEAN countries have different positions on geopolitical conflicts; what is needed to maintain ASEAN’s cohesion?

DPM Gan: Thank you, that is a very important and interesting question. To answer that question we need to understand ASEAN – it is a very diverse group of countries. Within ASEAN, we have members with different political systems, different economic structures, different levels of development. Therefore, it is necessary and, quite apparent, that ASEAN members have different concerns, different interests, and may take different views and positions with regard to international policy. At the same time, this diversity among ASEAN members is not necessarily a weakness. In fact, it is very often strength in numbers, because we are able to look at issues from different perspectives, respecting one another’s differences in concerns and interests, while at the same time focusing on expanding economic space, and expanding areas and opportunities where we can work together, cooperate together, and progress together. This has always been ASEAN’s approach, to work together and ensure ASEAN’s unity and centrality, while at the same time respecting the differences among different members.

Moderator: The next question, which I am sure the audience would like to hear, is that Singapore replaced its Prime Minister this month for the first time in 20 years. With a new leader, are there likely to be any changes in Singapore foreign policy or policy direction? What kind of Prime Minister do you think Prime Minister Lawrence Wong will be?

DPM Gan: I expected this question. We have to look at our new leadership as a generational change. The fourth generation of leaders is now taking over, with Mr Lawrence Wong assuming the position of Prime Minister. But Lawrence is not a stranger to many of you. In face, he was here last year speaking at the 28th Nikkei Forum. Many of you know have met him and know how he works and his policies. Lawrence is not new to politics – he has been in Cabinet for many years and, before that, was working in Government agencies throughout his life. He is familiar with the Government’s approach.

This change, as PM Lawrence Wong emphasised at his swearing-in ceremony, signifies continuity and stability. Continuity because many of the members of Cabinet remain the same, with only some calibrations in positions. At the same time, it is also a renewal because the new team of leaders are taking over. Many of them are coming to the frontlines, leading the way forward, led primarily by PM Lawrence Wong. So, I would not expect major changes to Government policies and our approach to international relationships. The world is changing, and therefore we need to continue to renew our approaches, our considerations on policies, so that we are able to catch up with the changes in the world.

With regard to PM Wong’s leadership style, he will evolve his own leadership style over time. But looking back at what he has done over the last few years, that gives us a glimpse of what he is like as a leader. He was still Deputy Prime Minister when he led a nation-wide consultation, “Forward Singapore”. This was a process through which he engaged the people on the ground to understand their needs, concerns and aspirations, and also allowed them to better understand who he is as a 4th generation leader. “Forward Singapore” was also aimed at helping forge a new compact between the people and the Government, and among the people. This is the way forward, and reflects his consultative approach towards leadership and government.

At the same time, PM Wong is also a decisive leader. You would have observed how he led the Multi-Ministry Taskforce on COVID-19 and when it came to difficult decisions, he would make a decision and move ahead. This decisiveness and consultative approach are likely to shape his leadership style going forward. As I said, he will develop his own leadership style as Prime Minister in time. And my job as Deputy Prime Minister is to support and help him, and coordinate policies across ministries to ensure they are effective and benefit our people.

Moderator: China is Singapore’s main trading partner, but there are some shadows in its economic growth potential. What is your outlook for the Chinese economy in the future?

DPM Gan: China is facing significant headwinds, we all recognise that. It has to undergo significant transformation and transition in the immediate short-term.

For example, it has to transit from more property-driven economic growth and structure, to one that is innovative, higher value and technology-based. This transition is not easy and will take time. There are, of course, issues that China will need to address immediately. It is already putting in place some measures to deal with the current challenges.

At the same time, we have to recognise that the fundamentals of China’s economy remain very strong. First, it has a very young population – even though it is ageing, it is still a relatively young population – a very productive workforce, and it has invested significantly in very efficient infrastructure. So in time to come, China will continue to be a major and very competitive manufacturer. It is an economic power that we have to continue to reckon with.

It is also important to recognise that the potential for growth in China will remain in the long term. In the short term, there are challenges and we would need to see how China would be able to manage and overcome some of these challenges. But the underlying economic potential from China’s economy remains strong.

Singapore has been working with China very closely. We have three key government-to-government projects. One of which is the Singapore-China Suzhou Industrial Park, which marks the 30th anniversary this year. It has become the role model for many industrial parks in China and outside of China, to emulate and see how we can be an engine of growth to drive economic change and industrialisation. So I think this partnership has benefitted both China and Singapore, and we are continuing to explore how we can do more and how we can chart the way forward for the next 10, 30 years. As I said, this year we mark the 30th anniversary, so we are looking at what we are going to do in the next 30 years but in the more immediate term, our plan for the next 10-year development. One of the areas that we are going to focus on is likely to be digitalisation and sustainability development, which are two key concerns of industries.

Asia Times: So the Myanmar junta has moved money and weapons supplies through Singapore for a long time. While everyone appreciates the fact that Singapore has been cracking down on that lately, but there is more to do. I want to quote this activist group called “Justice for Myanmar” – they said recently that “We welcome the steps that Singapore has taken, but the Government needs to do far more to block the junta’s access to firearms, equipment, and jet fuel. It is not acceptable that there are business cronies [of the junta] still operating and living in Singapore, and that Singapore is still not imposing sanctions on the junta despite being pretty active on imposing sanctions on Russia, for example.

You said the world is changing. Yes, the world is changing – the junta is on its way out – everyone knows that. So what is Singapore going to do about this? Everyday that goes by where the junta has access to jet fuel means that more and more innocent civilians are killed by these aerial bombardments. So what are you guys doing about this?

DPM Gan: Thank you very much. First, I want to thank you for recognising that Singapore has been doing our part and taken steps towards action against Myanmar. We do recognise that Myanmar is an issue that we need to deal with, and we need collective effort in addressing Myanmar’s challenge.

At the same time, we are also taking the issue seriously and we are happy to get any information which you may have, or from activist groups which may have specific information or issues for us to look into, because we want to take these allegations seriously. But we can only operate with specific information and details so that we can act on it. It is very difficult for us to respond to accusations or narratives that we do not have sufficient information on.

AT: Well, a UN rapporteur wrote a report last year where he presented some hard facts and Singapore acted on those facts. So we really appreciate that. But what I'm trying to say is that there's more that can be done and so I want to know if Singapore is thinking about what else to do.

DPM Gan: Yes, as I mentioned, we take this very seriously and whenever there is additional information that you are able to share, or any activists or any parties that are able to share with us, we are quite happy to take specific steps to address the concerns.

We will continue to work with our partners in ASEAN to see how we can progress the issue on Myanmar. As you know, we have the Five-Point Consensus that we have presented to them and we are disappointed that these have not been implemented and swiftly. And this is something that we will need to continue to work on to see how we can resolve the conflict in Myanmar a way that minimises unnecessary loss of lives, injuries and damage.