Keynote Address by Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat at the Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference on 22 March 2021.
A very good morning from Singapore, I am pleased to join you at this year’s Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference.
In the past year, COVID-19 has swept across the globe.
The unprecedented speed and reach of the virus shows how globalised and interconnected our world is.
The pandemic precipitated the worst global economic recession in a century.
The global economic outlook remains highly uncertain. The immediate challenge, across the world, is to contain the pandemic.
It is encouraging to see the speed of vaccine development.
But while vaccination is underway, recovery is likely to be uneven across economies and sectors.
Financial markets’ adjustment to the evolving global economic prospects might be volatile.
The pandemic will continue to stress test our societies and economies.
So we must stay vigilant and nimble in navigating unexpected setbacks.
COVID-19 will eventually pass, but its lasting legacy is in accelerating many structural changes.
Hence, the Conference’s theme of “Disruption Accelerated” is most apt.
As our economies gradually recover, fiscal measures should also shift from providing immediate relief, to building capabilities for the longer-term, if we are to emerge stronger.
What are some of the changes that we must build new capabilities for?
First, there is now a greater premium on resilience, as governments and companies globally rethink their production bases and supply chains.
There is also a greater sense of urgency, to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.
Singapore feels the threat of climate change keenly, as a low-lying island nation.
Second, we have seen a big shift to digital, as people and businesses migrated online.
Internet traffic in some countries increased by up to 60% shortly after the outbreak.
In Singapore, users of the SingPass app – our national digital identity – tripled in a year.
By now, many of us are used to interacting virtually, just like today.
Third, the global order is going through choppier seas.
The foremost issue is the strategic competition between the US and China.
This is not a new phenomenon, but has been accentuated by COVID-19.
With no proper global coordination early in the crisis, we saw a rise in friction and distrust between governments.
Asia’s Growth Prospects
Whether Asia can emerge stronger in a post-COVID world will depend on how well we navigate these shifts.
Asia’s prospects are promising, anchored by sound fundamentals.
The region has favourable demographics.
In countries like India, Indonesia and Vietnam, more than half the population is under the age of 35.
We also have one of the fastest-growing middle class, which will boost consumption and drive demand for many sectors.
By 2030, two-thirds of the global middle class is expected to be in Asia.
The digital revolution is pervasive in the region. In Southeast Asia alone, we have 400 million internet users, and a rapidly growing digital economy. But Asia’s growth is not fore-ordained.
A demographic dividend could turn into a lost generation, if we are not able to equip our youths with the right skills and create enough good jobs to ride the structural shifts.
Some parts – Japan, China, South Korea and Singapore – are ageing rapidly. This will affect economic growth and increase social needs.
Without adequate and sustained investments, the region’s economy will not achieve its full potential, and could remain susceptible to future pandemics and catastrophes.
Most critically, the stability of the region must not be taken for granted.
A fracture in US-China relations would be hugely destabilising.
Beyond US-China, other developments could have serious consequences for the region.
The situation in Myanmar is a case in point. Singapore is appalled by the violent crackdowns against civilians.
It is crucial that all stakeholders in Myanmar come together to find a long-term, peaceful solution and a return to democratic transition.
For Asia to realise its considerable promise, the region will therefore have to:
Navigate the shifting geo-political tides, and ride the next wave of economic opportunities together.
Navigating shifting political tides: US-China Relations
Let me first speak about the shifting geo-politics. COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief, how important a stable US-China relationship is to the global commons.
While the Biden Administration will bring a more predictable approach to the world’s most critical bilateral relationship, the US and China will continue to be strategic competitors.
It is in the interest of both sides to cooperate on common challenges, including tackling COVID-19 and climate change.
I am glad that both sides have acknowledged that there are areas that they could work together on, despite the competitive tenor of their relationship.
The US and China held their first high-level, face-to-face meeting last week in Alaska.
Despite the tough rhetoric, it is a step in the right direction. The meeting showed a recognition from both sides on the need for dialogue and cooperation.
It is important that they persevere – maintain open channels of communication, find a way forward to deal with their differences, and manage the tensions and frictions.
While tensions could intensify for some time, I hope that eventually, a framework for cooperation will be developed, even as both sides continue to compete, as major powers do.
Fair, healthy competition can be positive, if it spurs innovation to achieve better solutions for the many complex challenges that the world faces.
It is critical that both the US and China remain constructively engaged with the region.
US presence has provided much needed stability since the Second World War. Its investments have been instrumental to the region’s rapid growth.
We welcome the Biden Administration’s commitment to continue to engage and strengthen its partnership with the region, including with ASEAN.
ASEAN is an important partner for the US, not just in terms of tackling existing and emerging global challenges, but also to put regional engagement efforts into concrete action.
China’s economic success has been a boon for growth in the region.
The ASEAN-China Dialogue Partnership, which commemorates its 30th anniversary this year, is also one of ASEAN’s most substantive external partnerships.
The constructive involvement of both the US and China in the region will be key to Asia’s continued peace, stability and growth.
For Southeast Asia, we must continue to work with all parties.
Not just the US and China, but with any country that wants to work with us.
We must continue to work as one ASEAN, and to advance our collective interest.
It is not a question of choosing sides, but of retaining our ability to make choices for ourselves.
This is what ASEAN Centrality is about.
Should US-China tensions escalate, our region must firmly remain anchored on ASEAN’s own interest, and to keep ourselves open and relevant through practical steps.
This will enable us to emerge stronger from this crisis.
Besides ASEAN countries, many other countries also recognise the importance of ASEAN Centrality, including the US and China.
The Leaders of the Quad – US, Japan, India, Australia - also recently re-affirmed their strong support for ASEAN Centrality.
Riding the Next Wave of Economic Opportunities Together
Beyond navigating the shifting geo-political tides, Asia must take collective action to make the most of its sound fundamentals and the promising opportunities.
Deepening Regional Integration and Cooperation
The first area of action is to further deepen regional integration and cooperation.
We have made good progress.
In 2018, eleven countries came together to conclude the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, after the US pulled out.
Last year, ASEAN and five other countries also signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP. This is the largest agreement of its kind in history. But much remains to be done.
The next important step is for all RCEP countries to expedite ratification.
This will send a strong signal that our region remains committed to free and open trade.
The door remains open for other like-minded partners to join us.
Beyond physical trade, the region must also collaborate to swiftly realise the potential of the digital economy.
We must work to harmonise standards, allow trusted data flows, and facilitate cross-border transactions.
For example, making cross-border e-payments faster and cheaper is critical.
Singapore and Thailand are pioneering the linking up of our national e-payments systems.
From the middle of this year, users in Singapore and Thailand can send money directly and securely to each other, using just their mobile phone numbers.
Singapore is keen to build similar linkages with other partners in the region.
This is just one example of how the region can work together to grow the cross-border digital economy, and we should explore others.
Stepping up Economic Transformation in an Inclusive Way
The second key area to realise the region’s potential is to step up economic transformation, as we advance into the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Asia is the global leader in employing robots for manufacturing.
There are more than 1 million robots in use in Asia, and the number is growing.
We are also seeing more smart factories, and increasingly more dark factories that are fully automated.
The region must redouble its transformation efforts, as COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of technological and digital change.
At the same time, we must ensure that economic growth benefits the broad majority of our people.
These disruptions have created many opportunities for some, but exposed others to harsh competition.
Helping smaller enterprises and their workers must be an integral part of the digital economy and transformation journey.
While some of these enterprises will fail, many can succeed, with appropriate support and help.
Open and Inclusive Investment Destination
The third key area to realise the region’s potential is to continue to be an open and inclusive destination for investments from around the world.
Demand for capital will continue to grow.
The infrastructure needs of developing Asia alone is estimated at 1.7 trillion US dollars per year.
In particular, Southeast Asia is expected to be one of the fast-growing regions in the coming decade.
The economies of Southeast Asia must seek to draw in more investments, as companies reconfigure their production bases and supply chains for greater resilience.
Given the huge need for investment capital in the region and the expertise investors bring, it is neither possible nor prudent to rely only on one source of investment.
We must therefore continue to welcome countries and companies from around the world to grow their presence here.
Singapore – Your Partner to the Region
Joining this Conference from Singapore, let me also touch on how Singapore can be your partner in the region – as a gateway for investment, a launchpad for innovation, and a green node for sustainability.
Gateway for Investment
First, Singapore can be a gateway for your investments in Asia.
We are a Global-Asia node, with a strong rule of law and international connectivity, a workforce that understands the culture and norms in the region, and business and research outfits that can provide insights into regional affairs.
As a global financial centre, besides financing the needs of Asian enterprises, Singapore can play a useful role in crowding in global investments.
We strive to build an internationally-trusted banking system, with prudent and progressive regulation.
Assets under management in Singapore doubled over the last decade, to around 3 trillion US dollars in 2019.
Close to 60% of this capital is from Asia, and about two-thirds is invested in Asia.
To meet the funding needs for infrastructure, private sector financing is crucial.
This is why Singapore started Infrastructure Asia to match the demand and supply of infrastructure investments, and to better structure, finance, and implement quality infrastructure projects.
We welcome more institutional investors and family offices to grow their presence in Singapore.
Launchpad for Innovation
Second, Singapore can be your launchpad for innovation into the region.
We have a vibrant start-up scene, and have nurtured a number of unicorns.
One example is Sea Group. It was recently awarded a digital full bank license in Singapore, and Sea Group’s e-commerce platform, Shopee, is now the most popular platform in Indonesia and Vietnam.
Our venture capital sector is growing.
In 2019, more than 7 billion US dollars in venture capital deals were closed, a 30-fold increase in under a decade.
Many global companies have set up R&D facilities in Singapore, working with our scientists, technologists and innovators.
To expand our capacity for innovation, we are investing 19 billion US dollars over the next five years in research, innovation and enterprise, across key domains, such as advanced manufacturing, healthcare, urban solutions and the digital economy.
To maximise impact, we are strengthening partnerships with companies and research institutions based here and abroad so as to tap on one another’s strengths, and to realise opportunities in the region.
I encourage more companies to undertake your research and innovation work here, and to invest in our start-ups and build deep capabilities.
Green node for sustainability
Third, Singapore is a growing green node for sustainability efforts in the region.
Southeast Asia, in particular, has great potential to contribute to the green transition, through nature-based solutions for carbon removal.
With up to 120 million hectares of land available for re-forestation, this can potentially contribute to carbon removal
At a rate of 3.4 gigatonnes a year, which is around 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions from energy production.
Singapore can be a marketplace for high-quality carbon credits, and provide technology-enabled verification systems for carbon solutions.
These can then catalyse investment in carbon solutions in the region.
Singapore can also promote sustainability in Asia through green finance.
Singapore accounts for over one-third of the sustainability-linked loan market in Asia Pacific today, we can further harness the power of finance to promote cleaner and greener forms of energy and activities in the region.
The Singapore Government is also taking the lead by issuing green bonds, to support the financing of up to 15 billion US dollars of public infrastructure projects.
Tackling climate change is a global effort. Singapore is ready to explore opportunities with you, to enable you to do well and also do good for the planet.
This Conference takes place as we enter the second year of the pandemic.
The pandemic has accelerated disruptions.
We must plan ahead, invest in new capabilities and innovate, to better meet these disruptions, so that we can emerge stronger.
There are many opportunities in Asia, especially Southeast Asia.
To continue to thrive, we must remain an open and inclusive destination for investments around the world.
I welcome all of you to explore possibilities in the region.
Singapore can be your partner in this region, as a gateway for investments, a launchpad for innovation, and a green node for sustainability.
This is the first time that the Conference is held virtually.
I hope you have a meaningful week of discussions, and I welcome you to visit Singapore and the region, when the situation permits.
All the very best!
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