DPM Heng Swee Keat at the GIC Bridge Forum in San Francisco

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 9 May 2023 | San Francisco

Opening remarks by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at GIC’s Bridge Forum in San Francisco on 9 May 2023. DPM Heng was on a working visit to San Francisco in the United States of America from 7 to 13 May 2023.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A very good morning.

It is great to be back in San Francisco.

When I was secretary to Mr Lee Kuan Yew back in the 1990s, a very successful chairman of a major VC firm asked to see Mr Lee. And Mr Lee’s first question was “You are so successful, why are you seeing me?” And this American said “Mr Lee, I helped to build successful companies. You built a nation from scratch, and you are the ultimate entrepreneur”. They had a fascinating discussion. 

In fact, whether it is in the public or private sector, an entrepreneurial spirit is critical. 

And the act of setting up GIC  — to invest in a globally diversified portfolio, building a relationship with all of you – was itself an act of entrepreneurship.

During COVID-19, we rolled out five Budgets in one year, and eventually drew down around S$40 billion from past reserves to support companies, support jobs, to support livelihoods. 

What was remarkable is that we were able to get through this huge crisis without borrowing a single cent. 

One reason why we have been able to do that is that in the early years when our economy was growing strongly, our founding leaders were extremely prudent and built up our reserves.

This is a story about values — of prudence, of doing what is right, and of planning for the long term.  

And I want to thank our GIC team for working really hard, and to all of you who have built partnerships with GIC.

COVID-19 has accelerated structural changes in the global economy significantly. 

Digital acceleration has taken place at a speed that no one — not even the best CTOs — could have predicted.

But COVID-19 has also accelerated advances in science and tech that are disrupting and transforming whole sectors of the economy – AI, Web 3, mRNA, CRISPR, just a few examples.

And as Chow Kiat and Chris said earlier, enterprise software and emerging tech.

The free flow of talent, ideas, and capital is critical to innovation.

But geopolitical contestation is now pushing out global cooperation just when it is most needed.

So I am glad to read that Secretary Yellen said recently that to make progress on the world’s biggest challenges like climate change, we need “constructive engagement between the world’s largest economies.”

But the trajectory is worrying. Complete decoupling between the US and China will be very costly, but there is significant momentum in tech bifurcation, and more broadly, a deep sense of distrust. 

Earlier this week, Henry Kissinger warned that the tensions over Taiwan could “evolve into a general war between two high-tech countries”.

So against this complex and evolving landscape, how do we ensure that we fully harness the potential of innovation, foster collaboration, and continue to make progress?

Building on the objective of this forum – the Bridge Forum – let me suggest three bridges that I think are crucial for us to build together, so that we can continue to ride the waves of innovation.

First, we have to continue to bridge between the present and the future.

The private sector plays a key role in catalysing innovation and bringing products to market.

Silicon Valley has been immensely successful because of the world-class talent and entrepreneurial energy that gather here.

Equally crucial is the vibrant VC and PE landscape here, which supports the rapid launching and scaling of innovative projects.

But apart from the private sector, governments too have a critical role to play in investing in the early part of the innovation chain.

This is especially so for basic research, which addresses critical public goods, which are often high-risk, and have long gestation periods.

R&D of this nature may take many years to bear fruit, and in some cases may be difficult for the private sector to fund.

And many of the critical challenges that we face – be it in climate change or ageing populations – do not have quick or easy solutions.

We will need both the public and private sectors to work together, along the entire value chain.

This is what we believe in Singapore.

We have been consistently investing around 1% of our GDP each year for our national R&D agenda, or around US$19 billion over the next 5 years.

And out of this, a big part of it, over one-third, is set out for basic research.

At the same time, this is complemented by an increasingly vibrant VC and start-up ecosystem in Singapore.

It takes time, but over the years such an approach has paid off for us – during COVID-19, many of our early investments in biotech bore fruit.

And looking ahead, we will continue to build deeper capabilities in key strategic areas, including quantum computing and blockchain technologies.

But what we invest in, although a large sum by Singapore standards, is a tiny fraction of what the whole world is investing. So we hope to be able to find great partners. 

Now this brings me to my second point. As we advance new technologies, we must bridge the governance gaps.  

Tech innovation may sometimes run ahead of our ability to understand and properly harness it for good.

Take AI for instance. While the world was still marvelling over Chat-GPT 3, GPT 4 was already released!

And deep fakes, hallucinations – these are some of the real concerns that have emerged.

Some tech leaders are now so worried that they have called for a moratorium on the development of AI.

And there is now talk about the democratisation of AI, where open source could disrupt the big boys. This will create a very variegated landscape with even more rapid advances, increasing the urgency of putting in place good guardrails.

AI is just the latest example, but striking a balance between innovation and governance is not new.

Many of you here are leaders in enterprise software, so you would be familiar with the challenge of cybersecurity.

It is a never-ending race against new malicious actors and threats, especially with the world getting ever more digitally connected.

So ultimately, the way for us to make progress is to strike a balance between innovation and governance, and ensure that trust-building is at the core of our efforts.

Now a good example of how we can work together is in AI.

Singapore is working with various stakeholders to build a more trusted AI environment. We launched a Model AI Governance Framework at the World Economic Forum a few years back, partnering companies such as DBS, HSBC, Microsoft, and Visa to deploy AI responsibly. It is now in its second edition, incorporating feedback from international platforms such as the OECD Expert Group.

This is going to be a constant work-in-progress. And indeed, the US government has just announced new efforts last week, to promote responsible innovation in AI.

No one company or government can do this alone. So we have to strengthen collaboration, between the public and private sectors, and academia, and across the world.

So my final point: we can do more to bridge different geographies, people, and ideas.

This goes back to the original objective of the Bridge Forum – to bring together the talent and ideas from across the whole world.

Now in a fractious and contested world, it is even more important for like-minded partners to expand the space for collaboration.

So I am confident that the Forum will play a useful role in building many more of such bridges – and we should be building bridges, not walls.

Over the next two days, there is an exciting range of topics that you will be dealing with – AI, cybersecurity, the data revolution, and many others.

I am also glad to see that we have a diverse group of companies and participants from more than 20 countries, and across different industries.

And I think there is more room for us to bring together global talent and expertise – whether it is the US, China, Japan, Europe, Southeast Asia, or other regions. Each of us have our areas of strengths, and we can achieve much more if we work together.

Lastly, I would like to welcome all of you to Singapore and Southeast Asia to explore opportunities.

With a growing middle class and youthful demographics, Southeast Asia’s digital economy is projected to grow to US$1 trillion by 2030, five times from today. 

Singapore sits at the heart of Asia, with very good links to China, India, Japan, South Korea, and of course further down, Australia and New Zealand. 

So it is a dynamic and vibrant region, and we are committed to be a partner to companies and talent who are keen to venture into our region, and to be your bridge to the many opportunities there.

So thank you all very much, and I look forward to a very fruitful Forum.