PM Lee Hsien Loong at the APEC CEO Summit 2021

PM Lee Hsien Loong | 11 November 2021

Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the APEC CEO Summit on 11 November 2021.


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Ladies and gentlemen

Thank you for inviting me to the APEC CEO Summit.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies. Virtual meetings like this Summit, have become the norm. For many of us, “Zooming” now carries a different meaning. But the digital revolution goes far deeper than the way we communicate with one another. Artificial intelligence (AI) helped Moderna develop the COVID-19 vaccine in record time. Digital tools help Governments to manage COVID effectively, such as through contact tracing and vaccine passports. Technology is transforming cross-border trade and payments. The economic potential of the digital economy is huge. Within Southeast Asia alone, the internet economy is projected to triple in size by 2025, to over US$300 billion per year. And by then, the annual total ICT spending in the Asia-Pacific will exceed US$1 trillion.

How can we ride on the digital disruption wave to foster economic integration? APEC can play a big role here. It is a key forum for economies to engage in dialogue and to influence trade policies. It has facilitated trade liberalisation in goods and services within and across borders; it has improved investment environments and clarified intellectual property rules. APEC should now extend its scope to digitalisation, which is the next frontier of trade liberalisation.

Allow me to make three suggestions.

Seizing the Opportunity, Managing the Digital Disruption

Within our borders

First, domestically, we must transform our economies and ready our workers for the digital age.

Economies have generally done well in creating “analogue” frameworks and regulations, for example, for land, competition laws, movement of talent.

But we need to do more to invest in the digital frameworks of the future. Digital identity, digital payment solutions, data exchange, data authorisation and consent – these are some of the foundational elements. Such investments in digital infrastructure will accelerate the industry’s digital transformation efforts.

Singapore’s port is one such example. PSA International (PSA), has been instrumental in Singapore’s economic development. Today, PSA connects Singapore to over 600 ports in 120 economies. PSA was an early adopter of digital technology. Nearly 40 years ago, PSA started PORTNET, a network portal, to connect the port with shipping lines, customers, port operators and hauliers. Progressively, PSA has integrated PORTNET with the Singapore Customs’ TradeNet system, to enable seamless data flows between the trade and logistics community and the regulatory authorities. But PSA aims higher than being the world’s first paperless port, or having a single sign-on portal. PSA is building an Internet of Logistics. It is layering digital connectivity onto physical connectivity; it is creating digital platforms, like CALISTA, for shippers and cargo owners to track shipments more efficiently; it is using the 5G network to optimise reliability and build on Singapore’s reputation as a “catch-up” port. These are just some ways in which Singapore uses technology to stay competitive, and to be a trusted and reliable node in the global supply chain and a key player in the maritime ecosystem.

Meanwhile, we must help our workers adapt to the digital economy. The digital transformation will be disruptive, especially for less skilled and those on the wrong side of the digital divide. Hence, it is crucial to invest in our workers. Provide them lifelong and continuing education, so that they have the skills to compete, and can earn a good living. Governments will provide support, but firms need to chip in, and larger firms need to take the lead on reskilling and new skilling. Companies, too, will need help adapting to the new post-pandemic normal, especially small- and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs). SMEs account for 97 per cent of all businesses and employ more than half of the combined workforce in APEC economies, but most SMEs are not as digitally-prepared, and risk being left behind. APEC economies must help SMEs and their workers make the digital transition. In Singapore, our SMEs’ digital transformation journey is still work in progress, but we are moving ahead at good pace. We encourage large companies to work with SMEs to build new digital capabilities that can produce in mutually beneficial collaborations. We have established schemes to second researchers to SMEs to help enhance their innovation capabilities. We also invest heavily in getting our workers digitally-ready, through upgrading programmes in the tech sector, which is designed in partnership with the industry.

Across our borders (Regionally)

Second, regionally, we must deepen economic integration in the digital domain. Economic integration was the reason APEC was conceived in the first place. APEC members continue to take encouraging steps towards its vision of a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), through building blocks like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). This started out as a much smaller Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership – the (P4) involving Singapore, Brunei, Chile and New Zealand, which was conceptualised on the sidelines of an APEC Leaders’ meeting. The CPTPP now comprises 11 economies, with several more applying to join. Another major regional trade agreement is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The RCEP comprises a significant number of APEC members, amounting to 30 per cent of global GDP, and it will enter into force on 1 Jan next year.

It is timely to extend this vision of regional economic integration to the digital domain. The CPTPP and the RCEP set out some of the rules to facilitate e-commerce. But focussed Digital Economy Agreements (DEA) carry this further. They provide reference points on the common frameworks and rules for digital trade, including emerging technologies and data innovation. Some APEC members have already concluded such agreements, for example, the Digital Economy Agreement between Singapore and Australia, and a Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA) amongst Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. Recently, more APEC economies have expressed interest in DEPA. This is useful as a possible building block towards a larger regional or global architecture. To enhance our cooperation in the digital economy, APEC members should work towards a regional Digital Economy Agreement or partnership agreement. We can either expand the existing DEPA, just like how the CPTPP evolved out of the P4, or we can develop a new agreement with an expanded membership. This will be a new dimension of economic integration. It will enable businesses to connect more easily across borders and reach new markets in the digital economy. The ASEAN member economies are taking early steps to do so. We formed the ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN). We are developing an ASCN Online Portal, where the cities can exchange experiences and share best practices in new growth areas such as digitalisation and the use of ICT. ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners like Australia, China, Japan, Republic of Korea, Russia and the United States have also used the ASCN to exchange best practices and share experiences and expertise. All these are useful mechanisms that can be adapted within a broader regional context.

Beyond our borders (Globally)

My third suggestion, is that globally, we need a coherent and concerted response to manage the digital transition. Digital technologies have empowered millions of people, but the gulf of opportunities between digital haves and have-nots has also widened. Global digital standards and cooperation initiatives are important. They will enable more people to participate meaningfully in the digital economy. There are many areas to consider, for example, fair and secure access to data, freer cross-border data flows, addressing misinformation and cyber threats, and strengthening multilateral cooperation to exploit digital technologies for sustainable development. There are many overlapping discussions on digital issues, for example, at APEC, the World Economic Forum, the World Trade Organisation as well as the United Nations and its agencies. It is useful to bring them together in a coherent manner.

The global digital architecture should be shaped around a few guiding principles. One, digital transformation needs to be people focussed. It must improve people’s daily lives. Two, all relevant stakeholders need to be involved, including the government, private sector, and civil society, because it is impossible to draw neat lines between these groups in a digital world. Three, we need to think about setting norms in a multi- disciplinary and multi-sectoral way to address the complex challenges of today and tomorrow. Fourth, we need to identify a common set of digital development goals to be the basis for global cooperation.

Singapore therefore welcomes the UN proposal to establish the Global Digital Compact. This will identify the shared principles for an open, interoperable and secure digital future for the world. Singapore is ready to support this endeavour. It will be crucial to secure buy-in from a diverse group of stakeholders to carry forward the comprehensive vision.

At the same time, we will also need to agree upon and implement effective multilateral rules in cybersecurity. The more digitalised our economies become, the more vulnerable we are to cyber threats – whether it is ransomware, theft of data, or destructive cyberattacks. While each economy must strengthen our own cyber defences, we also need international ground rules, so that the digital world does not become an anarchic space subject only to the law of the jungle.

Singapore actively engages the multi-stakeholder community to strengthen cybersecurity cooperation at the UN and other international fora. Our Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Burhan Gafoor, has been elected as chair of the five-year UN Open-Ended Working Group on security of and the use of ICTs. In our own region, Singapore is hosting the ASEAN-Singapore Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence to strengthen regional cyber resilience. Singapore will work closely with the international community towards not just an open and free digital environment, but also a secure and interoperable one.


The road ahead is promising and exciting, but it will not be easy. We must recognise and seize the opportunities that digital transformation brings, while also managing the disruptions that it brings. To do that, we will need strong leadership and global cooperation. We must build on existing efforts to establish common frameworks and digital rules.

APEC should play a significant role as we strive to ride the digital wave. It has already made some progress digitalising cross-border trade flows, promoting e-commerce, facilitating flows of digital services, and capturing investment value on innovative digital solutions. But for digital trade to flourish, we must maintain and enhance an open, liberal, inclusive environment. APEC economies can take the lead on this, and work with the rest of the world.

Ultimately, a digitally inclusive community is a common global responsibility that requires the joint efforts of governments and industry. I hope that business leaders, entrepreneurs, and delegates attending this CEO Summit will continue to champion economic integration and digital transformation to your governments. I look forward to working with all of you on this shared endeavour to build a more resilient, sustainable and inclusive digital future.

Thank you.

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