As the political mood in the United States and Europe becomes increasingly that of anti-globalisation and anti-free trade, countries like Japan and Singapore must work together to oppose protectionism and economic nationalism.
That was a key message which Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh had for Singapore and Japanese business leaders at the Singapore-Japan Business Forum yesterday.
One way to do so was to push for the ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal that has been under negotiation for a decade, and to persuade the US to do so, said Professor Koh.
The TPP involves nations responsible for 40 per cent of global economic output, including the US, Singapore and Japan.
"Japan and Singapore should take the lead and be among the early countries to ratify the TPP.
"I think we should try to persuade our American friends - and you, the corporate world, can persuade your American corporate friends. We should persuade our American friends to ratify the TPP this year, because if you don't do it this year, there is the danger it will be lost."
Prof Koh added that it was worrying that both US presidential candidates have said they oppose the TPP. "In America, the anti-trade narrative has become the dominant narrative. People... are not speaking up, not explaining to ordinary people, employees and workers that globalisation and trade benefit them. The anti-trade rhetoric is not true."
He hoped the TPP could be passed in the final weeks of President Barack Obama's term, citing his private talks with US officials, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Mr Hiroyuki Ishige, chairman and chief executive of the Japan External Trade Organisation, also emphasised the importance of the TPP's ratification.
"If the US Congress does not ratify the TPP, a 'pivot from the US' might occur. I say this because all member countries have spent much time and resources to reach a common goal. They have tackled even bedrock regulations in spite of significant political risks."
Ms Deborah Elms, executive director of the Asian Trade Centre, cautioned that the anti-free-trade mood had dire implications for Singapore: "The worst thing for Singapore would be if the movement towards nationalism, protectionism and closed markets takes off, and Singapore loses access to foreign markets. It would be catastrophic for Singapore."
She told The Straits Times that Singapore companies could do their part, urging businessmen here to phone Mr McConnell to call for the ratification of the treaty.
Lee Xin En