Singapore should guard itself against nativist tendencies that can harm economic growth, warned Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran yesterday.
Mr Iswaran told virtual participants at a Singapore Business Federation (SBF) event that the country should persevere with its strategy of global integration despite the coronavirus-induced recession.
Part of the plan is to have more free trade agreements (FTAs), digital economy agreements and regional trading blocs such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Asean Trade In Goods Agreement, he added.
These pacts help local firms grow and aid multinational companies in basing their regional and global operations here, in turn, creating jobs for Singaporeans, said Mr Iswaran, who is also Minister-in-charge of Trade Relations.
"Obviously, we are in a challenging economic environment, and how we emerge from this is going to depend critically on the manner of our response," he added.
Mr Iswaran, who made his remarks at SBF's FTA Day 2020, said that using the pandemic crisis as an excuse to retreat from free trade and openness might bring some short-term sense of righteousness, but "in the long term, it is going to do great harm to the potential for growth opportunities and the uplifting of living standards for our people".
"This is true whether you're a small or a big country."
While the Singaporean workforce can be complemented with foreign talent, government training programmes ensure that the country keeps investing in the capabilities of local businesses and people, he added.
Mr Iswaran reiterated his points in an interview with Bloomberg Television yesterday, noting that Singapore is speaking with more countries on developing further trade deals.
"We've seen many partners want to do business with Singapore, and maybe even locate some of their regional headquarters here because of that network effect of our free trade agreements," he said.
SBF chief executive Ho Meng Kit underlined the theme at the FTA Day event, urging local companies to transform their businesses by taking advantage of the country's extensive network of trade agreements.
He said FTAs connect businesses to the global economy by lowering the barriers to trade and investment, while providing greater regulatory certainty and a competitive advantage in foreign markets.
Mr Ho added: "Businesses must not take for granted their current roles in the global value chains. They will need to internationalise to seize opportunities in new markets and diversify market-specific risks."
Mr Ho said initiatives such as the recent enhancement of the Market Readiness Assistance Grant reflect the Government's continued efforts to support businesses to pivot to overseas markets.
SBF said its FTA Day aims to highlight how trade agreements, which represent about 85 per cent of the global economy, help businesses here navigate pressing issues that impact supply chains, cross-border trade and investment.
The event also put the spotlight on the benefits of initiatives such as digital economy agreements, which establish trade rules and foster interoperability of standards and systems to support Singapore-based businesses in the digital economy.