Singapore ready to act if economic outlook is hit

For now, the focus is on innovation, diversifying economy and reskilling workforce, says Iswaran

Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran bathing a statue of Siddhartha Gautama yesterday at the Vesak Day celebrations. With him are Buddhist Fellowship president Lim Phang Hong (far right) and deputy president Jerry Ong (second from r
Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran bathing a statue of Siddhartha Gautama yesterday at the Vesak Day celebrations. With him are Buddhist Fellowship president Lim Phang Hong (far right) and deputy president Jerry Ong (second from right). PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

It is "a bit too early" to talk about contingency plans for workers, but the Singapore Government is ready to act should the economic outlook worsen as a result of escalating tensions between the US and China, Minister-in-charge of Trade Relations S. Iswaran said yesterday.

In the meantime, it remains focused on ongoing efforts to diversify the economy, enhance innovation capacity and reskill the workforce as a bulwark against the headwinds.

Asked on the sidelines of the Buddhist Fellowship's Vesak Day celebrations what plans there were if things got worse and retrenchments occurred, Mr Iswaran said if there was a need, and at the appropriate time, the agencies would come together and the Government would focus on what needs to be done.

"We continue to hope that the US and China work out their differences, and are therefore able to come to an equilibrium and not pose the kind of concerns some are worried about arising from trade tensions," he said. "At the same time, we focus on our fundamentals and capacity building of the economy."

Dealing with such uncertainties is not new for Singapore, Mr Iswaran noted. "That is why the Government has always emphasised the need to focus resolutely on our fundamentals at the economy, enterprise and individual levels. And we must continue to strengthen our cohesive and harmonious society," he said.

"Against this backdrop, it is essential that all of us - Government, industry and Singaporeans - work together for Singapore's continued success, ensuring that we continue to thrive, notwithstanding uncertainties that may come our way."

Singapore will continue to diversify its markets via free trade pacts at the bilateral, regional and multilateral levels, whether it is with the World Trade Organisation, regional platforms like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or bilateral efforts such as those with the European Union and more recently, New Zealand.

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  • Interfaith, religious groups can help fight spread of fake news: Minister

  • Efforts by interfaith organisations and groups like the Buddhist Fellowship can help to combat the spread of fake news and irresponsible speech that can tear societies apart, Minister for Communications and Information and Minister-in-charge of Trade Relations S. Iswaran said.

    In a speech to more than 300 devotees at the Buddhist Fellowship's Vesak Day celebration yesterday, Mr Iswaran noted that the attacks in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, which were instigated by the spread of religious extremism and hate speech online, are "a sombre reminder of the consequences we face if and when we let our guard down".

    "Falsehoods, including hate speech, have been weaponised to instigate violence and anger between religious groups. Just last year, Sri Lanka saw widespread ethnic and religious violence due to online rumours that the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka were trying to sterilise the Sinhalese majority. In the case of the recent bombings in April, the Sri Lankan government had to resort to extreme measures by shutting down access altogether to all major social media networks," he noted.

    To curb this, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act was passed in Parliament a few weeks ago.

    But he stressed that legislation alone is not enough. "We need a larger whole-of-government, all-of-nation effort," he said. We need public education, fact-checking and efforts like what you are undertaking to build understanding between the communities."

    Mr Iswaran cited the Buddhist Fellowship's work to build up religious harmony here over the past three decades, and noted that interfaith organisations like Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles provide a platform for religious organisations to network and engage with one another.

    "The bonds and trust that develop out of these interactions go a long way in preventing misunderstanding and divisions between groups, especially in the light of the spread of online falsehoods and disinformation," he added.

    Grace Leong

There is also a need to diversify Singapore's industry and economic base so it is strong in manufacturing and services and trade-related services, while continuing to find new opportunities. "The digitalisation of the economy provides us with new types of opportunities," he said.

Ensuring that the capabilities of local companies and industries continue to be strengthened and their innovation capacity enhanced is "the surest way of ensuring we remain competitive and able to withstand vicissitudes in the global economic environment," he added.

At the people level, having the skills and attitude towards lifelong learning that ensures one can be nimble in the face of change will allow Singaporeans to adapt and respond to new challenges effectively, he noted.

These efforts to get the fundamentals right are critical as US-China tensions are likely to linger for some time and businesses must be prepared for more uncertainty.

"What we're seeing... is in some ways symptomatic of what some have characterised as a great power rivalry between the two largest economies in the world," he said.

"It's important for us to understand that this is something that goes beyond the immediate trade tensions, and it is something that is likely to be in our background environment for some time to come, thereby creating uncertainty and volatility that we must be prepared for."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2019, with the headline Singapore ready to act if economic outlook is hit. Subscribe