Singapore can play key role in global integration

Singapore's transformation from one of the world's poorest countries into one of the wealthiest drastically improved the lives of its citizens in the space of a generation. It is one of the world's most remarkable development success stories.

A well-planned and managed economy, sound government policy and a vibrant private sector have been at the heart of Singapore's success, driving the country's integration into the global goods and services market and cementing its status as a regional leader.

But with the world now looking to Asia to accelerate global growth, Singapore can do even more to unlock new sources of economic growth and unleash the development potential of its neighbours and beyond. Its private sector will be critical in finding new and bold solutions to meet the sustainable development challenges of Asia - and the world.

One of the most critical challenges is infrastructure. Asia's infrastructure deficit - estimated to be US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) a year by 2020 - is set to worsen as the number of people living in cities soars and new megacities emerge. How can the region realise its potential when 800 million of its people still live without electricity and nearly a billion cannot even trust the water that flows from their taps?

The answer involves mobilising private finance on a new scale. Singapore-based companies can become a larger part of the solution. The question for companies in Singapore is finding the best opportunities, which also involves working with development partners to lower risks.

A growing number of Singaporean private and public sector entities are now diversifying their portfolios by going to frontier markets, where there's great potential for both profits and for promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth in areas that desperately need it.

Singaporean government-owned developer Surbana, for instance, is bringing its expertise to sub-Saharan Africa, helping construct new homes. It is utilising an investment platform that my organisation, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), created to help deliver large-scale housing projects. The platform will partner with local housing developers across sub-Saharan Africa and provide long-term capital to build 30,000 homes and create 150,000 jobs, starting with pilot projects in Kenya, Uganda and Ivory Coast over the next five years.

Another Singapore-based company, Sembcorp Industries, is developing power plants that will provide reliable access to electricity in Bangladesh and Myanmar. These will be a key to boosting productivity and employment opportunities.

Beyond infrastructure, the expansion of Singapore's companies into cross-border activities can help them tap new markets, diversify risk, access local resources, knowledge and skills and help reduce costs through a more efficient allocation of resources.

The IFC has provided a US$175 million loan to Singapore-based agribusiness firm Olam International to support the company's food-processing facilities in Nigeria and India, increasing food crop production to feed over four million people and helping improve the livelihoods of over 200,000 small farmers in Nigeria alone.

To help drive shared global prosperity, Singapore's vibrant technology start-up scene can also expand in both the region and in other emerging markets. This is particularly true in the area of digital finance, which can empower the millions of Asians who currently go without financial services.

Confronting these issues isn't easy. But Singapore's Government and private sector can find opportunities outside the country, which would have the additional benefit of helping address some of the world's toughest development challenges. The IFC looks forward to helping them take the next steps, delivering the scale of investment, innovation, technological development and job creation required to ensure the sustained growth that the region and the world needs. The result is good for Singapore and for the world: a boost to economic growth where it is most needed.

•The writer is executive vice-president and chief executive officer of the IFC, a member of the World Bank Group.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2016, with the headline 'S'pore can play key role in global integration'. Print Edition | Subscribe