Trade tensions and shifting alliances may roil the world but Asia remains a bright spot, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.
Drawing on the past, he noted that the vast region has gone through major changes, from the Vietnam War to the rise of China.
Still, it has kept the faith in openness and cooperation, continuing "to believe in free trade, globalisation and working closely together", Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, said at a dialogue of the Milken Institute Asia Summit.
To underline the point, he cited the ongoing talks on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a regional trade pact which is being negotiated between 16 countries: the 10 Asean members, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
The RCEP is a major development, reflective of how Asia is doing more to deepen economic links and collaboration, he noted.
DPM Heng, however, cautioned that it has to be managed in a way that does not shut out others.
"This is not Fortress Asia. It is a way of catalysing the multilateral system," he said at the dialogue at the Hilton Singapore hotel.
It was moderated by Milken Institute chairman Michael Milken, a financier and philanthropist, and attended by about 1,500 business and government leaders.
DPM Heng stressed that the global trading system is not a zero-sum game, pointing out that negotiating parties need to discuss how to accommodate one another in their growth.
The key is working with like-minded countries to keep the momentum going for free trade and globalisation, he said.
He did not think it was equitable to expect those at the top of the value chain to always stay at the top, and those at the bottom to always stay at the bottom.
"Those at the top will need to run a little faster, and those at the bottom will catch up," he said.
Touching on the theme of the conference, "Asia at a Crossroads", Mr Heng said a new global division of labour is necessary, such that it will maintain peace and stability and let governments improve the lives of their people.
Again drawing on the past, he said the global division of labour was a major development after World War II that allowed many countries to catch up, and cited former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's role in China's 40 years of reform and opening up, which created enormous momentum for the country's growth.
Asked by a Reuters journalist whether he would consider more expansionary spending in the economic downturn, Mr Heng said Singapore's Government is ready to do "what needs to be done at the right time" to support the economy.
To a question from Mr Milken on technological disruption and what Singapore is doing to prepare its workforce for the future, he said the Government is expanding education at both ends.
One is giving additional subsidies for pre-school to give children a better foundation, and the other is lifelong learning and partnering companies to train workers.
"Going to school, getting educated, starting work and retiring - that paradigm is over. There are now multiple stages of learning, unlearning and relearning," Mr Heng said.
Singapore is also investing heavily in research and development (R&D) in anticipation of a future that will be shaped by science, technology and innovation.
"We have R&D in the basic sciences in our universities and institutes... but that has evolved into areas such as the growth of medtech and the food industry, including alternative ways of producing food."
The other part of the equation is translating research into enterprise, he said, noting that companies are partnering universities to set up corporate laboratories.
An interesting development he cited is the opening up of the di-gital payment space to non-banks in Singapore.
He believes the region can do more to promote greater interoperability in payments.
With e-commerce changing traditional definitions of national borders, DPM Heng said he "won't be surprised if, some day, we have a payments system throughout Asia and the world that will make payment a lot easier".