Businesses can serve as a bridge between countries: Heng Swee Keat

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat (fourth from left) meets AmCham members on the sidelines of the AmChams of Asia Pacific Business Summit 2021. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

SINGAPORE - As strategic competition between the United States and China grows, the corporate world can serve as a bridge between societies, said Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat on Tuesday (March 9).

And as American companies scour the region for new investment opportunities, Singapore can serve as a base for them, he added.

"While the global order is largely determined by the actions of governments, the corporate world can be a bridge between countries, societies and cultures," Mr Heng said, noting that American businesses have an important role to keep globalisation going as the world turns inwards.

They can do so by strengthening constructive efforts to reform the system, and supporting efforts to develop "a robust rules-based system, with dispute resolution mechanisms that all can abide by".

Mr Heng was speaking to business leaders, government representatives and policy experts from the United States and Asia Pacific at the AmChams of Asia Pacific Business Summit, organised by the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Singapore.

The three-day conference, which ends on Thursday, features a mix of virtual and in-person events at Marina Bay Sands. Speakers will address the topic of transformation from various angles, including how industries and government policies can change.

In his speech, Mr Heng set out three challenges businesses will face operating in the Asia-Pacific region, and identified three potential areas of growth.

First, there is uncertainty about the shape of the Covid-19 trajectory. Although most countries in the region have handled the pandemic well, they will need to redouble their vaccination efforts in order to stay ahead of the crisis, he said.

"The pandemic cannot be fully controlled anywhere until it is stopped everywhere," Mr Heng said, adding that businesses can help in various ways. These include contributing to the global Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (Covax) scheme and facilitating the transport and distribution of vaccines.

Growing US-China strategic competition will pose a second challenge, Mr Heng said, noting how neither country wishes to appear weak before its domestic population. He added his hope that the new Biden administration will bring "greater predictability and nuance" to this bilateral relationship, and stressed the importance of US engagement in the rest of Asia, beyond China.

A third challenge lies in rising levels of global debt, which will have to be repaid at some point, the minister noted. "If we are not careful, the debt burden and resulting inflation could crimp the ability of economies to make sustained investments in emerging opportunities."

He urged businesses to take a long-term view of the region's growth prospects and continue to invest in emerging opportunities.

These growth areas include infrastructure, the digital economy and sustainability - all of which Singapore can add value to.

For instance, Singapore set up Infrastructure Asia in 2018 to connect governments with developers, professional service providers and financiers for the region's infrastructure needs.

And with the digital economy in South-east Asia projected to triple from US$100 billion (S$134 billion) in 2020 to over US$300 billion in 2025, US companies are "well-placed to tap on Asia's digital dividend", Mr Heng said. He noted that American firms remain at the forefront of innovation, and are helping to shape the consensus around emerging areas such as the ethical use of artificial intelligence.

"With our strong links to the region, Singapore can continue to be an effective and stable base for companies looking to expand into the region."

On the topic of sustainability, Mr Heng said Singapore aims to be a green node and is working with regional partners to provide a range of carbon services.

"We look forward to your continued investment in the region, and to stronger partnerships to realise these growth opportunities," he told the audience, stressing that the US has traditionally helped to foster regional stability and prosperity in the Asia Pacific.

"Singapore can be your base to explore the region," he said.

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