The shifting demographics within the region bear watching, given that some nations have rapidly ageing populations while others have a growing number of youth, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said yesterday.
Mr Chan told a panel discussion on the second day of the Asean Business and Investment Summit at the Marina Bay Sands: "The demands in such a market will be quite different from what they are now."
The panel - which included Datuk Darell Leiking, Malaysia's Minister of International Trade and Industry, and Philippine Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez - was also asked to flag other critical issues affecting trade in the region.
It pointed to growing protectionism and technological change.
Mr Lopez noted: "The most pressing issue that we see now is growing protectionism in some parts of the world. This is precisely the reason we are placing greater emphasis on concluding the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership).
"Much attention has been given to this for so many years, but I think we are approaching the final stage... Having this mega trade deal in this part of the world will be very critical in countering any protectionist trend (elsewhere)."
RCEP is a free trade agreement being negotiated between the 10 member-states of Asean and China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and South Korea.
The ability to connect allows countries like Singapore to never need to be beholden to the size of our country or the economy... If we can connect ourselves, allow the free flow of data, technology, talent, finance, then it will enable our economy to grow at a different pace.
TRADE AND INDUSTRY MINISTER CHAN CHUN SING, on how technology, in enabling greater connectivity, provides opportunities for growth as well.
Mr Lopez said that more collaboration will be needed to help developing countries adapt in the face of technological advancements, as well as to share prosperity across the region.
But Mr Chan flagged the need for political will in order to integrate the region and realise Asean's potential, saying that any integration requires adjustments to countries' domestic markets and industries.
"We must be able to see that this is not a zero-sum game," he said. "As we become more integrated, we are able to leverage each other's comparative strengths... and because of that, we are able to grow a stronger economy together."
He added that technology, in enabling greater connectivity, provides opportunities for growth as well: "The ability to connect allows countries like Singapore to never need to be beholden to the size of our country or the economy."
Mr Chan said: "If we can connect ourselves, allow the free flow of data, technology, talent, finance, then it will enable our economy to grow at a different pace."
Quizzed by moderator Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, on how leaders can engage their citizens on policies, Mr Leiking stressed the need to persuade people that they may be left behind if they do not adapt to current trends, though he also noted that the technological gap between rural and urban areas will be a challenge.
Mr Chan added that three things need to happen to get citizens and businesses to buy into greater integration: having the political will to redistribute gains to those who fall behind, helping companies transform and keep pace, and supporting workers in upgrading themselves.
"If we cannot manage the local situation, (we) will have local backlash with global consequences," he said.
The officials also weighed in on the impact of trade tensions between the United States and China.
Mr Chan said while some realignment of trade routes could create opportunities in the region,
Asean's goal must be to build up its capabilities to make it an attractive destination beyond short-term shifts.
He added that another question is whether investor confidence will be sustained, and if there will be a disruption to the global trade system or investment climate.
Looking ahead, Mr Chan also said the Asean Plus One free trade agreements (FTAs) allow countries that do not yet have bilateral FTAs to have a neutral platform to come together. He added that this is also the greatest value for the RCEP.