Reconnecting with Asean a key focus as S'pore reopens economy

Desmond Lee also stresses need for digital connectivity even as physical links are rebuilt

Reconnecting with its Asean neighbours will be a key focus for Singapore as it reopens its economy and recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, said Minister for National Development Desmond Lee yesterday.

He also said that if people can travel in and out of Singapore safely, the country can re-establish its hub status and better serve the interests of Asean and Asia.

But the linkages should extend to the digital realm too, as rebuilding physical links will take time.

Mr Lee made the remarks at the Asean and Asia Forum, organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, with the theme of "Seeking Recovery Amid Covid-19: Regional Strategies And A Digital Future".

Delivering the keynote speech at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore, where the physical portion of the hybrid event was held, he noted that many sectors in Singapore were affected by movement restrictions and border closures around the world.

For instance, companies in the construction, marine and offshore engineering sectors found themselves unable to bring in foreign workers, and travel ground to a halt.

Mr Lee said reconnecting with the world is critical for a small and open economy like Singapore's.

"Therefore, the first big step is to find safe means of reconnecting with our neighbours, while building resilience locally to cope with future disruptions that will surely come our way," said the minister, who is a co-chair of the Emerging Stronger Taskforce (EST), which was set up to chart Singapore's economic recovery post-Covid-19.

"If we can manage physical travel safely and become an oasis of hope during troubled times, we can better serve the interests of Asean and Asia."

Even as these physical links are being rebuilt, Singapore should push ahead with digital connectivity with its neighbours, said Mr Lee.

He said that this was the "best window" for Singapore to embed itself in the digital networks that have grown in the region, with many people and businesses having been pushed online during the pandemic.

In this regard, Singapore's reputation as a neutral, trusted broker may help, he said.

He cited the Alliance for Action on Supply Chain Digitalisation, an industry-led coalition convened by the EST that set up the Singapore Trade Data Exchange, a piece of data infrastructure that facilitates the secure sharing of data between different parts of the supply chain.

In a separate speech, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary said Singapore and Asean would have to keep reinventing themselves to stay competitive amid digitalisation, which "brings the global market to our doorstep, but... also brings global competition".

At the national level, past investments have helped to attract 80 per cent of the top 100 technology companies to set up shop here.

The next phase of investments in 5G technology, research and up-to-date regulations is needed to help the Republic become one of the most digitally connected cities and among the best to do business in, Dr Janil said.

Amid these developments, it would also be important to reinforce partnerships, he added.

"In a digital world with porous boundaries, we have to recognise that economic prosperity happens only when there is a belief that the world is not zero sum," said Dr Janil, noting Singapore's partnership with Asean in areas such as data exchange across borders.

Mr Lee said that ultimately, Singapore will be able to open up carefully and safely only if as many people as possible get vaccinated.

Given the virulence of the new coronavirus variants, it will be impossible for the world to maintain indefinite restrictions on society and the economy, he said, noting Singapore's push towards managing Covid-19 as an endemic disease.

"We will open up at a controlled pace, making adjustments from time to time, so that the rate of transmission is managed without us having to return to a heightened alert state," he said, calling on people to encourage their friends and relatives to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

After his speech, Mr Lee was also asked about Covid-19 vaccination for children who are 12 years old and below.

He said that Singapore would embark on vaccinating children only when the science has shown that it is safe to do so.

But he also said that it was important to keep children safe in the meantime, while ensuring that they do not become a "lost generation" who are deprived of the opportunity of a full education and development.

"A lot of stress and strains you see among young people, including children, that cause us to focus on the importance of mental wellness, arise from their feeling constrained, that somehow they haven't quite got that full opportunity in school," he said, adding that this is why schools have restarted co-curricular activities, to provide students with more opportunities for face-to-face interaction.

Mr Lee said that even the young people in Singapore who have been vaccinated, such as university students, were deeply concerned about the loss of opportunities to go on exchange programmes, and to travel and see the world.

"We have to be very mindful that even as we keep safe, and aspire to open up economically, we need to concern ourselves with the social aspects of this pandemic as well, such as opportunities for young people," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2021, with the headline 'Reconnecting with Asean a key focus as S'pore reopens economy'. Subscribe