SINGAPORE - The shift in the Asean region's demographic is a key trend to watch given some nations have rapidly ageing populations while others have a growing number of youth, said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing on Tuesday (Nov 13).
Mr Chan told a panel discussion on the second day of the Asean Business and Investment Summit in 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 and the economy in South-east Asia.
The three officials pointed to growing protectionism and technological change in addition to the demographic challenge.
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)."
Mr Lopez added 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 on 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 to the world, 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.
"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 noted that the growing technological gap between rural and urban areas will be a challenge.
Mr Chan added that three things need to happen to convince citizens that greater integration is the way forward: Having the political will to redistribute gains to those who fall behind; helping companies transform and keep pace; and showing a commitment to support workers in upgrading themselves.
"The opposite of what we want to achieve is already apparent in some countries. If we cannot manage the local situation, (we) will have local backlash with global consequences," he said.