SINGAPORE - Singapore is committed to trade and global integration and maintaining its longstanding, wide-ranging relationships amid the sweeping changes shaking the world order, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Tuesday (Nov 29).
The Republic will also continue to emphasise Asean centrality and unity, said Dr Balakrishnan at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum. He called for the South-east Asian grouping to maintain its neutrality, openness and inclusivity as it grows into a global economic powerhouse.
"We are a small island state, trade is three times our GDP. It is our life blood so whether it's TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) or the Free Trade Agreement of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), these are things we believe in on a fundamental level. We will do our part to bring such a larger vision into effect," he told about 350 people gathered at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for the annual forum.
The minister was addressing a question on the TPP, a 12-nation free trade pact US President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to withdraw the US from as soon as he takes office on Jan 20.
In his keynote speech, Dr Balakrishnan noted that the surprise outcomes of the Brexit referendum in Britain and the US presidential election showed that the "global consensus which assumed free trade and economic integration will bring benefits has been ruptured".
Leaders have lost credibility because not enough attention has been paid to the groups who have been disadvantaged by free trade, he said.
"When people are frightenened and disadvantaged, it's very easy for them to put the blame on free trade," he said.
But rather than trade, said the minister, it is a technological revolution that is upending the established world order.
"Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg are the robber barons of the digital age," said Dr Balakrishnan. "The real challenge for us is to democratise the new technologies, to commoditise the tools, the skills in education so that a new middle class will rise using these technologies."
And despite the xenophobic and isolationist tendencies in the world, he said, "the truth is we are all interconnected".
Interdependence and collaboration, rather than independence and rivalry, are necessary in the transboundary fights against problems like climate change and diseases like Zika, he said.
He urged Asean to build interdependence. Prospects for the 10-nation bloc of 620 million people are bright because it has a youthful population and abundant natural resources, he said.
By 2030, the combined economic output may increase by four to five times from the current US$2.5 trillion (S$3.6 trillion), to US$10 trillion (S$14.2 trillion).
Singapore is a staunch believer in the need for Asean integration, Asean's neutrality, Asean unity," said Dr Balakrishnan.
"If we can maintain Asean as neutral, open and inclusive platform, engage and cooperate with the other big players, then we have bright prospects."
"Asean is going to be the sleeper hit of the next few decades."
On Singapore's relationship with China in light of the recent tension over the South China Sea dispute, Dr Balakrishnan expressed confidence that the long-standing, wide-ranging bilateral relationship cannot be hijacked by a single issue.
He also dismissed last week's seizure of SAF's armoured vehicles in Hong Kong as a problem with the commercial shipping service provider.
"The incident will be a footnote on how to do things strictly, carefully, and by the law. It's not a strategic incident; I'm not losing sleep over it," said Dr Balakrishnan.
Within Singapore, he noted that the Government is tending to the two top concerns of the people, especially those most disadvantaged by free trade: a sense of identity, and having good jobs.
"We need to recognise the interests of all the groups in our society, and ensure that no one is left behind," said Dr Balakrishnan.
"Without safety nets you can't pursue global interconnection and free trade....Singapore recognises it is a defining feature of the new economy, it means constantly paying attention to the people."
This year's ST Global Outlook Forum, an annual event organised by The Straits Times, is titled 2017: New Leaders, New Challenges for Asia. It is held in partnership with the sponsor, OCBC Premier Banking.
Besides Dr Balakrishnan, experts giving their take on the top changes and challenges the world faces were Professor Wang Gungwu, chairman of the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, East Asian Institute and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy; Professor K. Mitra, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies; Ms Selena Ling, head of treasury research and strategy at OCBC Bank; and ST's US Bureau Chief Jeremy Au Yong.