Singapore must stay open and inclusive to thrive in digital age: Iswaran

Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran (right) at the Asia House Global Trade Dialogue at Mandarin Oriental hotel on Nov 7, 2019.
Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran (right) at the Asia House Global Trade Dialogue at Mandarin Oriental hotel on Nov 7, 2019.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - Globalisation and technological change can create much value and opportunities, yet cause profound dislocation to workers and businesses.

To thrive in a digital age, Singapore's response to economic challenges must be to stay open so as to seize the opportunities and grow the pie, and be inclusive so that these opportunities are equitably distributed, said Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran on Thursday (Nov 7).

"Unless there is a fair distribution of the larger benefits, the natural instinct is to push back against greater competition and disruptive change," he said.

"Our efforts to embrace technology and economic integration must therefore be matched by an equitable distribution of the benefits.

"Sustaining such (an open) mindset, especially in times of economic uncertainty, when you have to stand on principle and go against the grain and popular sentiments, requires political will and strong leadership."

Addressing 300 business and government leaders at the Asia House Global Trade Dialogue held at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, Mr Iswaran said that the volume of cross-border data flows in 2017 was nearly 150 times that of 12 years ago. In South-east Asia alone, the digital economy is expected to treble in size to US$300 billion (S$408 billion) by 2025.

The digital transition will also disrupt jobs, businesses and economies, said Mr Iswaran, who is also Minister-in-charge of Trade Relations. Global consulting firm McKinsey estimates that by 2030, 14 per cent of the global workforce, or about 375 million workers, may have to find new occupations.

Trade agreements that were conceived in a pre-digital era are not designed for these new economic realities and trade patterns, he said. "It is therefore in our collective interest to update global trade agreements or strike new arrangements, to facilitate the flow of data and digital transactions."

Singapore, he added, had embarked on negotiations for Digital Economy Agreements (DEAs) with like-minded countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Chile. These pacts seek to establish clear and harmonised international rules, and allow free data flow between countries with appropriate safeguards.


Other initiatives include the Asean Cross-Border Data Flows Mechanism, the Apec Cross-Border Privacy Rules, and the Joint Statement Initiative on E-commerce at the World Trade Organisation.

But it is critical that gains from trade and globalisation translate into benefits at the micro level, he said, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and less skilled workers who may disproportionately bear the burden of adjustment.

The Republic achieves this through the SMEs Go Digital programme, which helps small businesses adopt new technologies by defraying part of the cost. They are also granted favourable intellectual property licensing terms, and work with scientists seconded from research institutes of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

To help SMEs understand complex trade agreements and their relevance to them, and to venture abroad, the Government conducts regular education and outreach activities, training courses and business missions. Since 2016, around 1,800 companies have benefited from these efforts, added Mr Iswaran.

Enterprise Singapore has also come up with an online tariff search engine for companies to determine the preferential margins for specific products in each market, along with Rules of Origin criteria and documentation.

Rules of Origin are used to determine the national source of a product, as certain duties and restrictions depend upon the source of imports.

For workers, they can practise lifelong learning and upgrading through the SkillsFuture programme, and by tapping skills and training roadmaps for 23 industries and sub-sectors in partnership with industry and unions, he said.

Mr Iswaran stressed that being inclusive cannot just be a broad statement of objective or strategy.

To be truly effective, he said, it must be detailed, and taken down to the level of individual industries, companies and individuals to address specific needs and challenges. The Government must collaborate with unions and industry to build workers' skills and companies' capabilities.


"Staying open and being inclusive has underpinned the Singapore story and our journey thus far. I believe these values will endure as our cardinal points as we work with our partners from around the world, to navigate the path towards a digital future rich with opportunities and possibilities for our people."