As the world builds walls, Singapore must go against the tide and build bridges, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.
To do so, it must work with like-minded partners to keep the world open, he added. There would be severe implications if the conflict between China and the United States "bifurcated" the world.
"The free, open and rules-based international order is under stress. If countries wall up, or if there is a new Iron Curtain, the cost to Singapore will be significant," Mr Heng said. "Trade is our lifeblood, and multilateralism is how small countries like us have a place in the world."
He was speaking at the annual The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum, which focuses on the political and economic situation in Asia. OCBC Premier Banking is the event's presenting sponsor.
In his speech, Mr Heng highlighted three events that deepened existing fault lines and erected new walls across the world.
These are the Sept 11 terror attacks in the US, the global financial crisis of 2008, and the escalation of the US-China trade war this year.
The conflict between the two big powers is not just about trade, but a contest for global influence and leadership, Mr Heng said, adding that the bifurcation of technology and supply chains is "a real possibility".
"The implications would be far greater now than during the Cold War, because in the decades since, our economies, our societies have become increasingly intertwined," he added.
"We have to go against the current tide, as we cannot afford to be a walled community. Our economy must remain open because trade is our lifeblood. Our society must remain open because diversity is our strength."
At the same time, Asean countries must come together. "All of us need to start thinking and acting regionally," Mr Heng said, noting that the region is a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy global outlook.
Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, stressed the importance of a strong economy in keeping Singapore relevant and creating good jobs for Singaporeans. Trust in society breaks down when people lose hope in the future, he added.
But even as Singapore undergoes an economic transformation, the Government will stay committed to investing in its people so that they can access new opportunities.
Mr Heng reiterated the Government's commitment to strengthening social safety nets for those who are unable to keep pace with change.
"Our commitment to our people is that even as we create new opportunities, no one will be left behind, no one will be shut out," he said. "As long as they are willing to work hard, we will support them to make a better life for themselves and their families."
Mr Heng also took part in a dialogue moderated by Mr Warren Fernandez, editor of The Straits Times and editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/ Malay/ Tamil Media Group.
Mr Heng said that any strain in the US-China relationship would affect not just Singapore, but all the Asean members.
Beyond the trade war, the US-China tension is "a contest of government systems", with differences on a range of issues such as the environment, human rights, free speech and the economy.
Calling the current state of the relationship "worrying", Mr Heng said it is "a difficult adjustment for both sides" with one being an emerging global power and the other the incumbent power.
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