S'pore will stay open to the world, continue to welcome foreign contributions: Ong Ye Kung

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung during a European Chamber of Commerce dialogue on Aug 20, 2021. PHOTO: EUROPEAN CHAMBER OF COMMERCE

SINGAPORE - Singapore continues to value foreign contributions, and will not change its approach to running the economy, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Friday (Aug 20).

This means it still welcomes, facilitates and protects foreign investments. It will also continue to complement its local workforce with foreign talent, and work to fortify and expand its network of free trade agreements, he said.

"We will continue to value the technology and expertise the world can offer us. We will persist in learning from everyone," Mr Ong added.

He was addressing members of the European Chamber of Commerce (EuroCham) in Singapore in a speech in which he assured his audience of the Republic's continued commitment to staying open to the world.

Doing so is part of the reality that the country operates in - that it needs to tap global markets to survive.

But this understanding of the world has recently been called into question, with the minister identifying two reasons for this.

They are the current debate on foreign manpower and free trade, as well as the broader impact of Covid-19 on the economy.

"In Singapore, there have been attempts to use free trade agreements... to whip up anti-foreigner sentiments and seed xenophobia in our society," the minister said.

He and other Cabinet ministers have taken to Parliament to defend such agreements, as openness is a fundamental value for the ruling party, he said.

But he also acknowledged the downsides of globalisation, including heightened competition from foreign manpower and the over-concentration of foreigners in certain sectors or firms.

"We will deal robustly with these problems. If we don't, resentments will grow, and there will be fertile ground for far-right populist politics to gather strength," Mr Ong added. "We are determined to never let such politics take root here."

When the pandemic hit, Singapore was forced to close its borders. Even so, the minister said, it took steps to stay open - contributing to the world by keeping supply lines clear and helping foreign workers keep their jobs.

Everyone infected with Covid-19 is also treated equally regardless of nationality, with the Government absorbing the costs, he said.

The minister also spoke of how Singapore's middle course approach was the "right and prudent" decision.

While many people experienced inconveniences due to social restrictions, they were also generally able to go about life as usual. In contrast, other countries implemented tight border measures that would have been difficult for Singapore to sustain, while yet others opted for freedom at the heavy cost of lives.

"People value us because the city is well-governed; everything works; we are stable, secure and safe; and above all, because we take care of everyone in Singapore, even in a pandemic," Mr Ong said.

Had the country taken a different tack, its experience with Covid-19 would have been like New York's or London's, he added.

"People would now be asking to leave Singapore, not asking to return."

His comments echoed those made by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong in an interview on Friday with the BBC.

Mr Wong spoke of how Singapore's reopening is aimed at maintaining its status as a business hub. The minister also talked about how the Republic has taken a more cautious approach so far, given its underlying philosophy that values stability and security.

Mr Ong said that Singapore's strong position today is a product of the trust between the Government and its people.

"It comes from the Government's consistency of action, guided by a recognition of our constraints, a long-term perspective, and a strong sense of mission to keep Singapore stable, safe and secure."

EuroCham president Federico Donato said he welcomed indications that Singapore is working towards a cautious but steady reopening of its borders.

The trade association appreciates Singapore for its reliability, as well as its clear vision of the road ahead and the certainty its system works, he added.

"Reopening is crucial for everybody, and of course everybody is trying to do their best," he said.

"But it's even more crucial for a country which has a domestic economy which is limited in comparison to the regional and global role that the country has."

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