SINGAPORE - As the world builds walls, Singapore must go against the tide and build bridges, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Friday (Nov 22).
To do so, it must stay united, renew its social compact and work with like-minded partners to keep the world open, he added.
"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."
Mr Heng also reiterated the Government's commitment to invest in Singaporeans and strengthen 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 was speaking at the annual The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum, which focuses on the political and economic situation in Asia.
Speakers at this year's edition will discuss the ongoing trade war between China and the United States, as well as issues such as the Hong Kong protests and their impact on the region.
OCBC Bank chief operating officer Ching Wei Hong noted that the sharp slowdown in the world economy has contributed to fears of a global recession, and that the economic and geopolitical outlook remains hazy.
"Uncertainty and volatility are here to stay, but they can throw up good opportunities not to be missed," he said. "The key thing is to tread carefully by investing sensibly and managing risk."
OCBC Premier Banking is presenting sponsor for the event.
In his speech, Mr Heng highlighted three events that deepened existing fault lines and erected new walls across the world.
The Sept 11 attacks in the US changed the world's approach to security and religious extremism and turned communities against one another, he said.
Seven years later, the global financial crisis resulted in a pushback against the greed and recklessness of elites, with that unhappiness now boiling over in the form of protests around the world.
And the escalation of the US-China trade war this year - a conflict which is not just about trade - has meant that the bifurcation of technology and supply chains is a real possibility.
"We have to go against the current tide, as we cannot afford to be a walled community," said Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister. "Our economy must remain open because trade is our lifeblood. Our society must remain open because diversity is our strength."
Policies such as the Housing Board's ethnic quota and legislation to deal with hate speech and misinformation are not intended to "paper over" Singapore's diversity, he added.
Instead, they are meant to create more common space to deepen understanding and respect among Singaporeans.
Mr Heng also 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, and it will also help those who cannot keep up.
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.
He highlighted projects that Singapore has with other countries in the region, such as Kendal Industrial Park in Indonesia, the seven Vietnam-Singapore Industrial Parks, and the Singapore-Myanmar Vocational Training Institute.
The Government will do more to prepare and encourage Singaporeans to venture into the region, both in schools and in the workplaces, he said, adding: "We hope that more Singaporeans would be keen to explore opportunities in the region."
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.