Tech firms should tell US and China to 'press pause button' on rivalry: S'pore diplomat

The US is already trying to decouple - or separate - some areas of the two countries' economies. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - Tech firms should tell the United States and China to "press the pause button" on their rivalry and work together on global issues such as climate change instead, said Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani.

"What you should do is… speak up and explain that this geopolitical contest is neither benefiting the US nor China, and is certainly harming the rest of the world at a time when we need to focus on more important common challenges," he told attendees at the annual Tech3 Forum on Friday (Aug 26).

Professor Mahbubani, a distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, said tensions between the US and China will continue to worsen in the coming years.

He said the rivalry - which includes an ongoing trade war and the US' accusations of corporate espionage by Chinese tech firm Huawei - was one about power and not ideology between the two world powers.

Prof Mahbubani also said South-east Asia will be the most affected region in the rivalry, adding that it has benefited economically from trade and investments from both countries.

"Even though… the 10 Asean countries have made it very clear that they don't want to take sides in this contest, in one way or another, they will be called upon to choose," he added.

Prof Mahbubani said the technology industry will also be at the forefront of the geopolitical contest, and warned that the US might deny China access to its advanced technology.

He noted that the US is already trying to decouple - or separate - some areas of the two countries' economies.

Businesses would then face difficulties in their daily operations, such as a possible ban by the US in exporting products with Chinese-made components, he said.

The threat of decoupled technology ecosystems, in which companies and countries may have to choose between or operate on two separate systems, was mentioned by Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo in her speech at Friday's event.

To better protect Singapore's digital future, the Republic has focused on building its 5G digital infrastructure to enhance digital connectivity and strengthen its economic competitiveness.

"Today, our telcos have achieved at least 50 per cent outdoor coverage for 5G standalone services," she said.

Singapore has also been actively forming partnerships regionally and globally to facilitate data innovation, said Mrs Teo, adding that the collaborations will enable the establishment of norms that support cross-border data flows.

"Regrettably, businesses today face challenges complying with many different data regimes," said the minister.

Some countries have introduced highly restrictive rules, she said, referencing a report by The Straits Times on Wednesday that examined in detail how restricting free data flow can have negative economic and social impact on citizens.

Other efforts by Singapore which Mrs Teo cited include working with neighbouring countries to apply cyber norms to the region and entering into agreements with other states to foster common standards for digital trade.

Friday's event, which was organised by the Singapore Computer Society (SCS) and the Infocomm Media Development Authority, included a panel discussion on the challenges faced by professionals and businesses in the current economic climate.

Panellists include Prof Mahbubani and Economic Development Board managing director Jacqueline Poh.

On Friday, SCS partnered the National Library Board to organise programmes and events on technology topics, such as monthly talks at libraries. Both organisations inked a memorandum of understanding at the event.

Ten organisations were also recognised by SCS for their commitment in encouraging employees to pick up training in artificial intelligence ethics and governance.

They include the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore, Nanyang Polytechnic and UOB.

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