Apec 2016: PM Lee Hsien Loong focuses on SMEs and workers to push for inclusive growth

Heads of Apec nations taking a 'family photo' at the Apec summit. ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA
Heads of Apec nations preparing to take a 'family photo' at the Apec summit. ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA
PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders' retreat on Sunday (Nov 20). PHOTO: MCI
PM Lee Hsien Loong meets Peru President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski at the Apec Summit in Lima, Peru, on Nov 19, 2016. ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

LIMA, Peru - The fruits of globalisation can be spread more evenly if economies focus on supporting small businesses, digital trade and services, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders' retreat on Sunday (Nov 20).

"Given the current backdrop, it is important that Apec addresses issues arising from globalisation and emphasises inclusive growth," he said.

This year's Apec Summit takes place amid rising anti-globalisation sentiments as global events such as Brexit and the recent US presidential elections reflect the backlash against the rise in world trade, integration of economies and freer movement of people.

Mr Lee suggested three areas of focus to achieve inclusive growth.

First, help micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises access overseas markets. Such businesses account for 97 per cent of enterprises and half of workers in the Apec economies, making them "the engines of growth and innovation".

Apec can improve their access to information, credit and technical assistance, and help them adopt new technologies, he said.

Second, put in place programmes to equip workers with the right skills for the digital economy, which will play an increasing role in creating good jobs for workers.

Also, Apec should facilitate digital trade by expediting custom processes, data flows and enhancing cybersecurity. A permanent freeze on custom duties on e-commerce should be considered, he added.

Lastly, improve domestic services sectors, in particular the "backbone" services such as info-comm technology, logistics, professional services, and manufacturing-related services.

"If we can focus on these specific components and sector focused efforts, then we have the building blocks, which can ultimately help us to achieve more easily, a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP)," he said, referring to the long-term goal of a free trade zone that covers the 21 economies in Apec.

Mr Lee also reiterated that even as economies open up, leaders must make trade work politically. "Governments have to implement measures that support those who are displaced or disrupted by trade," he said.

"We have to facilitate economic restructuring, assisting declining sectors and regions, invest in new infrastructure. We have to help workers to retrain and upgrade. We have to strengthen social policies. So that people who have not directly benefited from trade, are not worse off and left behind."

Mr Lee also touched on food security and suggested that economies exchange ideas and best practices in food production. Apec and Nanyang Technological University will set up a Centre for Sustainable Development in Agriculture and Fishery Sectors where countries can collaborate on research in these areas.

Also, countries should cooperate in diversifying food sources so that disruptions in one supply will not be so damaging. Singapore, for instance, gets its food from multiple sources so that it can switch to alternatives should the need arise, he said.

The food market can also be opened up more as food products are still heavily affected by measures such as technical regulations and customs procedures.

He urged caution on food programmes, subsidies and agricultural policies, and said: "I understand the political necessity for such programmes, in countries with large agricultural sectors but they must be designed and implemented very carefully. Many start off with the best of intentions but end up causing unintended outcomes, costing large sums and hurting consumers without helping farmers."

It is much better to focus on helping the agricultural industry be competitive by becoming efficient, productive and sustainable, he added.

The leaders' retreat caps the seven-day Apec Summit, which started last Monday (Nov 14).

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