Ministers, academics say S'pore will need to keep pushing free trade

Singapore as a small country has to be prepared to adapt to a different world in the future, and continue to cooperate with other countries to ensure its trade and security, said ministers and academics in Singapore in response to United States President Donald Trump's inauguration speech on Friday.

In his speech, President Trump said that all nations had a right to put their own interests first, and claimed that the US had "enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry". He promised to give jobs back to Americans and said protection would lead to great prosperity and strength.

Singapore's Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman said that open engagement with trading partners was especially important to Singapore.

"They (the US) may be looking inward, and they may be big and self-sustaining. But small countries like us cannot afford to be inward looking," said Dr Maliki.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam agreed. "Free trade, free movement of goods, services - this has been important in lifting up the entire world. It is in our interest and we believe it is in everybody's interest."

STAYING RESPONSIVE

We, as a small country, will have to adapt to the environment. So we see what measures are taken, what steps are taken, and we will see how it impacts us, and we adapt. That's always been the case.

MR K. SHANMUGAM, Home Affairs and Law Minister, on what Singapore would do.

Mr Shanmugam noted that Singapore is one of the largest trading nations in the world, whose external trade is four times the country's internal gross domestic product.

But at the same time, he said, every country does for itself what it thinks is in its best interest.

"We, as a small country, will have to adapt to the environment. So we see what measures are taken, what steps are taken, and we will see how it impacts us, and we adapt. That's always been the case."

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said Mr Trump's speech did not inspire confidence because some of the aspirations he laid out - such as wiping out Islamist terrorism - depended on cooperation with countries that may not have good relationships with the US, such as Iran and China.

"We have to be prepared for quite a different world. It may force us to look for new partners for cooperation, and new ways to ensure we will continue to enjoy the economic space for us to develop our economy," said Prof Tan.

Nevertheless, he added that Singapore should still continue to explore ways to deepen and broaden cooperation with the US.

Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong, executive deputy chairman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, expressed hope that the preoccupation of the new president with domestic concerns would be temporary, and that he would eventually turn his attention back to the global partnerships that the US has built on.

"The immediate loss for us is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but beyond that, we hope that Mr Trump will be able to spend time visiting South-east Asia, visiting us, attending all Asean summits, which his predecessors have been quite good at doing," added Mr Ong.

At the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last week, experts said that Asia will push ahead with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership - which includes China but excludes the US - if Mr Trump ditches the TPP. Chinese President Xi Jinping underscored the need for international cooperation, telling the forum last Tuesday that globalisation, rather than protectionism, was the way forward.

•Additional reporting by Seow Bei Yi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 22, 2017, with the headline 'Ministers, academics say S'pore will need to keep pushing free trade'. Print Edition | Subscribe