November 20, 2023
SINGAPORE – Even in a complicated world bereft of strategic stability and spewing dire warnings on trade, opportunities are multiplying for Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said as he wrapped up his six-day working visit to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum.
There are plenty of signs that Singapore is making good and there is room to grow, PM Lee told Singapore media in San Francisco on Nov 17.
Some of the reasons for hope, he said, include a new Asia-Pacific economic initiative on the horizon; the broadening of Apec’s agenda beyond trade; a sliver of hope from the Biden-Xi summit; and the admirable dynamism of Singaporean start-ups that have cracked the Silicon Valley code.
The 30th annual meeting of the 21 Apec economies ended with a declaration reaffirming determination “to deliver a free, open, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, inclusive, and predictable trade and investment environment”.
Apec members also backed moves to reform the World Trade Organisation, including reviving its hobbled dispute settlement system. Support for ending the bloody Gaza conflict and Ukraine war did not figure in the final joint communique.
“Even in a complicated world, there are opportunities,” PM Lee said.
“We are not the last in queue to reach those opportunities. In fact, we are quite high up the list, and we should get further up.”
Prospects remain challenging for global growth, but there are upsides for Singapore, he said.
“The markets are there; the opportunities are there. We have to seize them, and we have to be able to export, to get people to notice Singapore and want to come to Singapore.
“I think that is happening,” he added, pointing to the launch of Enterprise Singapore’s San Francisco Overseas Centre on Nov 14, its third in the United States.
The government agency, which supports Singaporean firms’ overseas ambitions, has seen a 23 per cent increase in companies exploring or entering the US market over the last five years. Nearly 200 Singapore companies now operate in the US, in areas spanning from healthcare to fintech to manufacturing and retail. Larger ones, such as ST Engineering and Singtel, have set up corporate venture capital arms in the US to invest in start-ups.
PM Lee said it is particularly encouraging that there are Singaporeans – including young men and women – in the US running their own start-ups and enterprises.
“Some of them, they started their company here, and went back to Singapore and started a branch, and they are recruiting in Singapore and bringing the people here to work.
“So that is one way to do it – to go out to the world and do business where the world is.”
The other way is to bring the companies into Singapore, he added, by ensuring that the nation makes it possible for them to do things in Singapore that they cannot do elsewhere.
Recalling a business roundtable he held with American companies, PM Lee said he had met businessmen who had up to 10,000 employees in Singapore.
“Around the world, their business goes up, goes down, but in Singapore, they are stable, and they are growing and recruiting some more.”
Besides increasing headcount, companies are also making Singapore their headquarters, and siting corporate functions such as training and finance in the Republic – “and they think they can do it better in Singapore than they can do elsewhere”, he added.
“Our responsibility is to make them welcome, to create an environment, and also to get Singaporeans to understand that this is adding jobs and opportunities for us.”
This includes ensuring that Singapore has enough houses, trains and other infrastructural elements to accommodate all the people who want to be in the country, he said. “We have to open arms to bring people in.”
PM Lee also welcomed a fairer business environment as more countries adopt anti-corruption standards.
On Nov 16, the 14 nations that are members of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) declared on the sidelines of the Apec meeting that they had substantially concluded agreements on clean energy and anti-corruption measures.
They also signed a landmark agreement on devising resilient supply chains.
Singapore is very strict on anti-corruption, but practices vary in the region, PM Lee noted.
“I think the more countries can agree to uphold rules for operating cleanly and free of corruption, the easier it is for our businesses to operate.
“So, the tighter the rules where they are operating, the more level the playing field they will be able to have, and we hope the more opportunities they will get doing business fairly,” he said.
He also saw potential for Singapore to benefit from IPEF’s clean energy pillar, which may aid the nation’s quest for partners to scale up supply chains for its low-carbon hydrogen strategy.
Low-carbon hydrogen is a fuel that is made in a way that creates little to no greenhouse gas emissions compared with conventional fossil-based hydrogen.
The IPEF is US President Joe Biden’s signature economic initiative in the region. But to the disappointment of its export-driven Asian partners, his administration buckled under pressure from his party’s progressive and pro-labour wings and did not surface an agreement on trade.
PM Lee said: “Looking at the state of play of the political scene in the US, they do not feel that they are able to push across the finishing line yet. We understand that, (but) we hope that they will be able to do that.
“IPEF, in terms of trade, is something which is keeping the game going, but the real scoring is to come after that – it is to enable the game to move forward and score beyond what the IPEF can deliver.”
He added: “We are keeping this issue warm and we hope that when the stars line up in a better position, we will be able to make more significant progress.”
Another reason for optimism was Apec’s own evolution to a grouping whose agenda had broadened beyond trade, he said.
“It talks about the green economy, it talks about digital transformation, it talks about clean economies, meaning anti-corruption, because these are all factors which contribute to the prosperity of the region.”
The global mood has changed, however. The strategic tensions have grown and the emphasis on national security has displaced priority for trade, he noted.
But the need to work together remains, he said. “Even though we may be competitors, you still have areas where you need to cooperate when it comes to climate change, the digital economy, more secure supply chains.”
He counted the Nov 15 meeting between Mr Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping as another reason for cautious hope that their stabilising relationship will yield a breather for a strained world.
But uncertainty is here to stay, he said.
For Singapore, the implication is that all burners have to be lit.
“That means you have got to export to America, you have got to attract investments from the US. You have got to do the same with China, you have got to do the same with Asean, with India, and be partners with all of them, even though they may not all be partners with one another,” he said.