Keynote Address by Minister Desmond Lee at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs’ (SIIA) 13th ASEAN and Asia Forum

Sep 9, 2021

A very good morning to Prof Simon Tay, Chairman of SIIA, Mr Tan Chong Meng, Co-Chair of the Emerging Stronger Taskforce (EST), colleagues, friends, business partners, friends from around the world and in Singapore.

I am happy to be here with you at the 13th ASEAN and Asia Forum (AAF).

This Forum allows us to learn from one another, and gain a better understanding of our region’s political, economic, and social developments. As much as I’ve now got the privilege to share some of my thoughts with you in a forum like this, I hope too, to have the opportunity to listen closely and deeply to many of our business leaders and friends from around the world, who have thoughts and insights about what’s ongoing and about the role of it.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank SIIA for being a valuable knowledge partner of the Emerging Stronger Taskforce, in providing us with insights and ideas from the wider business community, and helping us to tap on the rich vein of knowledge and experience to help guide Singapore in the post-pandemic world.

As you know, the EST which I co-chair with Mr Tan Chong Meng, was convened during the Circuit Breaker last year amidst the height of uncertainty, to understand the major trends arising from COVID-19 and prepare Singapore for our eventual economic and social recovery, even amidst ongoing challenges.

We launched our report in May, but as is characteristic of this pandemic, the situation has been evolving constantly over time, as countries in the region and in the world grapple with new developments or new waves of infection.

The Delta variant has proven to be significantly more infectious and has caused new surges in many countries, including in Singapore.

In our region, especially, countries have been caught in its grip, as case counts continue to rise dramatically. And in some cases, the public health challenges may be exacerbated by ongoing social and political uncertainties.

Amidst such uncertainty, what can we do to ensure that Singapore emerges stronger and builds back stronger from this crisis?

I’d like to share some thoughts, drawing on some of the insights from the Emerging Stronger Taskforce, and I look forward to hearing your views too.

Redefining our relevance to the world

First, we must work together to move Singapore forward on the road to endemicity. As Prime Minister Lee said in his National Day Rally, it is no longer possible to completely eradicate this virus in Singapore, given the virulence of the new variants, and I think the same is so for the rest of the world. But it is also impossible for us to maintain indefinite restrictions on our society and our economy.

We therefore need to work towards a state where we can live with the virus becoming endemic eventually. This will only be possible if we continue to vaccinate as many Singaporeans as we can, which will allow us to open up carefully and safely, and so that we avoid a huge surge that could overrun our medical facilities, or result in many unnecessary deaths.

We will open up at a controlled pace, making adjustments from time to time, so that the rate of transmission is managed without us having to return to a heightened alert state, where possible.

We will do this through aggressive contact tracing and ring-fencing of cases, and widespread testing. This will afford us time to vaccinate even more seniors and roll-out the booster programme for seniors and those who are immuno-compromised who had taken their vaccinations much earlier. So, if your family, friends, and colleagues have not taken their vaccinations, please be our ambassador and encourage them to do so.

A key part of reopening our economy is reconnecting with the world, which is critical for a small and open economy like ours. Already the challenges that other countries face, especially our neighbours in Asia and ASEAN, have had a significant impact on us too.

For example, sectors that rely on migrant guest workers, like construction and marine and offshore engineering, have faced disruptions in manpower supply as we tightened border restrictions to mitigate the pandemic. Measures imposed overseas have also affected the import of material and supply to Singapore.

Our tourism- and travel-related sectors have also been adversely affected, as global travel restrictions remain in place and global travel demand continues to be low.

Therefore, the first big step is to find safe means of reconnecting with our neighbours, while building resilience locally to cope with future disruptions that will surely come our way. And we need to partner industries to do so. For example, we have been working with business associations and businesses on pilot programmes to bring in foreign guest workers in the construction, marine and process sectors, in a manner that is safe and calibrated for them and for us.

By reconnecting with the world, we can find opportunities to re-establish our hub status, in many senses of the word. If we can manage physical travel safely and become an oasis of hope during these troubled times, we can better serve the interests of ASEAN and Asia, while creating opportunities here in Singapore.

For instance, the Emerging Stronger Taskforce convened an Alliance for Action (AfA) on Enabling Safe and Innovative Travel Experiences. AfAs are industry-led coalitions, working with the Government and playing a supportive role, to explore opportunities or tackle challenges that have arisen due to COVID-19, or generally.

This particular AfA developed a safe prototype for business events even amidst COVID-19. The prototype was developed in less than six months, and piloted at TravelRevive in November last year, which is the first hybrid international travel tradeshow to take place physically in the Asia Pacific, amidst the pandemic. The event attracted close to 1,000 attendees, including 65 foreign visitors from 14 different countries.

More recently, we have announced the opening of Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTLs) to Germany and Brunei, taking cautious but consistent steps towards reopening and remaining internationally connected.

Second, to establish connectivity with our neighbours, we should go beyond physical links, and extend our connectivity to the digital realm. While we will continue to restore physical connectivity, there remains much uncertainty, and much of what we can do is contingent on the situation in the region and the rest of the world.

But one thing we can definitely do is to supplement our physical connections with digital ones. This is the best window to do so, as COVID-19 has pushed many people and businesses to connect online. And anecdotally, we all know this is so.

We should find a way for Singapore to embed ourselves in these growing digital networks to stay relevant and connected to opportunities, markets and clients, while reaping productivity gains by using digital tools to collaborate with our partners. And in the digital space, our reputation as a neutral and trusted broker may help.

For example, an AfA on Supply Chain Digitalisation established SGTraDex, a Common Data Infrastructure, to address a fragmented global supply chain ecosystem through facilitating trusted, secure, and inclusive data sharing between players across the supply chain ecosystem.

Another AfA on Digitalising Built Environment launched the Common Data Environment (CDE) Data Standards that encourages digital collaboration amongst industry stakeholders along the long value chain, through an interoperable and connected ecosystem for development, design, construction and then facility management.

These initiatives will present greater efficiencies and opportunities, as well as heightened security within the industries’ ecosystems.

At the Government-to-Government level, Singapore has established Digital Economy Agreements (DEAs) with various international partners, building on Singapore’s extensive networks of free trade agreements and other digital collaborations to establish digital trade rules and digital economy agreements – two signed, more being negotiated.

These initiatives demonstrate our commitment to new models of integration and modes of connectivity, enabling us to foster meaningful partnerships with our neighbours. These will in turn create substantive economic opportunities.

Third, besides establishing physical and digital links, we need to find new ways to be useful to our region, and forge win-win partnerships with our neighbours.

The keywords in today’s world are resilience and sustainability. Resilience to meet the immediate challenges of COVID-19 and build back stronger, and sustainability to meet the longer-term challenges, like climate change, which is an existential challenge for Singapore and the world.

COVID-19 has brought to the fore the importance of these issues and their urgency. For example, the pandemic has severely disrupted supply chains in many sectors, and there is an increasing focus on supply chain resilience, in addition to the long-established focus on supply chain efficiency. Different industries and different companies are all finding strategies to cope with this challenge.

Rightly or wrongly, the pandemic has also been touted by some commentators as a ‘dry run for climate catastrophes’, as it has accelerated the recognition of sustainability as a key priority for countries and businesses to avoid similar, if not greater disruptions in the future. These create opportunities for our businesses to meet these needs and benefit the world at the same time, drawing on our unique strengths.

For example, arising from the Emerging Stronger Taskforce’s AfA on Sustainability, DBS, SGX, Standard Chartered, and Temasek recently announced the establishment of Climate Impact X (CIX), which aims to be a Singapore-based global carbon exchange marketplace for high-quality and transparently verifiable carbon credits, drawing on our expertise as a trusted financial centre.

CIX will also offer a curated selection of Natural Climate Solutions, many of which are within Asia, with the potential to generate income for local communities. In this sense, CIX also complements our vision and efforts to transform Singapore into a City in Nature. CIX will therefore contribute to efforts to combat climate change, while contributing to Singapore’s position as a sustainability hub, and benefiting local communities in Asia.

Singapore must continue to seek such new models of integration and connectivity with our neighbours. We can work with South East Asia (SEA) to develop an integrated regional market that exports not just goods and services, but also capital and talent. We also look forward to strengthening our role in the SEA network, to enable SEA to connect to global markets and major innovation nodes, to scale further heights together.

We believe that such a spirit of win-win partnership must be replicated at all levels, including at the business-to-business level and the person-to-person level. So, these are my suggestions for Singapore and our regional partners. Continue pressing on toward endemicity, through vaccination, testing and contact tracing and collaboration. Restore both physical and digital connectivity with our neighbours in the region. Stay open and welcoming, and strengthen our international ties. And continue to find ways to be of value and to add value to our regional and global community, so that we continue to create new jobs and find new opportunities for our people.

To do all these we need partnerships, the spirit of collaboration and to build trust with our neighbours, but also among the public, private, and people sectors in our city.

Our close tripartite relationship, which has been carefully nurtured over many years as a defensive strength for us, is now also a valuable forward asset for growth.

I mentioned earlier about the Alliances for Action, which is a model piloted by the Emerging Stronger Taskforce. The EST found that private-public collaboration amidst this time of crisis has been critical for us to build back stronger. We have therefore institutionalised the AfA model through the work of the Future Economy Council, tapping on the complementary strengths of industry, unions, and Government.

While the battle against COVID-19 has been draining, we must not give up now. As potential new virus variants threaten us and our recovery efforts, it is all the more important for us to band together and stand united. And by supporting and working closely with one another, we can steadily make our way into a new normal, where COVID-19 eventually becomes endemic – like other deadly diseases that have come before.

So, I invite all of us to consider how we can come together to explore new modes of engagement and collaboration, both within and beyond your networks. If you have an idea for an AfA which you would like us to support, please approach us and we’ll see how we can work together. In fact, just two days ago at the launch of the International Built Environment Week, someone from academia approached me and said, “I have an idea for an Alliance for Action. Is it feasible?”. My immediate answer was, “Yes. Tell me what it is first, and we’ll see how we can work it out.”.

Before I end, I would also like to congratulate SIIA on the launch of the New Horizons and ASEAN Key Economies reports, which cover the political and economic developments in the region amidst the pandemic.

Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful analysis and insights.

I look forward to our discussion later. Thank you.