Building Singapore as a Global-Asia Node of Technology, Innovation and Enterprise

Interview with DPM Heng Swee Keat, Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies and Minister for Finance

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By Han Yong Hong, Ren Qi

Business China can assist local enterprises in gaining a deeper understanding of the development strategies across different regions in China and build Singapore as a Global-Asia Node of Technology, Innovation and Enterprise.

In an interview with Lianhe Zaobao, Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat said that Business China can help Singapore businesses gain a deeper understanding of China’s political, economic, and social development, as well as provide them with better insights for investment and trade. Business China serves as “a very good platform” in that regard.

China has rolled out several regional development strategies in recent years, including the development of the Western region, Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Region in the north, the Yangtze River Delta along the eastern coast, and the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area in the south. Mr Heng pointed out that these regional development plans were of strategic significance to China and if well-coordinated, will develop their own unique advantages.

Mr Heng urged Singapore companies to learn more about the regional development plans of China and hoped that Business China can do its part to help them.

He also commended Business China for its contributions to the business sector. Mr Heng hopes that through its continued efforts, Business China will play an important role in promoting business opportunities.

On Business China’s Advanced Leaders Programme, Mr Heng observed that it serves not only to deepen Singapore’s understanding of China, but also helps provide Chinese enterprises and government officials a better understanding of Singapore’s development.

The FutureChina Global Forum, one of Business China’s flagship events, also provides an invaluable platform for entrepreneurs and businessmen to understand China, ASEAN, and other international issues from a different perspective, and to leverage Business China’s extensive network to explore opportunities in the region and globally.

Singapore and China celebrated the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations on 3 October 2020. As a key member of Singapore’s 4G leadership, Mr Heng reflected on the development of bilateral relations and shared his views for further cooperation.

He said the past 30 years have shown that bilateral cooperation progressed with the needs of both countries as well as international trends. Looking ahead to the future of bilateral ties, Mr Heng believes strengthening cooperation in the prevention and control of pandemics would also be an important priority.

Mr Heng said, “The immediate task is to get the pandemic under control, if we can do this, the economy and various activities can gradually resume – this is the most critical task right now.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out early this year, the two Co-chairs of the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) – the highest-level bilateral cooperation mechanism between both countries – Mr Heng and Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng have spoken over the phone twice. Both sides agreed to include public health collaboration as a new agenda item under the JCBC this year, including the development of diagnostics, vaccines and treatments for COVID-19.

Apart from being a severe public health challenge, the pandemic has also had an immense impact on the global trading system.

Mr Heng pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated structural changes and developments that had already been underway, such as the retreat from globalisation in some countries. Given the importance of global trade to the development of Singapore and China as well as the rest of the world, it is crucial for both countries to work with the rest of the world to safeguard a rules-based, free global trading system.

Both countries should continue to build upon the existing free trade agreements between Singapore and China, as well as ASEAN and China. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) signed on 15 November 2020 will also boost the region’s economic recovery.

Mr Heng also looked forward to further bilateral cooperation in different areas such as finance, Renminbi internationalisation , digital technology, dealing with the challenges of an ageing population, climate change, and other issues.

In terms of financial cooperation, Mr Heng, who once led the Monetary Authority of Singapore, warned that the key lesson of both the Asian Financial Crisis and the Global Financial Crisis was how essential finance is for economic stability and development.

Many Asian countries have large pools of savings, he said, and how best to use these savings on projects for sustainable development is an area that could be further explored.

For instance, regarding the development of basic infrastructure, China has proposed the Belt and Road Initiative at a time when Asia’s annual infrastructure funding needs are estimated to be US$1.7 trillion (S$2.3 trillion). However, risks can quickly escalate if projects are not well-structured or if a sound financing system is lacking.

Mr Heng hopes that Singapore and China can work with multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to train Asian government officials and bring them together with bankers as well as investors to design better platforms to facilitate financing for infrastructure development in the region. He believes that this is an area with potential for collaboration.

In addition to financial cooperation and giving full play to the potential of Singapore as an offshore Renminbi clearing centre, Mr Heng is also keeping a close watch on the global trend of digitalisation, which is not limited to the financial industry but has important repercussions for the manufacturing, services, and other sectors.

Mr Heng pointed out that an ageing population is a common challenge that many countries, including those in Western Europe and East Asia, such as Germany, Singapore, China, Japan face . In order to maintain economic growth as the population ages, all countries will need to make better use of digital technology and artificial intelligence.

Climate change is another important area of cooperation. Mr Heng highlighted the two countries’ second government-to-government project, Tianjin Eco-city, as an example of China’s focus on ecological conservation.

He stressed that climate change is a common challenge facing humankind and expressed his hope that Singapore, China and other countries can work closely together on climate change issues.

As a member of ASEAN, Singapore has knowledge and understanding of regional issues and has also maintained good relations with ASEAN members, having worked with them on many projects.

Mr Heng hopes Singapore can leverage this unique advantage to help enterprises internationalise. He said Singapore’s future depends on its position as a Global-Asia Node of Technology, Innovation and Enterprise.

This is because the next stage of global economic development will be driven by innovation and technology, and if Singapore wants to do well and achieve breakthroughs in these areas, a firm grasp of the differing needs in various markets is necessary.

Mr Heng hopes that Business China can support Singapore’s strategies.

There are many complementary aspects in the development of Singapore, China, and the region. Looking ahead, Singapore and China should continue to actively seek out more projects for cooperation.

Mr Heng also pointed out that the close partnership between the two countries is built on frequent and regular high-level exchanges between the two governments. As he recounted, “In 2019, President Halimah visited China. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and various ministers also exchange visits and meet with the Chinese leaders regularly to discuss key issues, enhancing mutual understanding. This is the main reason that leaders of both countries have been able to build mutual trust and understanding.”

Such high-level exchanges allow Singapore and China to better understand each other and consider the needs of both parties when working together, building a stronger foundation for the partnership.