Good morning everyone, and thank you for inviting me to the launch of ‘Eye on Asia’ Resource Centre. We are starting this centre with materials on ASEAN and China, before extending to India in the next phase of development.
2. Today, I would like to focus on three areas in my speech: (i) why Asia is important to Singapore; (ii) how we can benefit from Asia’s growth; and (iii) how do we equip Singaporeans with the skills and knowledge to tap growing opportunities in Asia?
Why is Asia important to Singapore?
3. Since the founding of modern Singapore in 1819, we have taken advantage of our geographical location and thrived by being connected to the world and remaining open to trade, investments and talent. These attributes have enabled Singapore to develop a strong economy, especially after we became independent in 1965, and to provide modern infrastructure, good jobs and rising standards of living for our people. We were fortunate that our immediate region was relatively free of serious conflicts after the Vietnam War, and the world economy became more inter-connected with the progress of technology and support from the major powers for free trade and investments. This was a conducive environment for small states like Singapore, and we benefitted by plugging ourselves into this global network.
4. It is in Singapore’s interest to keep this open global system going for as long as possible. Even if the tide shifts elsewhere against openness and globalisation, we have to resist them. As Mr Philip Yeo said in his interview with the Straits Times, if Singapore becomes inward-looking, we will suffer.
5. Singapore is a price-taker in the international system, but where we can, we have to do our part to keep the system open. This is why we supported initiatives that promote trade and investments like TPP, RCEP and the Belt-and-Road Initiative. It is also why we must continue to work hard at strengthening the ASEAN community, and deepening the ties between ASEAN member states. Keeping the world open and inter-connected is in Singapore’s interest.
6. Ladies and gentlemen, we are not done building Singapore. There is potential for further growth as we transform our economy, improve productivity and strengthen our linkages with other countries in the region. We can ride on their rise by positioning Singapore as a global hub in Asia. We want Singapore to be a place where data, ideas, talent and capital from the region can come together, and where new innovations and business ventures are launched. Not just serving the Singapore market, but using Singapore as a nerve centre for their regional operations and as a launch-pad to reach consumers in other Asian cities.
7. The global economic weight has been gradually shifting from the developed world to Asia, with emerging giants like China and India leading the way. Based on current trends, Asia will account for the largest share of global GDP by 2030 at around 40 per cent. This does not mean that the developed economies are no longer important. They remain important for Singapore, and we have to maintain good relations with them and continue to engage their world-leading companies. At the same time, we need to build up our connections with emerging Asian economies which can provide an additional growth engine and extra boost to our economy.
8. ASEAN is currently the 6th largest economy in the world with a combined GDP of USD 2.5 trillion, and is expected to grow into the fourth largest market by 2030, after the EU, US and China. Besides being a fast-growing market with more than 600 million people, ASEAN is also our hinterland with strategic and economic importance to Singapore. It is in our interest to know ASEAN well – understand the region’s rich history and diverse cultures; be familiar with its languages and customs; and build up networks and friendship with our neighbours in ASEAN through government-to-government, business-to-business and people-to-people interactions. That is the first issue, why Asia is important to Singapore.
How Singapore can benefit from Asia’s growth
9. Now we move on to the second issue, which is how Singapore can benefit from Asia’s growth. So how do we build a strong economy as our population ages and we experience slower domestic growth rates? I read a recent speech by Mr Ravi Menon, Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. He said: “Demographics is not destiny and economic dynamism is not about numbers. Dynamism is about quality - the quality of our workforce, the quality of our enterprises and the quality of our institutions. It is about high levels of efficiency and productivity. It is about growing the Singaporean talent base as well as being a magnet for the world's talents. It is about a vibrant entrepreneurial and innovation base, characterised by a lot of start-ups, a lot of experimentation, and a lot of research and development. Finally, dynamism must be about our people. We must remain an open society. Not just in being open to foreign trade, investment, and talent, but being deeply connected to the rest of the world. Not just attracting foreign talent to Singapore but Singaporeans venturing abroad as our companies and industries internationalise. Most of all, being open in spirit and mindset, staying open to diversity, being comfortable working in multicultural settings, thriving in a globalised world, having an enterprising spirit - always seeking new and better ways to do things.”
10. I quoted these paragraphs from Ravi’s speech because he has framed the key issues very well and I fully agree with him. It is an issue which is close to my heart too, because I believe that these elements are critical to Singapore’s future success and our ability to generate good growth, good jobs and good incomes for our people.
11. In some previous speeches, including my Parliamentary maiden speech in January 2016, I touched on the need for Singapore to stay connected to the world and remain open to different sources of ideas and talent. This does not mean that we dilute the focus on grooming local talent or allow companies to bring in lots of foreign workers without developing a strong Singaporean core. MOM has taken action against the “triple weak” companies and put in place a comprehensive range of measures to help Singaporean workers to upskill and receive conversion training if they want to join another industry. Ultimately, what we want is to strengthen Singapore to benefit Singaporeans.
12. We should not assume that having an inflow of immigrants and foreign workers will automatically result in lower productivity. As Ravi pointed out, it depends on the quality of the immigrants and foreign workers we bring in. A combination of quality local and international talent gives us the best chances to compete with other cities and to support our high growth high value-added sectors. This ultimately benefits Singaporeans as it will lead to more jobs, higher productivity and better pay for our people.
13. Yesterday, I met Mr Vijay Sirse who is the founder of a start-up called Red Dot Power formed in 2009. Vijay has since grown the company to a 38-person enterprise, of which 33 employees (or more than 85% of his total headcount) are Singaporeans. The same applies to other local companies like HOPE Technik. When I visited them previously, the CEO Peter Ho shared with me that more than 80% of their employees are Singaporeans but they need a small number of foreign engineers and scientists to have a more complete range of skillsets and expertise to bid for global projects. There are many other such examples across different industry sectors.
14. To ride on the region’s growth, we need to strengthen Singapore’s position as a hub in Asia. Talent is a key success factor to make this strategy work. We need to develop Singaporeans who are familiar with other Asian countries and can operate comfortably in these markets. In addition, we can supplement our team with new immigrants and foreign workers from the region. They can help us to establish stronger networks and operate more effectively in their home countries. We will also benefit from Asian companies investing in Singapore and leveraging on our connectivity and trusted brand name for their regional operations and high value-added activities like research, innovation, premium services and advanced manufacturing. Such investments will create more jobs for Singaporeans and add to our economic vibrancy.
Equipping Singaporeans with skills and knowledge to tap growing opportunities in Asia
15. Let me now move on to the third element in my speech, equipping Singaporeans with skills and knowledge to tap growing opportunities in Asia. Developing Singaporean talent was our motivation for setting up this resource centre, with a focus on ASEAN, China and later India. My colleagues and I wanted a platform to pool together information resources and practical experience from people who have worked in these Asian countries. The objective is to equip young Singaporeans with the skills and knowledge to tap growing markets in Asia. First, to be aware of the contemporary developments in these countries and then to decide how they can benefit from the opportunities.
16. I thank the National Library Board (NLB) for taking up this challenge in their role as a trusted provider of knowledge and information, to support our Whole-of-Government internationalisation efforts. NLB has partnered Business China, the IE Singapore (soon to be Enterprise Singapore) and the International Trading Institute at Singapore Management University to set up this centre to help young Singaporeans access information and business networks, and to learn together, so they raise their awareness of regional developments, business trends and employment opportunities in ASEAN, China and India. Through this, we hope to support the move to help our companies to internationalise and expand overseas.
17. The resource centre also contains first-hand accounts of students’ overseas internship experiences. NLB would like to invite more educational institutions to participate in this initiative and share their students’ overseas experiences on the online portal. I am heartened to know that our students and young professionals who had previewed the portal have given feedback that the information provided was comprehensive and they were inspired by the stories from our businesses and fellow Singaporeans who have ventured overseas and done well.
18. NLB will organise a series of monthly programmes to supplement the resource portal. These will include talks and panel discussions by speakers who have worked abroad. NLB will also continue to expand the portal by bringing in more partners to co-create this project and add more resources over time.
19. Likewise, Business China has conducted forums and overseas immersion programmes for young Singaporeans to develop their Chinese market insights, including in second and third tier cities with good growth potential but are less familiar to our people. Business China has also been organising annual learning journeys for their Youth Chapter members to gain in-depth understanding of contemporary China.
20. Ms Ong Hui Min, a NTU Student, was one of the 17 youths who participated in the learning journey in December last year. She shared that the learning journey enabled her to witness the tremendous progress made by China and its development as a digital economy and smart society. Another student from NUS, Ms Chua Xin Lin, who went on the same learning journey, felt that the experience made her realise the rapid advancement made by China in the areas of business, public transport and education. I am glad that our young people found that experience useful.
21. To enable more young Singaporeans to benefit from such experiences, I am pleased to announce that Business China and Ngee Ann Polytechnic will be launching a course in May for young working professionals entitled “China-Ready: Insights into Asia’s Economic Giant”. Held over two days, this course will provide an overview of China’s socio-economic development, insights on factors that have shaped the way Chinese businesses operate, and modern-day business practices in China. The course will include a learning journey to a leading Chinese company. Those of you who are interested to find out more can approach our Business China colleagues for more information.
22. Business China is also exploring setting up a fund to provide financial support for students to do internships in China, because I understand that Chinese companies, unlike Singapore companies, do not pay interns, so we would like to provide support for our students interning in China. This way they have hands-on experience working in a Chinese company and can learn more about doing business in China. Reading about working in China is one thing, being there experiencing it first-hand is more impactful. Business China will announce more details when ready and make the information available via the ‘Eye on Asia’ resource portal.
23. I would like to conclude by thanking all our partner agencies once again for supporting this initiative and express my appreciation to everyone for joining us today. I hope the centre will be a useful resource for Singaporeans who are interested to learn more about emerging Asian economies and how to tap their growth potential. For those who have valuable insights and experiences to share, please contact NLB so that we can invite you to be a resource person for the centre and allow other Singaporeans to benefit from your knowledge.
24. As we celebrate the end of the Rooster Year and welcome the Year of the Dog, I wish everyone good health, happiness and prosperity in the year ahead. May all your ventures be smooth and successful, both in Singapore and the region. Thank you.