Speech by Minister Chan Chun Sing at the Opening Ceremony of the Hwa Chong Asia Pacific Young Leaders Summit 2019

Speech by Minister Chan Chun Sing at the Opening Ceremony of the Hwa Chong Asia Pacific Young Leaders Summit 2019

1. A very good morning to all of you, and a special welcome to all our guests from overseas. Thank you for joining us in Hwa Chong today. Today I was asked to speak to you on the topic of “Bridges: Connecting Possibilities, Redefining Our Future”. I thought that this is a very apt topic, and I’ll start with a very simple hypothesis.

2. Today in Singapore and elsewhere in the world, we are seeing unprecedented levels of prosperity and progress made possible by three things - the connectivity of talent and ideas, the connectivity of technology and the connectivity of trade. Now as young people, you live in a time where you are at the cusp of both the greatest opportunity perhaps in the history of mankind, and yet at the same time, you face a great challenge. Let me explain.

3. Just imagine how all of you have been able to come to Singapore over the last couple of days. Forums such as this in Singapore would not have been imaginable perhaps 20 to 30 years ago. If you go further back, say to about 50 or 100 years ago, for people to come together from diverse backgrounds as yours, all the way from Finland to UK and so forth, would not have been possible every year.

4. On the other hand, after this conference today, you will be able to remain connected with your fellow friends almost every day, through modern technologies such as Skype and WhatsApp chat groups. In the world today, sometimes it's easy to forget how well advanced we are compared to just say 20 or 30 years ago.

5. About 30 years back, I went to Cambridge, UK to study. At that point in time, I was only able to write an aerogramme back to my family once a month. Most of you will not know what is an aerogramme. An aerogramme is a piece of paper in which you write your message, fold it into an envelope, and send it home. It takes two weeks for the letter to get back home. It takes another two weeks for my family to reply to me, if they want to. Every year, we will only be able to call home once. In order to call home once, we need to make sure that we synchronise our schedule with an eight-hour time difference, and make sure that nobody's using the phone at that point in time. To make a phone call of just two minutes, it was a princely sum of 20 pounds or about $60 in Singapore's dollar today. But much has changed. Over the last 20 to 30 years, we have seen tremendous progress across the world.

6. This tremendous progress was brought about by our ability to connect ideas, technologies and trade together. Ideas, because in today’s world, no one works on ideas alone. Today, even without physically meeting one another, you can collaborate across borders and collaborate across time zones. Today, if you go to any of the multinational corporations, you will be working in cross-cultural teams, sometimes never physically meeting them, but yet collaborating together. This has led to a tremendous flourishing of ideas across the entire world.

7. The second connectivity has to do with technology. As I’ve mentioned, whether it is Whatsapp or Skype, today you have access to technologies across the entire world. It is not limited just to the advanced countries. Today, even the less developed countries have access to the latest technology available. In fact, in some of the countries that you come from, they did not even progress in the linear way. Take the example of telecommunications. One of the fastest growth areas in telecommunications was in India and China. Many areas in India and China did not previously even have landlines or even fixed lines. But instead they leap-frogged into what we call mobile technologies today. Once upon a time, many parts of Africa, Asia and South America did not even have access to basic banking services because it was just too expensive to build banks out in far flung places. Today, with internet technology, almost everyone can have banking services on their smartphones. This has fundamentally changed the world.

8. Today, when you look at how medicine is developed, it is no longer done by individual countries, by small groups of researchers. It is done worldwide through collaboration and technology. Many of you would have watched movies  on  the big screens nowadays. You would have watched all the latest Sci-Fi movies where there are a lot of graphics. Guess where those graphics were done? They were not done in one small place, in one small country. In fact, the production takes place 24 hours across the globe. It can be done in Singapore and after eight hours it is handed over to Europe and in another 8 hours, it is handed over to America, and back to Singapore. That's the kind of connectivity and speed that we've been able to achieve.

9. Likewise, if you just do an experiment, look at the things that you have on your lap now, the clothes that you wear. All these are never produced just by one single country. If you have the time to walk down the aisle of a supermarket today, chances are that you will find products from all over the world. What we eat, what we wear, what we enjoy, it is never done in a single country. Today, all these are taken for granted. But it is not the norm. It is not the natural state of affairs.

10. I'll just bring you back to history almost exactly one hundred years ago, where the world and mankind faced the same trials. It was also a time of great disruption in the 1920s, way before you were born. At that point in time, the world also faced great disruption because with greater connectivity of trade came greater disruption. The respective societies had to make the adjustments to help their businesses adjust and help their workers acquire new skills. What used to be produced in one country might no longer be able to be produced in the same place forever more, once trade began. 

11. At that point in time in the 1920s, everyone in the world had to make a choice. Do we embrace integration for the entire global production system to come together and make the consequential adjustment? Or do we close up our borders, try to protect our people from the necessary adjustments and sub-optimise locally? We did not make a very wise choice and we ended up with the Great Depression, where countries were fragmented and economies were fragmented. Everybody tried to sub-optimise their local sub system, and everyone was poorer for it. 

12. Today, in the 2020s, we face exactly the same choice, if not more.  Today, we have even more opportunities than one hundred years ago, for the same three areas of connectivity to enable us to uplift millions from poverty and to grow a new economy to prosper –the connectivity of talent, technologies and trade.

13. Today, the world is facing tremendous pressures. Many countries are unable to muster the resources to help their people adjust to the challenges. Many countries are unable to muster the political will and resources to help their business evolve new business models, and at the same time help their people acquire new skills. And as the world progresses, some of these countries will find that they have many people in their country left behind or unable to make the necessary adjustments. Consequently, what happens is that people in these countries start to resist the connectivity of talent and ideas, the connectivity of technologies and the connectivity of trade. This is why today, you see a push back against globalisation, a push back against even the adoption of technologies. 

14. So now what is your challenge in your generation? As leaders of tomorrow, you have a choice to make. You have a choice to make and to decide whether your generation will continue to build bridges or to build walls. You have to decide whether you want to build those bridges to enhance the connectivity of talent, technology, and trade. Or will your generation decide to divide up yourself because the pain of adjustment is just too much, and you will shirk away from your responsibilities to help your businesses and people adjust to the new realities and in turn, every one of us will close up in our own small circle to try and sub-optimise, and we end up poorer for it. 

15. This is not an easy choice. It takes courage. It takes leadership for us to say that we are all better together as a global system, a globally integrated system. It also takes courage and leadership to say that we will therefore muster the resources and will to help our people make the adjustments in order to benefit from this globally integrated system. If the world continues to fragment in the areas of talent, technology, and trade, your generation and the generation after you will never be able to experience the kind of prosperity and progress that you have enjoyed so far. 

16. Imagine one day, you will never have such exchanges of talent and ideas anymore, that each and every one of us grows up in our respective small circles in our respective small countries, without the benefit of ideas from outside our countries. We will certainly develop much slower. Imagine if one day, the internet is no longer an integrated internet but becomes a “splinter net”, whereby different people ask for data to be localised, the connectivity to be divided to try to protect their own systems and isolate their own systems in the world. You will not get the connectivity that we have today. You will no longer have science and technology being worked on by people around the clock around the globe at the same time, sharing the best practices, learning from each other and learning from each other's mistakes over time. If the world become more protectionist and globalisation breaks down, you will not enjoy all the material goods that you have today. Can you imagine when each and every of our countries are only able to trade with ourselves, and only enjoy the products that we produce ourselves and not with others? All these would add up to be a fundamentally different world that we live in.

17. So the theme for discussion this week is most apt. And If I may summarise, your entire challenge is this - in your lifetime as young leaders, as leaders of tomorrow, will you build bridges or will you build walls? If you continue to build bridges, then I’m sure we will continue to flourish, not just individually, but together as a global tribe. But on the other hand, if each and every country starts to build walls, seemingly to protect their own people but yet, collectively, we will all be poorer for it. So I call upon you as young leaders to ponder on this. Would you want to stand up and be counted, and continue to push for the connectivity of talent and ideas, trade and technology? If you continue to do this, continue to build bridges, then I'm very confident that your generation will enjoy a quality of life even better than mine and those before us. But on the other hand, if we fail to resist the urge to build walls, then we will all be poorer for it. 

18. On that note, I thank you very much for joining us, especially the foreign guests, who have come from afar to Singapore, to participate in this forum. Your participation and your ability to participate is testimony to our connectivity of trade, talent and technologies. For Singapore, as a small country, we will continue to make sure that we remain open and connected with the rest of the world. The world is our hinterland and we will continue to make sure that we reach out to the rest of the world for the best connectivity in terms of talent, trade and technology. We hope that regardless of where you come from, regardless of how big, how strong, how powerful your country is, that you too will believe in this connectivity. Because no matter how strong and powerful each and every one of us may be, we are a small speck in the history of mankind and it's our job to collectively come together to chart our future. Thank you very much and I wish you all the very best.

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