Speech by Minister Chan Chun Sing at the Standard Chartered ASEAN Series: Singapore - The Global Hub and Gateway to ASEAN

Speech by Minister Chan Chun Sing at the Standard Chartered ASEAN Series: Singapore - The Global Hub and Gateway to ASEAN

1. A very good afternoon to all our guests from Asia in the Singapore timezone, a very good morning to our guests from Europe, and a good evening to our guests from Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Thank you for this invitation to speak.

2. When I first received the invitation to speak to this distinguished audience, I was intrigued by the original title of today’s session.  It said – “Singapore – THE Global HUB and GATEWAY to ASEAN”.  Immediately, it raised three questions in my mind:

3. First.  The global hub.  I wondered if it was appropriate to call ourselves the global hub or a global hub. Particularly, in a world that threatens to fragment, what is the role of hubs? The second question that came to mind was the descriptor gateway. Is Singapore just a junction that businesses pass through? If so, we should be justifiably concerned.  If not, what’s our value-add? The third question that intrigued me was this: was it a statement or a question? Singapore’s status is not pre-ordained or permanent by any means. So how do we maintain this edge? 

4. That we are meeting here today via webcams reflects the changing world that we live in. Ordinarily, we would be gathered in a conference centre or ballroom, mingling and exchanging name cards, where you can feel the lively buzz of the room.  Instead, we have all gotten used to doing things a little differently in this COVID world, using digital platforms to engage and interact with one another. We have participants dialling in from all over the world, across different time zones, without having to leave the comfort of their home. 

5. The digital nature of work during COVID has removed geographical and physical boundaries, and made a stronger case for digitalising and virtualising business models. 

6. Now this has huge implications for any hub location. Why spend money to fly halfway across the world when you can participate from the comfort of your living room? Why post someone overseas when they can essentially do the same job in their home country?

7. The reality is, even prior to COVID, technology has catalysed companies to review their need for regional hubs. And some have reorganised to have a single global headquarters, with several smaller specialised local nodes. Others have relocated their supply chains closer to their final demand markets. COVID has merely accelerated all this. 

8. We are likely to see further reorganisation of the global supply and value chains. The changing nature of how companies run their operations and meetings globally, raises a more profound question: is there still a role for hubs in a COVID world? Our short answer is a definite yes. 

9. But the roles that hubs play will change and must change. All hubs must fundamentally be able to connect and bridge divides across all dimensions – be it geopolitical, physical, digital, financial, language, and so forth. And in a more fragmented global economy, there will likely not be just a single hub, but a series of key nodes in a larger network with other nodes that must be able to connect seamlessly with one other.

10. For Singapore, we aim to be one of these critical nodes in the global system, even if the world is heading towards bifurcation or fragmentation. To achieve this, we prefer not to see ourselves as just a gateway to the region. For me personally, “gateway” connotes something that is static and a pass-through point or junction.  

11. We aspire to be more than that. We aspire to be the critical node in businesses’ global value chains, production chains, and supply chains, where we add value, serving not just as a location to trade through; where we are the leverage point – rather than the pass-through point – that enables regional and global businesses to grow exponentially and succeed.

12. By being in Singapore and on the Singapore platform, we add value to the flows of capital, goods, services, and people. And not just physically in Singapore, but from wherever in the world trade may be taking place. This is what we mean by not just “trading with SG”, or “trading through SG”, but also “trading on SG”, on the Singapore platform where we can value add to businesses all around the world, regardless of whether they are physically in Singapore.

13. Investors choose Singapore not because we have a large domestic market, abundant resources, or that we are cheaper than others. Investors do so because they have a platform for them to operate their businesses not just to serve the Singapore market or Asia, but to serve the whole world, not just to do so physically but also to do offline and online digitally. 

14. We have a stable government, with clear economic plans that we are able to and not just to talk about, and this provides confidence for businesses to plan for the long term. We uphold the rule of law, and have a clear system of arbitration and clear legal processes, where we provide people the confidence to site their high-value investments that require a long horizon to achieve positive rates of returns. We give confidence to people to house their intellectual property here, knowing that they will be protected and valued. And our rich ecosystem of diverse talent, innovation, transport and digital connectivity will all continue to be reinforced as part of our suite of offerings to international businesses.

15. So, beyond being a gateway, Singapore aspires to be the key nerve centre for businesses for trade, global supply and value chains, professional services, data, finance, technology, and talent connectivity, and we want to be a critical node in the global network of nodes. This ability to connect as well as to add value, is why Singapore has long been an international hub for centuries. This is especially so in today’s economic context and today’s geopolitical context, where centrifugal forces are threatening to fragment or bifurcate the global economy.   

16. This is why we have attracted over 750 foreign companies to establish their regional headquarters (RHQs) in Singapore, and why others continue to want to set up in Singapore. We want to be the integrator, the connector, across different economic systems, different time zones, different geographical areas.

17. Just two weeks ago, it was announced that Kajima Corporation would set up its Global Hub here. This will be its first overseas innovation centre and its APAC headquarters. More importantly, a strategic partnership with Singapore, to combine industry expertise and research capabilities to drive innovation, sustainability, and resilience for the built environment cluster. 

18. Twitter will set up its first Asia-Pacific engineering centre here, and grow its global engineering capabilities in Singapore while improving service availability and reliability. 

19. BASF will set up its regional production hub in Singapore, leveraging our connectivity and growing agri-food technology space, to expand its agricultural solutions in APAC. 

20. Our hub status was established through sheer hard work and determination of our people, by providing a conducive platform for businesses to fulfil their regional and global ambitions. However, we do not take this for granted. We know the competition is stiff. If we do not adapt to the changing nature of how businesses operate, we will be easily bypassed. 

21. So we will continue to make Singapore the preferred hub for companies to connect and do business with Asia and the rest of the world. And we will do so in four key ways. 

22. First, we will remain open for business. We will keep our seaports and airports, and supply lines open to the world, even thru the depth of the COVID-19 crisis. We are progressively and safely opening up on the air travel front to enable more business and leisure travel experiences. And we will set up more “travel bubbles”, improve our processes, build confidence, and set new benchmarks for a regional “travel bubble” so that people can travel with assurance. And we will remain the place where new business ideas, new technologies and innovations can flourish and grow. And this will be the place where there will be the cross-pollination of ideas across diff parts of the world and we will provide that platform for people from all over the world to do business with us and each other.

23. Second, we will continue to invest in and enhance our world-class connectivity – both in the physical and non-physical domains. In the physical domain, our new Changi Airport T5, Tuas Mega Port, and regional developments like Sungei Kadut Eco-District and the Greater Southern Waterfront projects will continue with some adjustments to the timeline. But we are confident of getting them all done. This also means building deeper links with the world for markets, supplies, technology and talent, to enable businesses to access regional and global opportunities. 

24. And we will do this by forging stronger partnerships and connections to major innovation nodes and key demand markets through various initiatives. For example, to improve the trade facilitation and multilateral frameworks, such as the Joint Ministerial Statement (JMS) on supply chain connectivity during the COVID-19 crisis, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), Single Window Connectivity Agreements, the Free Trade Agreement networks, and also a new generation of Digital Economy Agreements (DEA). We will also strengthen our connectivity to global talent networks through our Global Innovation Alliance and Networked Trade Platform. And we will work closely with the rest of our ASEAN partners to provide an integrated market for global investors’ consideration. 

25. Third, we will accelerate our economic transformation efforts, focusing on productivity, innovation, and upskilling our workers, to build capabilities that are hard to replace, to enable Singapore to adapt and be more competitive in a COVID world. And we are doing this through various initiatives, such as our Industry Transformation Maps across 23 sectors, our SMEs Go Digital effort, Startup SG, and the next bound of our SkillsFuture movement. We will also pursue new frontiers of growth, such as in biomedical sciences, agri-food technology, sustainability, clean-tech, and many other areas. We want to Grow a new generation of global champions, to strengthen our local ecosystem, and contribute to the economic dynamism of the region.

26. Fourth, we will remain open to top international talent. There has been much scrutiny on this issue recently, and I know that some companies are anxious. This scrutiny is not unique to Singapore.  Every country facing economic slowdown and recession will have elements questioning the balance between locals and foreigners in the job market. Let me be clear. We want the world’s best and brightest to be with Team Singapore – to augment our skills and capabilities, competing on our side rather than against us, and ultimately, to benefit Singaporeans, not to substitute or to hurt them. 

27. We will continue to bring in international talent in a calibrated manner, as we have always done, that will enable our business to plan for the future, access the best minds, and allow Singaporeans to learn from the best, and create more opportunities for Singapore and Singaporeans. Hence, our foreign worker policies will shift increasingly towards quality rather than quantity. And this is not a signal of us turning away from top international talent. But we are serious about discriminatory hiring practices, and we will work with our companies to ensure that they adopt the best practices. All businesses, regardless of size or nationality, will have to play their part in building up the Singaporean workforce, and giving Singaporeans a fair shot at the same job opportunities. And we will also like to encourage all our companies to have a diverse workforce, and not overly rely on any particular source of labour from any particular foreign country. This is just part of good business continuity practices and it will also help us in our social integration.

28. And that is how we will continue to keep Singapore relevant, as the preferred hub for Singapore companies and international companies. 

29. So, is there a future for Singapore as a global hub? Yes, and we still see a bright future for us. We will continue to work closely with many companies to anchor, hub, and grow their businesses out of Singapore, with a long-term horizon, and in a sustainable manner.

30. More broadly, we endeavour to defy the odds of history against the fate of small states without a natural hinterland and with our roots in diverse racial and religious compositions.

31. We endeavour to build an inclusive, open, and connected society with the world as our hinterland and market. That our identity as a nation-state is forward-looking and not backward-looking, that we base it on a set of values – of meritocracy, multiracialism and incorruptibility, and our identity is not one that is backward-looking, defined by race, language or religion. And we welcome all our friends and fans from the world, to have a shared stake, and to join this small nation-state of ours to defy the odds of history.  Thank you very much.

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