1. The United States (US) has been a long-term and an important economic partner for Singapore which is why we want to continue to engage with the US. It has been very difficult to travel amid COVID-19 and while we have been keeping in touch with one another through virtual means, it is nothing like a physical engagement. That is why I decided that it is important for me to make this trip to reconnect with my counterparts in the US as well as meet the business community and thought leaders in the US. This will give me a better feel of what is happening in the US, which includes understanding the administration’s priorities and focus and the business community’s concerns and interests. This will shape the bilateral relationship between Singapore and the US, particularly, the trade administration aspects.
2. Over the last few days, I had interactions with the US Secretary of Commerce, Gina Raimondo. I also had the opportunity to meet with US Trade Representative Ambassador Katherine Tai. With Secretary Raimondo, we talked about the Partnership for Growth and Innovation and signed a Partnership. At the same time, we agreed to work on the workplan over the next few years to identify key projects that we can undertake under the Partnership, with a clear implementation plan so that we can track its progress. With Ambassador Tai, we talked about broader bilateral issues between Singapore and the US in terms of economic collaboration. We also took the opportunity to conduct the Joint Committee Meeting of the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (USSFTA).
3. The USSFTA is one of the first FTAs that the US entered into with an Asian country. It has been an anchor of the bilateral relationship between Singapore and the US. We looked at the various aspects of the Agreement and how we can update it. The Agreement was signed close to 20 years ago and it is important for us to refresh it, given that the landscape has evolved. One example is e-Commerce. E-Commerce is now a main driver of both our economies and therefore it is important to see how we can refresh and update the Agreement. We will be working out a plan. I also took the opportunity to invite both Secretary Raimondo and Ambassador Tai to visit Singapore, so that we can continue this important conversation between Singapore and the US.
4. While I was here, I also met the business community and I believe that businesses in the US continue to be interested in Singapore. They want to continue to invest in Singapore and want to know a lot more about what we have to offer. I explained to them the COVID-19 situation and how we will continue to keep Singapore open for business. It was also quite clear to us that the business community and the Administration
are also interested in the broader ASEAN and Asia Pacific region. In my discussions with them, they continue to be keen to engage the Asia Pacific region. I shared my views with them and encouraged them to resume engagements with the region.
5. The shape and form of the engagements are something that they would have to consider and discuss among themselves. Over time, their platform of engagement will evolve. It is reassuring that the US continues to have an interest to engage the Asia Pacific region and are keen to continue this conversation with Singapore.
6. I had a very fruitful and productive trip to the US. It has helped me gain a better understanding of the preoccupations and interests of the Administration as well as the businesses community. I look forward to more opportunities to further strengthen our collaboration between the US and Singapore.
Question and Answer Segment
The Straits Times (ST): Did you detect any interest in the US joining the CPTPP? Did it come up in your meeting with Ambassador Tai?
Minister: Yes, I think the CPTPP is a topic that garners interest. I shared with the US the status of the CPTPP and the fact that quite a lot of parties are interested to join the CPTPP. The US was the original architect of the TPP, before it became the CPTPP, so they were interested in the Agreement, but whether they are able to join the CPTPP, they have to consider very carefully.
The US is also interested to continue to engage on issues – whether it is re-joining the CPTPP or exploring other platforms and frameworks to collaborate. This is something that we can continue to explore, as long as there are internal consultations before coming to a conclusion.
In my conversations, I gave them a few suggestions. For example, they are interested in the digital economy, and this is one area where both Singapore and the US can collaborate on, and the arrangement can later be expanded to include other areas as well.
There is also common interest in sustainability; the green area is another area for us to develop a framework for collaboration. Whether this is between Singapore and the US, or is multilateral, is something that we can explore and discuss.
ST: On the VTL, what remains to be sorted out before it can be established?
Minister: There are a few issues that we need to iron out. One of the issues for example, is how to recognise vaccination. The US does not have a national vaccination programme, hence they do not have a national register. So, we would need to work out how we can recognise vaccination in the US. They also need to know how to verify our vaccination records.
These are some of the issues we need to work on. We will also need to work out arrangements with the airport, the airlines, how many daily flights. These are operational details that need to be worked out. We hope to be able to make an announcement shortly.
CNA: On the Partnership for Growth and Innovation (PGI), which ASEAN countries have indicated an interest in joining that; will this partnership eventually evolve into something more concrete like the US-Singapore FTA?
Minister: The PGI is between Singapore and the US, but we intend to keep it inclusive, keep it open. If there are other countries which are interested in participating in the PGI, we welcome them. So far, we have not received any specific interest from other countries yet. I presume it is because we have just signed the agreement on the Partnership and a lot of work needs to be done to develop concepts, projects and initiatives under this Partnership. Once we are able to demonstrate the value of this Partnership, more countries will be interested.
Channel 8 News: Could we get Mandarin soundbites on the opportunities that Singapore businesses can looking forward to from this trip, and on the discussions on VTL?
Minister: 我们目前正在和美国商谈开发疫苗旅游通道, 方便美国和新加坡的国人能够来往。但是在探讨旅游通道的计划时, 我们也需要考虑各种操作条件。其中之一是如何验证疫苗接种的证件。美国目前没有一个国家性的记录。我们需要探讨如何验证疫苗的证书, 美国也需要知道我们如何验证我们新加坡疫苗接种的证书。新加坡现在已经通过HealthHub有电子记录而美国方面不完全有电子记录。所以这个问题还有待解决。除此之外, 我们也需要探讨怎么样和航空公司接洽, 以确保疫苗旅游通道能够顺利地执行。这些都需要详细的安排。所以这会需要一段时间。 我们希望能在短期内把更多的详情向大家讲解和报告。
这次我来到美国的行程, 最重要的是能够再次和对接官员接洽美国的贸易度和美国的商业度, 进一步地了解美国目前所关心的经济问题。我也借这次的机会与美国的商界会谈。通过会谈, 更深入地明白他们对新加坡和亚太区的兴趣, 了解他们所关心的问题。 让我感到很欣慰的是这里的许多商家都继续对新加坡的经济有浓厚的兴趣。他们都希望能够继续在新加坡投资。他们也对亚太区的经济发展有浓厚的兴趣。他们也知道亚洲是个经济非常繁荣, 非常迅速发展的地区。虽然我们都受到冠病的影响, 但是在冠病过后我相信亚太区的经济会继续蓬勃发展。所以他们对我们的区域的经济发展存在着非常浓厚的兴趣。同样的我也邀请他们继续和我们接洽, 和我们保持联络, 继续探讨他们投资经商的机会。
Lianhe Zaobao (LHZB): You mentioned that the US business community is still very interested to invest in Singapore. Any industry or sector that is more interested to invest here? How will the refresh of the bilateral agreement help to attract these kind of investments?
Minister: The interest is broad-based. I shared with them that there are a few interesting and emerging areas of opportunities.
One example is the digital economy, which is going to be a key engine of growth for many countries in this region. All of us are experiencing transformation to transition to a digital economy, especially during COVID-19. Many businesses that were done physically in the past have gone on digital platforms. This is something of interest to the business community.
Another area of great interest is the green economy. Sustainability is a key topic. Whether it is in my discussion with the Administration or my discussion with the business community, sustainability is a key topic. Therefore, business opportunities in the green economy and sustainability are something that they also are very keen to explore and find opportunities in, in Singapore as well as within the region.
It is important for us to take a look at the FTA because the FTA has been in existence for close to two decades and over the last 15 or 20 years, many things have changed. I mentioned the digital economy – 15, 20 years ago, it was just in its infancy. Now it has developed and grown significantly. Therefore, the rules and provisions we have put in the earlier FTA may no longer be relevant or ethical.
It is important for us to refresh provisions in the trade agreement, and this refresh will help create more opportunities for businesses to invest both ways – for the US businesses interested in Singapore, and for Singapore businesses to also look at the US market to see how we can continue to create opportunities for businesses from both sides.
LHZB: Any key areas to be discussed? Like tax, or any other particular areas?
Minister: We are going to undertake a review. For the FTA, we are setting up a working group to first, discuss how to go about doing the upgrade and refresh. As mentioned, there may be many areas that require a bit of updating and whether we should do so through existing channels or if we should set up a new task force to look at specific areas that require negotiation. It’s the first joint committee meeting after several years so it’s the first time that we have agreed to take a look at how we can update it to keep it relevant. We have to ask the two ministries to start work on this. It will take some time for us to be able to identify specific areas we will need to update.
One way as mentioned earlier is in terms of the digital economy. It is quite obvious that it has evolved significantly as compared to 20 years ago. Whatever we were thinking about 20 years ago is no longer relevant. Also as discussed with Ambassador Tai, as we undertake the updating, we should not just update it for what we are seeing today. We need to have a forward-looking approach when doing this update, so that the updated agreement will be relevant for many more years to come.
Another area of interest to both sides is supply chain resilience. COVID-19 has also highlighted the vulnerability of supply chains. This is experienced in the US, Singapore, and many countries, with lockdowns and the restriction of movement. Productions, deliveries and shipments have been disrupted. Therefore, it is important for us to see how we can have provisions to allow us to cooperate and explore how to strengthen our supply chain resilience for the US and Singapore as well as the rest of the region.
8world.com: CDC issued a travel health notice for Singapore recently. They advised those unvaccinated to avoid non-essential trips to Singapore. We also understand that there is a recent surge of COVID cases here recently. Do you think that this will have a knock-on effect on bilateral trade between US and Singapore before the confirmation of the VTL? How are the authorities planning to respond to this?
Minister: As a business and travel hub, Singapore’s international connectivity has been severely impacted by COVID-19 but it is important for us to keep our connections and borders open. Therefore, we need to begin thinking about restoring connections with the rest of the world.
The VTL is one example. We started with a pilot with Germany and Brunei. The pilots have gone well and we are now looking at whether we can expand this to more countries. As mentioned earlier, we are also working on a Singapore-US VTL. This will help us establish and strengthen the type of travel between Singapore and the US. This is an area where both Singaporeans and Americans are very interested in.
Even before the establishment of the Singapore-US VTL, businesses must ensure provisions to facilitate critical or official visits to overseas countries. This is so that we can continue to maintain contact between the US and Singapore. The VTL will make it much easier for any of us who needs to critically travel.
The VTL will not stop just between US and Singapore. It is also important for Americans to travel to other parts of the world such as Australia and Europe. Therefore, the VTL will continue to expand. It is also important that we focus on developing this system to allow Singapore to reconnect to the rest of the world and further entrench our status as a business and travel hub.