Transcript of Fireside Chat between Minister Gan Kim Yong and Chairman of Milken Institute, Michael Milken at the Milken Asia Summit 2021

Transcript of Fireside Chat between Minister Gan Kim Yong and Chairman of Milken Institute, Michael Milken at the Milken Asia Summit 2021

Chairman Michael Milken: Good morning! It’s great to see you and I apologise for not being there in person. 

Minister Gan: Good morning Michael! It’s good to see you too! Although I’m seeing you through a hologram. It’s a very new experience for all of us.

Chairman Michael Milken: Well, I remember my visit more than 45 years ago to Singapore, to learn the vision of Lee Kuan Yew and the concept of human capital. One of the things that is so unique about the country is the commitment of the people and their experience. It's quite unique in the world we live in today. Minister Gan, you have almost 15 years of experience – running and becoming CEO of NatSteel, and then becoming a minister.

During the financial crisis, our concern was “How do we keep our employees at the 50 schools that we have in our family businesses in Singapore?”. Then the pandemic hit, and we are now looking at reopening. 

As I witness this tremendous commitment to innovation and investment in human potential in the Singaporean people, which, to me, set the foundation for this nation's tremendous growth, how is Singapore continuing to invest in its people?

Minister Gan: Thank you very much. As you know for Singapore, human capital is one of our most valuable assets. That is why we invest heavily in the education, training and upgrading of our people. But we also need to make sure that our training is relevant to the needs of the industry. That is why we engage stakeholders, our businesses, and our unions and labour movement in designing our training program, and in pushing ahead with our training efforts.

In this regard, we have been working with our tripartite partners to develop the Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) and training is at the core of this. We have a total of 23 ITMs, where we roll out transformation journeys for businesses so that they can continue to remain relevant to the new economy. Through training and upgrading, we continue to invest in our people to make sure that they have the skills required by the industries.

And as the world continues to evolve, I think jobs and skills will continue to change as well. We have to make sure that our people continue to remain relevant. These ITMs have training programs for workers at all levels - particularly during the COVID 19 pandemic. We rolled out programs like the SGUnited Jobs and Skills and within these programs, we also have programs for the PMETs. For example, the Career Conversion Programmes (CCPs) - today, we have about 100 CCPs for PMETs to continue to upgrade themselves and be ready for the recovery from COVID-19. We hope that they will continue this journey of learning and training so that no one will be left behind. After all, learning is a lifelong journey.

Chairman Michael Milken: It’s so interesting - I have seen so many different countries as I travelled the world, that brought the best and brightest expats to their country. But there is no country, in my opinion over the past 50 years, that has made the commitment to make sure the skills of its own people are at level or of higher level than the expats. When I thought about our 6-year-olds in Singapore who are going for extra-curricular programmes and requesting coding and robotics, I knew we had a very competitive group.

So next, rapidly advancing technologies involved in your retraining gives Singapore an opportunity, not just for the domestic market but essentially the world market, to expand your economic and business relationships globally. How is Singapore approaching the strategic expansion of trade activities with not only your neighbours in Asia, but the rest of the world?

Minister Gan: Thank you, Michael. As you know, Singapore is an open economy and trade is very important for us. Particularly during COVID-19, it has also shown up that trade is very critical. We have experienced frequent disruptions to trade and supply chains during the pandemic, which have affected our supplies of essential goods for daily living, as well as our economy. It is therefore important for us to also think about supply chain resilience which is a different topic that we can talk about later. Coming back to international trade, trade is very important for us. We will continue to focus on a long-term strategy of extending and expanding as well as deepening our trade connectivity with the region as well as with the rest of the world.

Singapore today, has 26 FTAs with economies that make up 85% of global GDP. This extensive network has allowed Singapore to become a hub for business, travel, talent, and trade. ASEAN as a region is very important to Singapore and as part of this network of FTAs. We have a very close relationship with ASEAN Member States – ASEAN is in fact our biggest merchandise trading partner and also Singapore's largest investment destination. ASEAN will continue to play a central role in our trading network. ASEAN is also at the core of RCEP, which will come into force on 1 January next year. RCEP will facilitate further trading activities with our companies and businesses in this region.

Beyond these trading arrangements, we are also working with like-minded partners to develop new trading relationships in emerging areas like the green economy, as well as the digital economy. We are happy to continue to deepen and strengthen this global trading network, which will help to entrench Singapore’s strategic position as a business hub.

Chairman Michael Milken: When you talk about digital, every day, the percentage of the world that is digitised goes up. The exciting thing to me is, all the young venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in Singapore, focusing on the idea that their digital offerings reach the entire world. Singapore has positioned itself as the centre of physical world trade. What has excited me is that Singapore is also repositioning itself as a leader in digital. 

You were the Minister for Health for ten years, and brought new programmes for ageing, for equality in access to healthcare, insurance, etc. But as I flew back from Johannesburg in February 2020, I could see a dark cloud spreading throughout the world - that was this pandemic. Now, as we look at the backend of this pandemic, could you give us some insight, as the Co-Chair of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce, where are you coming from in Singapore and where will Singapore be going as we reopen over time?

Minister Gan: COVID-19 has had a profound impact on lives and livelihoods. It has fundamentally changed the way we live, the way we do business, and it has changed the global perspective. For Singapore, our focus in the beginning was on keeping the infections as low as possible. At that time, if you remember, we did not have vaccines. We also did not have very effective testing mechanisms. The strategy was to focus on keeping Singaporeans safe and the only way to do that was through isolation and very aggressive contact tracing, to keep the number of infections as low as possible. 

After almost two years, we are in a better position. Although COVID-19 is still with us, we now have a lot more tools in our hands. For example, we have developed very good and effective testing mechanisms. We have also developed very effective vaccines. Through vaccines, we are hoping to be able to provide additional protection for people so that we can live with COVID-19. As we see new variants of COVID-19 emerging, we realise that it is not possible to eradicate the virus altogether. Therefore, we must find a way to go forward while at the same time, live with COVID-19 and allow life to get back to normal. Vaccination is one critical strategy for us to do so. This is why Singapore rolled out our vaccination programme in double-quick time, to cover as many of our population as possible. Now we are administering booster shots to enhance protection, especially for the vulnerable so that we are able to continue to resume activities – both economic activities as well as social activities. At the same time, we are keenly observing and watching the development of therapeutics. Therapeutics and vaccines, coupled with contact tracing and testing, will allow Singapore to open up to the rest of the world, re-establish, deepen and strengthen our connectivity with the rest of the world. 

In this journey, we've also discovered that digitalisation plays a very important part. The digitalisation journey started way before COVID-19, but COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of digitalisation. Digitalisation allows us to do things that could not have been possible in the past. Telemedicine, for example, plays an increasingly important role in our fight against COVID-19. Today, many of our patients are recovering at home or in community facilities. They are no longer in the hospital because they are generally well. We provide telemedicine to help them recover from their homes. Hence, telemedicine has played an important role in our recovery journey. But digitalisation also involves businesses, and opens up many new opportunities, especially for the small and medium-sized enterprises. It allows them to go beyond the constraints of their physical size and physical borders to better serve their customers not only in Singapore but around the region and the world. We have rolled out a lot of digitalisation programmes to support companies in this digital transformation. We have, for example, SME Go Digital, to support companies – SMEs in particular, in their transformation journey. We also train our workers so that they are digitally ready. When opportunities from the digital economy emerge in time to come, businesses will be able to tap on these opportunities, find good jobs, and continue their growth and development.

Chairman Michael Milken: One of the things that struck me on my visits to Singapore has been the commitment to bioscience at the National University, which is now one of the 20 leading bioscience universities in the world. Over the last two years, Milken Institute’s Faster Cures group focused on monitoring 500 vaccines, antivirus and antibodies - we have a lot of hope that the world will change here. As we deal with these issues, we recognise there were only nine weeks between the release of the COVID-19 DNA and the first human receiving the Moderna vaccine. 

But let's turn to another area you mentioned, and that is the green world. In the late 1960s. I saw pictures of this little blue planet in the solar system - maybe the only blue planet anyone is going to visit, with the next solar system four light years away. As we talk about what has occurred in the media (COP 26, sustainability, and climate change issues), over the past two weeks particularly, we've seen enormous leadership coming out of Singapore. And, obviously, Singapore, as a country surrounded by water, is very affected by potential changes in climate, etc. Talk to us about your leadership in this area.

Minister Gan: Thank you, Michael. Singapore is a small island. As we have very scarce resources, we have to optimise the use of resources. Sustainability is, therefore, a part of life. We rolled out the Singapore Green Plan 2030 earlier this year. The Green Plan encapsulates our ongoing efforts as well as outlines our plan, going forward, towards sustainable development, whether it is energy transition, abatement measures or carbon footprint, whether it is carbon-related services, or the development of new technologies. We are focusing on making Singapore sustainable, andthe green economy is a central part of this Singapore Green Plan 2030. Sustainability is a chance to open up many opportunities for companies to transform and to embrace sustainability as part of their core strategy. 

In fact, I think, in time to come, sustainability will be a key selling point for many of our businesses. Therefore, we are doing what we can to support companies in this transition towards more sustainable development. Recently, we rolled out the Enterprise Sustainability Programme, as well as the Enterprise Financing Scheme – Green. Through these programmes, we will be able to support our companies in their transformation journey. We are also focusing on training our people so that they have the skills that are needed in this emerging area. At the same time, we are talking to like-minded partners around the world to develop collaboration platforms for the development of the green economy. We are looking at the possibility of green economy agreements with our partners. This is a very exciting area that Singapore is embarking on, and I hope that this will bring new opportunities for us in a sustainable way.

Chairman Michael Milken: Over the last 10 to 15 years, we have been very focused here on environmental, social and governance (ESG) at our conferences in Singapore and other cities around the world, and I want to stress that you would be surprised at how many countries in the world and how many investors are looking at the strategies of not only the Singapore Government, but how Temasek or how GIC chooses to invest. How do you see the private industry’s role in these efforts?

Minister Gan: Indeed, the private sector plays a very critical role in our transition to sustainable development. Whether it is Temasek, GIC or other investors, it is important for us to encourage capital to be channelled to sustainability-related projects, whether it is energy transition, investment in new green energy supplies, or new technologies that are related to sustainability. All these require funding and financing. So whether it is capital, green bonds or loans, these are very important instruments, and the private sector will have to take the lead in investing in these areas, and transform their business operations to a more sustainable model. In time to come, I do believe that sustainability and ESG like you mentioned, is going to be the key selling point for many of our products and services. The earlier we embrace sustainability, the more competitive we will be.

Chairman Michael Milken: Minister, I want to thank you for joining us today. I also want to apologise that I have been beamed in, instead of being with you in person. I will do everything next year to look forward to being there in person. I am reassured with your leadership, your background in education, manpower, health, and now trade, and particularly in these times over the past two years, your co-Chairmanship of all the ministries dealing with COVID-19. Thank you for joining us today and thank you for your leadership.

Minister Gan: Thank you for having me. I had a very good time chatting with you, and I look forward to meeting you in person.

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