Mr Lee Yi Shyan, Chairman, Business China
Professor Low Buen Sin, Associate Dean, Nanyang Business School
Mr Wu Hsioh Kwang, Board Director, Business China
Lecturers and Graduates of the Future China Advanced Leaders Programme
Ladies and Gentlemen
Good evening. At last year’s FC-ALP Commencement Dinner, I spoke about how Singapore’s relevance to China depends on our ability to add value in areas which they will find us useful, and can benefit by working together with us. If we have no relevance to others or nothing that they can take reference from, no one, including China and other major powers, will pay attention to us. This is the reality in geo-politics. While we have worked with China in the early years of its reform and opening up, and Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Deng Xiaoping built up a close relationship that formed the foundation of our bilateral relationship today, we cannot take this for granted and must constantly work on enhancing the close cooperation between the two countries.
2 Speaking the same language, sharing the same cultural traditions and having ancestors who came from the same village several generations ago can be an advantage, but they are not going to get us very far if that is all we have to offer. Our value to China – or any other major power – will ultimately depend on whether we can continue to be a vibrant, successful city-state with stable political leadership; whether we remain a trusted and credible country which upholds our commitments and adheres consistently to international laws; how we are able to understand and connect with both the East and the West; and how we integrate free and open markets with good social development.
3 Some people read media reports and are concerned about Singapore’s relations with China, and asked if Singapore should align more closely with China. A few have suggested that by doing so, China would not be investing in our neighbouring countries to compete with Singapore. This is a simplistic and flawed conclusion. The Chinese are investing in our region and beyond to enhance their connectivity and energy security. Their decisions are guided by their national interests. Singapore enjoys close cooperation with China over the years. It is in our interest and in the region’s interest that China succeeds. We believe that a successful China is good for the region, and this has been our longstanding and consistent position. Although sometimes there may be occasional differences over how our two countries view certain issues, this is only natural even between close friends and neighbours.
4 I like the article written by Ms Chua Mui Hoong in the Sunday Times on 21 May 2017. She described and debunked 3 myths about Singapore-China ties. Over the years, Singapore has assured China that we value our bilateral links and we would like to see them grow and develop, and we hope they would use their growing power and influence to benefit the region’s stability and prosperity. This is why we were early and strong supporters of “Belt and Road” initiative, AIIB and many other initiatives by the Chinese which promote more openness, connectivity and win-win partnerships. Mui Hoong concluded her article stressing that the key is to make sure we have plenty of friends who still want to play ball with us, and that we all play by the accepted rules of the game. I agree with her. I also agree with Ms Han Yong Hong’s points in her Zaobao commentary today, where she noted how some parties had once again tried to exaggerate negative news on Singapore-China relations. We should not be rattled by these tactics, and should instead focus on further strengthening our bilateral ties with China at different levels and with different provinces - between government leaders, between businesses and between our people.
5 Looking ahead, a key priority for Singapore is how we can successfully transform our economy to remain globally competitive and create good jobs for Singaporeans; while holding our people together as a united cohesive society. We are doing this for Singapore and Singaporeans. But in meeting this challenge, we demonstrate our capabilities and show the world what Singapore can do. That is how other countries assess the value they can gain from working with Singapore.
6 So we must press on with our economic transformation efforts to help our companies become more competitive and productive, and to expand into overseas markets so that they can tap on the growth opportunities in markets like China, India, ASEAN and even further to Africa and Latin America. This is also one of Business China’s objectives, and why Mr Lee Kuan Yew set up Business China 10 years ago.
7 Indeed, this was one of my key takeaways from our study trip last month to Urumqi in Xinjiang and Almaty in Kazakhstan. While it is not without its challenges, China’s “Belt and Road” initiative has the potential to bring about many opportunities for countries in the region, and provide areas of collaboration that allow everyone to grow and prosper together. Our partnership with China is more than bringing investments into the country, but also working with Chinese companies to innovate new technologies, develop new products and services and invest in other markets, including ASEAN and Central Asia. As CPC Politburo Member and Central Organisation Department Minister Zhao Leji said, during his recent visit to Singapore for the 6th Singapore-China Forum on Leadership which he co-chaired with DPM Teo Chee Hean, the focus for “Belt and Road” Initiative and our bilateral ties will be based on mutual benefit (共赢) and cooperation (合作). 从共赢加强合作，从合作取得共赢。
8 I am glad to know that many of you have already embarked on these initiatives, whether on your own or in collaboration with foreign partners. This is a multi-year journey and there will be ups and downs along the way, but we must persist with these transformation efforts. With ageing population, rapid technological changes and rising competition from other cities, business-as-usual is simply not tenable.
9 Economic transformation is a priority area for the government to work closely with our unions as well as businesses. We want to help as many companies as possible to succeed in their transformation efforts, building on Singapore’s strengths in connectivity, trust and talent. In the next phase of our economic development, I believe the focus should be on 4 key elements represented by the acronym IDEA: Innovation, Digitalisation, Entrepreneurship, and Access to international markets and talent. And the key lies in effective execution and implementation to turn good ideas into reality.
10 Within the government, we must proactively review our rules and regulations to facilitate new business ideas and reduce red-tape and unnecessary costs. In my view, every government agency needs to support this national priority to transform Singapore’s economy and enhance our competitiveness. We should see it as part of our job to help companies and workers succeed. Having a strong economy is the only way to create good jobs for Singaporeans, improve our quality of life and provide opportunities and a bright future for our young.
11 Another key area is to keep our society cohesive as we transform our economy. In Western countries, widening income divides have generated discontent amongst the working population, as many have experienced either zero or even negative real growth in their income over the past 20 years, while a small segment of the population have surged ahead in their wealth and income levels. Such unhappiness contributed to events like Brexit and rising populism in politics. China is also facing similar social tensions as income divide rises between urban and rural areas, and between different groups of workers in their cities. And similar to Singapore, China is ageing rapidly and our changing demographics adds further difficulties on the social front.
12 Here in Singapore, we want to pursue sustainable growth so that we can “stay ahead by growing together”. We need to make sure that when we grow our economy, it will benefit a broad segment of our population through better jobs, higher income, better infrastructure and social benefits. We must help our workers who are affected by the economic restructuring to receive skills training and find new jobs. This is necessary if we want to achieve sustainable growth, and we want to have the mandate to support pro-growth, pro-enterprise policies.
13 To conclude, I believe that a key priority for Singapore in the next few years is to successfully transform our economy while keeping our society together. It will require all stakeholders – government, companies and unions to work in partnership, leveraging on the strong trust that we have built over the years. This is about working together and taking concrete steps to build a stronger economy, more competitive companies and better jobs for Singaporeans. This is about your future, this is about our future, this is about our children’s future.
14 If we succeed in this endeavour, we will show the world that Singaporeans are descendants of lion-hearted pioneers which built this country from third world to first in one generation. We will show the world that we have what it takes to overcome the odds and emerge stronger as one united people. And we will show the world that Singaporeans are a determined people who will never say die, and we will follow that rainbow and ride it together to even greater heights than before.
15 Thank you and have a pleasant evening ahead.