SINGAPORE: Ensuring that Singapore firms will continue to have access into overseas markets and receive a helping hand in transforming their business models are among Mr Chan Chun Sing’s key priorities as he takes over the helm at the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI).
Mr Chan said this in a group interview on Friday (May 4) after attending the annual Europe Day lunch celebration organised by the European Chamber of Commerce. The event was the minister’s first public engagement after being appointed Minister for Trade and Industry following the latest Cabinet reshuffle.
When asked about his to-do list at MTI, Mr Chan mentioned the need to ensure homegrown companies have continued access to opportunities overseas, which will help create better jobs for Singaporeans.
This is despite “some headwinds” around the world, notably the simmering trade tensions between the United States and China.
With Singapore being a small and open economy that depends heavily on the rules-based multilateral trading system, the country will have “to watch the waves and currents carefully” while navigating the changes in the global trade environment, he said.
“There will be some headwinds in some parts of the world but we will make sure that we continuously explore new markets and deepen the connections with some of the existing markets, so that we can have more and better opportunities for Singaporean businesses which will in turn create better jobs for Singaporeans.”
Another of his priorities is to ensure continuous help for local firms to evolve their business models and keep up to pace with disruptive trends. Citing the 23 Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) that are underway, Mr Chan said this transformation needs to take place “beyond the cyclical up or downturns” in the economy.
“We continuously help our companies to transform their business models, to adopt new technology so that they can improve their products and services,” he said.
Another key to ensuring the resilience of the Singapore economy is to grow the local talent pool.
Apart from understanding the local market, workers will need to have “an extensive network and deep understanding” of the region and the world to be able to “compete with the best”.
The country will also have to remain open to global talent to ensure its success, added Mr Chan.
“In today's competitive environment, we must also have the most talented people with the best ideas – both Singaporeans and our partners from elsewhere – working together as a team to boost the Singapore economy.”
As such, Singapore’s manpower policies will seek to find the “correct mix of people”.
“It’s not about the total number of people,” he said. “It's about the correct mix of people (as) we move away from reliance on the lower-productivity, lower-wage sectors.
“We want to move towards the high-productivity, high-wage sectors to create more opportunities for Singapore so it is about how we balance the portfolio of our partnership with the foreign companies and foreign labour,” he added.
On whether that means a relook at local policies governing foreign manpower, Mr Chan said it would be “too generic to talk about policies in general”.
Noting that there is a shortfall in talent in some up-and-coming industries such as financial technology (fintech), he added: “We are very targeted in how we want to grow our companies and talent pool so we need to look at where the new opportunities are and have very focused and targeted measures to grow in the direction we want to.”
“ADDED SIGNIFICANCE” TO QUICKLY RATIFY EUSFTA
Earlier in his keynote address, Mr Chan described the lunch celebration with hundreds of diplomats and business leaders as “timely” given the protectionist sentiments taking root in parts of the world.
The yearly affair celebrates the anniversary of the 1950 Schuman Declaration, which paved the way for the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community and eventually, the European Union (EU).
He cautioned that escalating trade tensions, notably between the United States and China, could undermine the global trading system if left unchecked.
However, the EU has remained “a staunch proponent” for free trade, he said. The regional bloc’s continued push for free trade agreements (FTAs) with key partners “sends an important signal to the world that free and open trade remains the path forward”.
Singapore, like the EU, is a firm believer in a rules-based multilateral trading system, added Mr Chan.
Describing the EU-Singapore FTA (EUSFTA) as a “very important endeavour”, Mr Chan said the ratification of the trade pact “will signal the EU’s resolve as a key proponent for free and open trade, and enhance the EU’s trade leadership in Asia”.
Apart from economics benefits such as lowering tariff and non-tariff trade barriers, the EUSFTA also has significant strategic importance, he said.
“The EUSFTA is a pathfinder towards an eventual EU-ASEAN FTA and anchors the EU’s engagement in the region.”
“We welcome the recent news from the EU that the ratification of the EUSFTA is moving forward,” he added, referring to news about how the negotiation outcomes of the EUSFTA have been presented to the European Council last month. “We look forward to your continued support for its expeditious ratification and hope for its early implementation.”
A quick completion of the ratification process will have “added significance” amid the ongoing tide of anti-globalisation sentiment, said Mr Chan.
“The EUSFTA will send an important and powerful signal to the entire trading community of what EU and Singapore stand in the sphere of FTAs, economic integration and economic partnership,” he said.