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Singapore will remain an open economy, approach ‘has not and will not change’: Ong Ye Kung

SINGAPORE: Singapore’s approach to running its economy, which is being open to the world, “has not and will not change”, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Friday (Aug 20).

With a good geographical location and a resourceful population as its two advantages, he said the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined “a fundamental reality” about Singapore.

“We are too small to survive on our own and we must tap into global markets,” Mr Ong said in a speech delivered before a closed-door dialogue session with members from the European Chamber of Commerce in Singapore (EuroCham).

“We will continue to welcome, facilitate and protect foreign investments. We will continue to complement local with foreign talent. We will preserve, buttress and expand our network of free trade agreements,” he added.

Singapore will also continue to value the technology and expertise that the world can offer, while persisting “in learning from everyone”, he said.

In addition, the country will remain a hub for manufacturing, trading, maritime, aviation, financial services, information and communications technology (ICT), as well as research and development.

“Singapore will also continue to be the interchange between the East and West, Europe and Asia, China and India. (It) will continue to be your springboard to connect with the ASEAN region,” said Mr Ong.

GLOBALISATION AND COVID-19

In his speech, the minister raised two reasons – one internal and the other external – why these “long-standing understandings of (Singapore’s) reality” has been called into question recently.

The first is a domestic debate on whether foreign manpower and free trade harm the interest of Singaporeans, he said.

There have been attempts to use free trade agreements, in particular the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, to stir up anti-foreigner sentiments here, he added, noting that this issue was recently debated in Parliament.

The Government is prepared to confront this and is confident that the majority of Singaporeans understand the need for the country to stay open, said Mr Ong.

But the Government “will address the genuine concerns of some Singaporeans”, including heightened competition for jobs from foreign manpower and the over-concentration of foreigners in certain sectors and companies, as well as unfair hiring practices by a small minority of employers.

By doing so, the country “will continue to maintain broad support for (its) open economic model”.

“The solutions we adopt to address these problems will not depart significantly from the measures that other developed countries have adopted,” Mr Ong said.

The second, and larger challenge, is the external threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused major upheavals in economies around the world.

He pointed out that the single biggest factor affecting Singapore’s long-term attractiveness and competitiveness is the openness of its borders.

This is why even as the pandemic disrupted cross-border activities, the Government tried various ways to keep Singapore open such as maintaining open supply lines and ensuring that operations at the local port and air cargo hub remain uninterrupted.

Even then, Singapore still faces the challenge of travel being disrupted.

“We are a hub and a key node in the world. If people from different parts of the world cannot come here to do business, exchange ideas, collaborate, create sparks and make things happen, we are diminished,” he said. 

“We cannot reverse this simply by … opening up our borders, ceasing to quarantine new visitors and let normal travel resume as if nothing happened. That would definitely lead to a massive outbreak of infections and deaths, and eventually, lockdown.”

So the Government tried to revive travel “step-by-step”, such as by having measures that allowed key personnel - senior executives and experts needed to maintain and install critical equipment - to travel in and out of the country with controlled itineraries and frequent testing in lieu of quarantine.

It also explored a first-of-its-kind air travel bubble with Hong Kong, although that did not pan out.

Recently, as the number of COVID-19 cases in Singapore came under control and with about 80 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, the country has re-activated its transition roadmap to living with COVID-19 as an endemic, said Mr Ong.

Authorities on Thursday announced the launch of vaccinated travel lanes, starting with Germany and Brunei from next month. Under these travel lanes, fully-vaccinated travellers departing from these two countries will be able to enter Singapore without serving a stay-home notice. Instead, they will have to take four COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.

The Government also announced a review of countries and jurisdictions into four categories, with each category having a different set of border controls.

“RIGHT AND PRUDENT” APPROACH

Mr Ong noted that some countries or regions have adopted very tight border measures and have been very safe with low infection numbers. But it is difficult to sustain this for a prolonged period as people will get tired of the frequent lockdowns and travel bans.

There are other countries with “far more freedom” but it came at a heavy cost with these countries going through massive outbreaks and high numbers of fatalities, the minister added.

Singapore has “adopted a middle course”, Mr Ong said, adding that this “approach was right and prudent”.

“While there were many inconveniences due to social restrictions, by and large, life could carry on normally,” he added, noting that schools stayed opened, while restaurants and attractions operated most of the time.

“More importantly, our hospitals were never overwhelmed and we had relatively few deaths. However, our border controls were quite strict and were further tightened during periods when local infections spiked.

“So there is no country or region in the world that has been both free of restrictions and safe from COVID-19. Singapore has to weigh carefully between preserving lives and livelihoods,” said Mr Ong.

“That is why we took the measures we did, including painful ones, so as to keep the country safe from COVID-19. If we had opened up recklessly, then we would not be Singapore anymore," he added.

Towards the end of his speech, Mr Ong said Singapore is “in a new position” today due to the population coming forward “in big numbers” to get vaccinated. This came about due to a “strong trust amongst people and between people and Government”, he said.

He also thanked the country’s foreign partners for “bearing up with all the inconveniences and heartaches” of the past 18 months, and hoped that they continue to work with the Government as Singapore transits to becoming a "COVID-19 resilient nation".

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Source: CNA/sk(ta)

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