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Keynote Speech by Mr Chee Hong Tat, Senior Minister of State for Finance and Transport, at The Opening Ceremony of The 4th Business China Youth Forum 2022, on 7 October 2022

07 Oct 2022

1. Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.

2. I am happy to join you today for the opening of the 4th Business China Youth Forum. We had a good discussion on the theme of “Youth as Drivers of Future ASEAN-China Growth” last year. That was a virtual forum because of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. Today, I am delighted that we are all able to attend in person, and also to have some of our participants join us online at this hybrid event. 

3. Let me begin with a brief introduction on the recent developments in China. Since Covid-19 started, China had to implement many measures to protect the lives of their people and to safeguard the economy to protect jobs and livelihoods. This is not easy. We know from our own experience during the early stages of the pandemic that it was difficult to balance both objectives, to try and save lives and also, try to save livelihoods. And we only managed to achieve a breakthrough, where we could open up without suffering a large number of deaths, because of our high vaccination rates. Vaccination was the key to allowing us to be able to open up safely, without large numbers of deaths.

4. To make matters more difficult for China, they are not only currently facing challenges from COVID-19, they are also facing a declining relationship with the West, in particular the US. We know the US-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world. It is not the only important relationship, as DPM Lawrence Wong mentioned this morning – it is not a bipolar world, but we are looking at a multi-polar world. But because the US is currently the world's number one economy and China is the world's second largest economy, their relationship is the most important bilateral relationship. Unfortunately, it has been fraying and is currently at its weakest point in decades. The choices that both countries take will have a deep impact on the emerging international order. 

5. No one can know for certainty how things will evolve, but one of the points that I want to get across today is this – I believe China will remain an important global player. It is the world’s second largest economy, even though its growth rates have slowed down in recent years since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic; China is still the largest trading partner for many countries in the region, including Singapore. It remains the most populous country in the world (at least for now before India catches up). Importantly, China has many talented and hardworking people and an innovative private sector.

6. To be clear, the road ahead will be more challenging for China, not so much because of Covid-19 as I believe they will gradually open up, but they will face a lot of challenges because of the rising tensions with the West and its partners; and also domestically due to an ageing population, challenges on the environmental front, widening wealth and income inequality – all these could have an impact on its social cohesion. But despite these headwinds, I think it would be a mistake to under-estimate China or worse, to write China off. It is still an economic and geopolitical powerhouse, and will likely continue to be a dominant player on the global stage for decades to come.

7. I am confident that Singaporeans are pragmatic and would recognise that over the longer-term, it is still important for us – especially our youths – to know how to engage China effectively. And this is the reason why we set up Business China 15 years ago. This mission to nurture young Singaporeans to have the skills, knowledge, networks to develop deeper links with China, and to feel comfortable engaging China, remains important and relevant.

8. Today, I would like to touch on three questions for our audience to consider and ponder over. These questions focus on different aspects of Singapore’s relationship with China. Please allow me to elaborate.

9. First, how should Singapore react to the rising US-China tension? We know that this is a very difficult challenging issue. Should we choose sides and if so, which side should we choose?

10. Singapore has repeatedly explained to both US and China that we do not wish to take sides, as they are both important countries to us and they are both our good friends. 

11. More fundamentally, when we think of international relations, it is important to bear in mind that it is not just at a personal level. At the international level, the most critical thing is to always bear in mind what is in Singapore’s national interest. Some of you may have heard of a phrase used by some diplomats – there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests. And this is what it means. Always think of what is in Singapore’s national interests. So Singapore, we are not pro-anyone, or anti-anyone when we formulate our foreign policy. Our focus must always be pro-Singapore. As Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, “I do not want to sound like a hawk or a dove. If I have to choose a metaphor from the aviary, I would like to think of the (wise) owl.” 

12. This is indeed Singapore’s position. We would prefer not to choose sides. We would prefer if relations between US and China stabilise, or even improve. We have to recognise that they are both superpowers and there will be some areas where they will compete. But that does not mean that they cannot collaborate, and cannot work together on areas where their interests are aligned. If they also adopt the same approach (there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests), and identify where are these interests where there could be common ground, there could be alignment, those are the areas where you can actually work together to collaborate. In other areas, yes, you may have to compete, so we have to get used to this non-binary type of outcome. It is not a 1 or a 0, but where you position the relationship between the 1 and the 0, where some areas you compete, and some areas you collaborate. They can coexist.  

13. This morning, a few speakers mentioned some areas, like climate change. This is something that affects the whole world. And if sea levels were to rise, none of us can escape. Things like pandemic response (virus does not respect boundaries or nationalities, and the virus will affect all of us), and even global financial stability, because of the inter-connected nature of the global market. So there are some areas where it is in our mutual interest, collectively, to work together and definitely between the US and China, if they can identify the areas where we can work together, I think that would help to build the trust and relationship. 

14. One of Singapore’s strengths is that we are seen by both countries as trustworthy, credible and consistent. We can play the role of an honest broker and do our part to facilitate dialogue and cooperation where possible. Like what we did where we hosted meetings between leaders from Mainland China and Taiwan (Mr Xi Jinping and Mr Ma Ying-jeou). Some of you may also remember the Trump-Kim Summit between Mr Donald Trump and Mr Kim – they also met in Singapore. And we also have multilateral meetings such as Shangri-la Dialogue, and also, the Business China Forum.

15. This is the reason why we conduct diplomacy in a consistent and principled manner, where we mean what we say and we say what we mean, without fear or favour. It is very important. When we need to disagree and speak up against the US or China, we must be prepared to do so, without fear and to be consistent, and principled. Those are characteristics that people will associate with Singapore and it gives us credibility. It makes us trustworthy, and it makes us consistent. We will not shy away from doing the right thing and we will always uphold Singapore’s national interests.

16. Second, how can Singapore add value in our dealings with China?

17. For Singapore to have a seat at the table, we must have value-add. Some people ask, China is so big and Singapore is much smaller (in terms of land area and population), so how can we add value in our dealings with China, beyond the earlier points I made about being trustworthy, credible and consistent? 

18. At last year’s forum, I spoke about three ‘Ji’ – 经济, 科技, 人际 (economy, technology and relationships). These remain relevant areas in our engagement with China. One very important reminder to all of us here, as Singaporeans, is this – if we do not continue to innovate and do well as a country, it is not surprising that China will find us increasingly less useful and relevant. In fact, if we are not successful, they may look at us as an example of what not to do, and they would not want to work with us or learn from us or collaborate with us, because they do not see value in that. We ourselves must always be pushing boundaries, being at the frontier of innovation and doing well as a country. Then others, not just China, would find value in working with us, and to partner us. These could include growing the economy, strengthening social cohesion or dealing with emerging challenges like ageing and environmental sustainability. These are some of the possible areas which they are also interested in. And if we can do well, we can show that we have some solutions, some value-add, then it opens up new possibilities for collaboration. 

19. There are two additional areas where we can further enhance our value-add to China.

20. First, we are in South-East Asia, and we have deep ties with ASEAN. We understand the region better than the Chinese. And ASEAN has plenty to offer – 660 million people, a young, growing middle-class. I think there are many opportunities that ASEAN can offer. And beyond geopolitical constraints for China, I think they also look at economic potential and growth potential. Today, ASEAN is the fifth-largest market and on track to become the fourth-largest by 2030. Even in the height of the pandemic, trade between ASEAN and China grew by 7 per cent year-on-year, to a value of more than SGD$900 billion.

21. Every business deal involves two parties, it takes two hands to clap. So what does China want from this partnership with ASEAN? It is natural for Chinese companies to want to expand overseas as they become more established, and ASEAN is a nice market to consider, it is natural candidate. And if Singapore can position ourselves successfully as a hub for South-East Asia, we can benefit from the flow of capital, ideas and talent coming through Singapore, and into the region. Singapore becomes the nerve centre, and the hub for the region.

22. We can therefore add value by leveraging geography, by being the hub for Chinese companies who want to expand in the region. And we already see some of these happening. Chinese venture capital firms are expanding in Singapore because they want access to South-East Asia and they believe that Singapore is a good place for them to operate, and hunt for deals in the region.

23. But let us go one step further. Fundamentally, out of the countries in the region, why do they choose Singapore? I think the key reason is because of our effective and stable governance. We have low levels of corruption, we have rule of law, we respect contracts and intellectual property rights, and we have a stable and business-friendly environment. Of course, we have excellent connectivity that helps as well. 

24. Our success can therefore provide useful learning points for other countries, including China. Likewise, as our neighbours and China develop, we must also remember that we must continue to learn, including from China, so we can continue to improve. We must stay ahead, we must remain successful, and there will be good practices from the region, including from China, that we can learn from. We must be humble and open-minded enough to say that the learning is not just one way, but is mutual and two-ways. I think that would allow us to further enhance our relationships and engagements. 

25. Since our Independence, we have successfully and innovatively navigated many crises through the decades – the Asian Financial Crisis, 9/11, SARS, Global Financial Crisis and more recently, Covid-19 pandemic – each time we go through a crisis successfully, it adds to our trust factor and boost our international standing. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the people of Singapore, our businesses, our unions, our population. This is something that we achieved together, and it is certainly something that has increased our standing, in the eyes of investors. 

26. Right now, I think people do want to look at Singapore as a place they want to come to. And one question to ask ourselves is how then do we help our young people to understand China better and benefit from the opportunities in China and from China? This is my third and final question for all of you. 

27. Geography and governance build on each other and create a special Singapore formula that cannot easily be replicated. Put another way, our value-add comes from us being unique and different. If we are identical to China or the Chinese cities, we become less useful. They have many cities with a population of 4 or 5 million or above, so they are not short of cities that have several million (people) or more. If we are exactly the same as them, they actually get less from us. 

28. So speaking good Mandarin and understanding Chinese culture – these are useful things to help open doors and allow us to communicate better with our  Chinese counterparts.

29. But if that is all we can offer, it is not enough. We need to go further. There are many millions of Chinese in China who can speak fluent Mandarin and understand Chinese culture inside out. They do not need another couple of million more people from Singapore to add to this pool. And in any case, most of us will not be able to out-Chinese them, because we are Singaporeans. They will also know Chinese culture and history better than us. So this cannot be our key value proposition to them. Look at it (speaking good Mandarin and understanding Chinese culture) more as a door-opener, look at it more as a way to have a better relationship and strike up a better understanding. But that cannot be our main value proposition, because this is something they can do better than us.  

30. So what is our key value proposition? I believe that our youths must be able to differentiate ourselves and stand out. This includes the ability to not just understand issues from the Chinese perspective, but to also think, adapt, and provide innovative solutions from our perspective as Singaporeans, serving as a bridge between China and the West, or between China and South-East Asia. 

31. For those of you who watched Joanna Dong’s (董姿彦) performances in Sing! China (中国好声音), one reason she did so well on the show was because she differentiated herself from the other singers who also had very good voices. Her song choices were unique jazz interpretations of Chinese classics, which were differentiated from what the other singers performed. She played her own game – she was able to present herself as being “same same but different”, so she stood out.

32. I would like to encourage our young people today that you may also want to consider, what are some of the areas where you can be “same same but different”. So that your interactions with the Chinese, you bring something different and unique that you can offer. 

33. I would also like to take this opportunity to share with all of you that Business China administers a Singapore-China Youth Interns Exchange Scheme (YES), and the Business China Youth Chapter organises learning journeys to different parts of China, to learn about developments, practices and opportunities. Of course, we cannot do so right now, but as I said, I think they would open up (it is a matter of time), and when they open up, we would want to organise for our youths to go there and experience for yourself, first-hand, not by reading books or reports but really to meet them in person, to experience for yourself the place, the culture, the food, the environment. I think that is the best way – to immerse yourself in the environment. And we can do this through a combination of study visits, learning journeys, and also internships.  

34. Recently I saw an article from Ms Jessica Tan, a Singaporean senior executive working in Ping An Insurance. She wrote an op-ed in the Straits Times and she said that to truly understand China, there is no better way than to be on the ground, and fully immerse yourself in the country. I fully agree with her, that this is the best way for young people to learn. 

35. So, when China opens up again, I encourage our youths to sign up, and let Business China know how we can support you and involve you in some of the activities. 

36. Before I end, I would like to share an anecdote with you. This came from our former Minister for Foreign Affairs Mr George Yeo. He gave an interview to Zaobao, and he used a Tai-chi analogy to describe how he felt we could develop the Singapore-China relationship. He said the concept is what in Tai-chi they call “沾”- that means keep in touch, and no matter how the movement happens, you do not lose touch. So after I shared this in my MFA COS speech last year, Mr Yeo told me that an even more powerful concept beyond “沾”is “黏”. So what I hope for our young people today, is that our relationship with China (which we have developed over the last few decades and is currently at a good level), that when you are able to participate and deepen your understanding and knowledge, that we can move from“沾”to “黏”- to have that trust, to have that comfort level where we can talk about challenges that we can work on together and opportunities that we can seize together, including in South-East Asia. 
37. With that, I wish you all a successful forum ahead. Thank you.