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Singapore and the world, in 2013 and beyond

Updated On: Jan 03, 2013

The optimistic view - if you can call it that - is that crisis will be avoided in 2013.

The euro zone remains unsolved and messy, and American politicians have contrived their own financial cliff. But the Europeans have now so repeatedly avoided disaster that this alone brings some measure of hope. And despite Washington DC's beltway politics, there are some underlying signs of economic recovery in the United States.

Shocks can, of course, come from elsewhere and, given global fragility and interconnectedness, even seemingly distant and small sources can have outsized impacts. Argentina's economic slowdown and sovereign debt issues, for example, could possibly be a future Greece.

Non-economic issues can also spook nervy markets - such as a missile from Pyongyang or Tehran, or worse, an incident at sea between Chinese and Japanese vessels. Continued instability in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring could also create flashpoints of heightened tensions that would have global ramifications.

If these should come to pass, Singapore as an open and global economy will feel such impacts keenly. Yet even if such crises do not erupt or are quickly contained, the current outlook is for a slowdown and indeed the economic doldrums in 2013, with 1- to 3-per-cent growth.

ASIA'S ENGINES RUN LESS SMOOTHLY

Asia's growth has continued over the last five years despite the Lehman Brothers' collapse and the Western slowdowns. Ours is still the region most likely to prosper. But the engines for growth are running less strongly and less smoothly.

China and India slowed last year and many predict more challenges ahead with the increasing necessity of undertaking domestic reforms.

China's new leadership must deal not only with political and social issues but also with myriad financial and economic policies, from the internationalisation of the yuan to the future direction of its largest state-owned enterprises.

India's government is somewhat under siege. New Delhi has been criticised by many like much respected Ratan Tata for being too slow to reform, and also impacted by accusations of corruption.

A late bid for reform is being made, but facing the prospect of general elections by or in 2014, there will be caution about voter sentiment.

Nearer to Singapore, Indonesia did very well in the last year and seems likely to continue doing so in 2013, with projections of 6- to 6.5-per-cent growth.

There might be concerns if China's resource demands slow but domestic consumption has gone up and, with elections coming in two years, local spending will probably go up further.

TACTICAL REGIONAL LINKS

Given this, what best can Singapore do in the year ahead? There are questions of tactics for the short term, but also a need to look at strategy for the future.

Tactically, the clear need is to link to Asia and, where those links exist, to deepen them. While Singapore has been friends with India for many years, the economic part of that relationship needs strengthening - as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in his recent trip to New Delhi.

For China, while bilateral relations have been good, events in the wider context of the South China Sea need watching.

But perhaps the greatest opportunity is with the region closest to us, in ASEAN and the promise of an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). The AEC blueprint calls for integration of key markets by 2015, and connectivity to allow many more to do business across borders with far fewer obstacles.

Indonesia is a major part of this, but ties with Malaysia and Thailand bear emphasis too. The latter two are smaller economies but relatively open and with serviceable infrastructure and experience in manufacturing.

The AEC is critical to Singapore and the competitiveness of the smaller and medium-sized countries of our region. Although some years remain to the 2015 deadline, the AEC deserves attention in the year ahead.

Governments must push to make it happen. Businesses need to position themselves for the changes, and to lend their voices to the process so that governments do the right things.

END OF CHEAP LABOUR

This relates to the unfolding changes in the Singaporean economy.

The end of cheap labour is coming. Domestically, the political signals since the 2011 General Election have pointed to a squeeze on foreign workers in the low to medium wage segments. Across the region, workers are becoming choosier and, with more opportunities at home, fewer foreign workers may wish to venture here.

This suggests that Singapore must face another transformation. This will require, among other things, a focus on the productivity, skills and work attitudes of our people. There will also be an increase in companies going abroad - if not in whole then for significant parts of their work process.

This will then drive Singaporeans to develop higher value here while going abroad to seek other opportunities, further globalising our society.

At the same time, if Singapore is to further develop as a hub for the region and the world - in finance and other sectors - there will be social and other factors to consider.

The year ahead of slow growth is therefore not a time to sit still and moan. It is instead an opportunity for new strategic thinking - for companies, the Government and indeed the whole country. This needs to go beyond the immediate concerns to look to the longer term.

In the 15 years since the Asian crisis, Singapore has after all been transformed not only internally but also in relation to others in the region and the world, to emerge as a global city. This change is not fully realised as yet, and there needs to be time for adjustment. Yet, in the wake of the global financial crisis, and amid the opportunities and challenges in Asia, thinking ahead will be as critical, if not more so.



Simon Tay and Nicholas Fang are respectively Chairman and Executive Director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). On Jan 17, the SIIA will hold its Annual Members Circle to discuss key trends ahead for Singapore in Asia and the Global context.