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Commentary: How Singapore will remain a top trading hub in a post-pandemic world

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SINGAPORE: Global commerce has been the lifeblood of Singapore.

Singapores success has been tied to an open, connected and functional global economy. But now, the coronavirus pandemic has battered world commerce, which is facing its greatest challenge in a century.

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The World Trade Organization is predicting that global trade could contract by as much as 30 per cent from the previous year. For Singapore, the prognosis is even starker: More than a 40 per cent contraction.

The COVID-19 lockdown has dealt an equally painful blow to Singapores services sector, with hotels and restaurants operating at a fraction of boom-time capacity, while Singapore Airlines, the nations world-class carrier, has grounded more than 90 per cent of its fleet.

All of this begs the inevitable question: Are Singapores days as a dynamic global trading hub over?

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 could redefine Singapores place in the global economy

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READ: Commentary: The brewing discontent with trade and one step to restoring faith in globalisation

The answer lies farther down a long, strenuous road, and depends on three key factors: Singapores successful migration into the post-pandemic digital economy, adept navigation of US-China geopolitics and active participation in multilateral frameworks.

THE POST-PANDEMIC DIGITAL ECONOMY

Singapores digital DNA is well suited for a post-pandemic economy. Social distancing has spawned new technology-driven ecosystems on the Internet involving fintech, health services, conferencing and educational services, entertainment, cybersecurity and privacy, logistics services, telecommunications, and, of course, e-commerce.

The 2020 Financial Times Asia-Pacific High Growth Companies ranking of 500 firms, for example, included more than 70 Singapore based companies – an impressive number for such a small country. Some notables include Grab (technology), Reddot payment (fintech), Sunseap (energy); Boxgreen (e-commerce), MiRXES (health) and Blue Wireless (telecommunications).

On another positive note, despite coronavirus challenges, Singapore is rolling out nationwide 5G services for deployment by 2025 and beyond, at a cost of billions of dollars.

A man walks past an advertisement promoting the 5G data network at a mobile phone store in London, Britain on , Jan 28, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville)

The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) recently announced that three of Singapores telecoms operators, Starhub, Singtel and M1, had won contracts to build a standalone cloud-based 5G infrastructure.

The logic of forging ahead with 5G reveals several underlying motives. By choosing multiple companies, Singapore avoids having a 5G landscape that features one dominant telecommunications company, thereby avoiding the negative aspects that such an arrangement brings.

Singapore Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran said: “Our focus has been on overall network resilience and security, and ensuring vendor diversity.”

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As the standalone 5G network is designed with unique specifications around security features, for example, small and medium-sized tech companies in Singapore will play key roles in designing and building the network.

In the longer term, many of these firms will benefit from 5G capacity-building opportunities in other markets, as and when other countries manage to recover from COVID-19 and develop their own 5G networks.

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But another subtle reason to go with a diversified 5G network is based on geopolitics. Singapore must reduce reliance on any one single foreign telecommunications firm, which could pull the city-state into a messy techno-nationalist row involving two of its key partners, the US and China.

AVOIDING A US-CHINA BINARY CHOICE

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the extent to which Sino-US relations have deteriorated. This systemic rivalry has reached a tipping point.

The worlds two super powers are fundamentally at odds on terms of trade, technology transfer, basic economic and political ideology, and, of course, Chinas military expansion in the South China Sea.

Now COVID-19 has become a flashpoint, with accusations that China had not done enough to prevent the outbreak from getting out of hand and allegations of a Wuhan lab being behind the virus.

LISTEN: Why lifting lockdowns and easing restrictions may be the biggest COVID-19 test facing countries

Pompeo has said that there was 'enormous evidence' that the new coronavirus came out of a Wuhan lab. (Photo: AFP/Andrew Harnik)

Singapore finds itself in a precarious position. As it is pinched between two of its most important partners, it will have to perfect the art of avoiding zero-sum, binary-choices, if at all possible.

AMERICAN INFLUENCE

US security and economic ties run deep and long. At over US$244 billion, US companies, are by far, Singapores biggest investors. In 2019, they accounted for more than 20 per cent of all foreign direct investment (FDI) in Singapore and have invested more than all other Asian companies combined.

In the manufacturing sector, US FDI in Singapore is almost 50 per cent more than all other Asian investment. In the electronics sector, American firms such as HP and Texas instruments, were the first to invest in Singapores nascent tech sector, which is now a key part of Singapores future as a vital trade hub, with US tech firms still at the core of complex ecosystems and value chains.

The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating US-China tecno-nationalist tensions. As de-coupling between American and Chinese companies increases, Singapores tech sector could see an influx of foreign firms looking to relocate operations from, not only China, but even Taiwan.

As it is doing with other historic allies and partners, the US will lean on Singapore-based tech firms to reduce ties with Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, something that could directly impact Singapores long-term 5G development plans, depending on how self-sufficient Singapores local firms can become.

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Similarly, Washington will likely escalate its use of export controls around US semiconductor manufacturing equipment, which could place restrictions on Singapore firms that export microchips or other parts to blacklisted Chinese companies.

This scenario is already unfolding in Taiwan, where Washington is pressuring TSMC, UMC and other Taiwanese semiconductor firms to cut off sales to China.

CHINAS INFLUENCE

Meanwhile, China remains Singapores largest trading partner and number one destination for outbound FDI.

As China continues its post-lockdown economic recovery – especially as the US and the rest of the world lag behind – Singapores severely bruised sectors would seem poised to rush into Chinas arms.

As Beijing turns to economic stimulus in the construction and infrastructure sectors, for example, Singapore businesses in the engineering, construction and project consultation sectors could get a huge opportunity.

But Beijing is likely to leverage access to its economic recovery in exchange for support of its broader geopolitical objectives in the region. This may include pressing for acquiescence on its South China Read More – Source