EDB chief repeats Singapore's call for countries to work together

THE global political pendulum is swinging away from right-wing nationalism, but governments must still commit to work together to avoid lasting damage, a top Singapore policymaker has reiterated.

"The WTO (World Trade Organization) may be broken right now, but there are other alternative mechanisms that one can create," Economic Development Board (EDB) chairman Beh Swan Gin told the Forbes Global CEO Conference at Shangri-La Hotel on Wednesday evening.

Singapore's leaders have been consistently calling for an update of global trade rules, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong saying in May that the WTO "is almost paralysed and urgently needs reform".

"Will what's happening now have lasting impact? I think that's where, then, countries, like-minded countries, who continue to believe in free trade, in multilateral arrangements, international rule of law, have to come together in whatever form that we can," Dr Beh said, when an audience member asked the panel that he was on about the rise of populism.

He pointed to the European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed 16-party Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as examples of multilateral collaboration.

"These are the efforts that we have to continue to invest in and not just give up and wring our hands and do nothing," Dr Beh concluded, while noting that he considers an upsurge in nationalism to be "not an irreversible process".

Meanwhile, venture capitalist and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin suggested that more diversity among entrepreneurs could improve outcomes in a capitalist system.

"One thing to be very thoughtful as this partnership between innovation, large businesses and government happens, is how to not just focus on top businesses, but enable entrepreneurship, hopefully, to be an equalising medium. Everyone knows that they can rise up that ladder if they wish," he said.

Moderator and Forbes Media editor-at-large Rich Karlgaard had thrown down the gauntlet at the start of the discussion by asking whether capitalism is worth defending or must be replaced.

Mr Saverin, who is also a partner in investment firm B Capital Group, was on the panel alongside Dr Beh, Goh Hup Jin, chairman of regional paint giant Nipsea Holdings, and HSBC group chairman Mark Tucker.

He said: "One of the things that leaves me optimistic around the changing face of capitalism is that the leaders of capitalism will better reflect society.

"People will start believing that these companies are actually listening to them, because they are reflected by them... For this ecosystem to become sort of positive to capitalism as well, we need to think about how we are both transparent and responsive and reflect society."

This was even as Mr Goh warned that, without any intervention, "what we have is runaway capitalism, and it's war - it's poverty, it's war, it's destruction", so "to be effective in curing the ills of capitalism, you need the legislative power, the power to enforce laws, and all the information that the state harnesses".

Mr Saverin added that, despite potential drawbacks such as jobs being made redundant, societies should not shy away from entrepreneurship and technology innovation.

"The question is how you use it, and how you take the long-term repercussions and benefit and create the right equation when you choose to leverage technology," he said.

"It doesn't mean we shouldn't allow industries, people, society to benefit from technology innovation. But we need to think about the repercussions, and it's an important question because entrepreneurs are optimistic by design… and it happens to be that a lot of the models are trial and error."

Along those lines, Dr Beh called the right-wing nationalism of recent years "a reflection of the failure of governance, particularly in how they redistribute the benefits that have accrued to some of these countries as a result of globalisation - an internal redistribution", and cited the rise of the United States Democratic Party's left flank as a sign that "maybe the body politic is swinging back a little bit".