Singapore's hub status hangs on how Asean pulls together: think tank


CLOSING doors to focus on national priorities during a pandemic is a false answer, a Singapore-based think tank suggested on Thursday, and what Asean needs is instead greater transparency and integration for a strong recovery.

"The right answer is actually to integrate, pull Asean close together - it's a long-term goal of Asean. Why not accelerate the long-term goals in response to this immediate crisis," asked Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA).

He was speaking to The Business Times following the release of a report examining the politics and growth prospects of key Asean economies ahead of Asean Day this Saturday.

How Asean recovers as a region has implications for Singapore's status as a regional hub for business and financial services, sustainability and transport, he said.

"If we understand that Singapore is a hub, then those numbers that are bad in Indonesia (will) impact us as if we are one big pandemic hotspot if we don't manage it correctly.

"Singapore will mean less to the world if we're not a hub to the region," he said, making the case for Singapore to do its part in bringing the region together.

This begins with having more close discussions and for Singapore to listen to the region and harmonise.

"We must listen to them. We must understand, not just the health issues, but where they're trying to go with the economy and how to integrate the whole region."

While Asean countries are doing a good job in terms of functional cooperation and exchanging information, the candour of discussion has been a challenge and will continue to be, Assoc Prof Tay said.

Some countries may struggle to say how bad the situation really is or be in denial, which is why transparency is critical. Closer discussions can also build trust in the development of green travel lanes within the Asia-Pacific region. Apart from China and Malaysia, Assoc Prof Tay believes that a green travel lane with Vietnam could be on the cards next, given the exemplary ways it has managed the pandemic and its close business ties with Singapore.

"Of all countries, as the hub, we need to do it the most," Assoc Prof Tay said of green travel lanes. "The more countries we can hub safely with, the better it is."

He gave the example of Australia; were it to open up to Singapore, Singapore's connection with the other countries in the region would create access to the region for Australia.

This is why Singapore needs to think about opening the rest of Asean, even ahead of what other countries like Australia are willing to consider at the moment, he said.

Beyond dialogue, Singapore can also provide more support to the region, for example, by lending its expertise in building better healthcare systems or offering financing for infrastructure projects, he said.

"If Singapore shuts down too long and each country retreats to its own national borders, you mustn't assume that when there is a return to normal, and we'll suddenly automatically become the hub," he said.

The question now is how this can be done safely at a time when countries in the region are facing a possible second wave of infection.

He said that while opening up is important, it should not be rushed. This is why Singapore needs to understand the region before engaging the governments, not just at the Asean level, but bilaterally.

"The objective of the talk is not to say 'Are you at zero?' It's 'How are you managing your number, how accurate are your numbers?' and then to really understand the system they're using," he said.