During the 2020 APEC CEO Dialogues Malaysia 2020, which were streamed live on 19 November, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore had a conversation with the CEO of the Singapore Business Federation, Mr Ho Meng Kit, on “The Future of Global Growth."

Below are 21 excerpts from this insightful and candid conversation about, among other topics, responses to COVID-19, reopening travel, and the difference between virtual and face-to-face meetings.

On the COVID-19 response and helping businesses

  1. “First of all, a disclaimer: we do not claim victory. The battle is not over. We are taking it very seriously and we are very aware that things can still go wrong very quickly. All you need is one super spreader, and we will be chasing our tails again. It can easily happen. But what we need to do is to keep up our precautions, build up what we are able to do in terms of testing, in terms of contact tracing, in terms of our systems to respond, in case the cases grow again, and then be able to open up cautiously … ”
  2. “The attitude we took from the beginning was that we do not want to let the disease burn through our population. We wanted to keep our population safe. At the same time, we knew that this would have a big impact on the economy, and therefore the government had to step up in a major way in order to preserve jobs and to make sure our businesses survive to the extent possible.”
  3. “Now that the situation is stabilizing, and we cannot continue this very large infusion of government resources indefinitely, and we have to gradually tail this off, and to get things onto a sustainable footing. Which means that the businesses which are able to resume, should resume. The businesses which need to transform or to pivot to a new orientation, because it is a new normal, and the old way of doing things will not work anymore? We will help you to do that. And for the few businesses, which are likely to be in suspended animation for some time—like tourism, travel—then we will have to make special arrangements for them.”
  4. “But eventually, this has to be sustainable and we have to adapt ourselves for what is to come, rather than freeze a position which reflected what was pre-COVID-19.”

  5. On the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

  6. “RCEP is an important signal that in Asia, the countries do want to deepen regional integration, do want to free up trade further, do want to work with one another on a plurilateral basis—that means in a group and not just bilaterally, one on one. It does not matter what happens in the rest of the world, (but) in Asia—there is that determination to work together and to prosper together. I think that is a very good signal.”

  7. On the Digital Economy

  8. “The digital economy particularly is an area of considerable potential, because as volume has grown, a lot of business is done there, then you need to have countries talking to one another to standardize rules, to make sure that the interfaces can connect with one another, we can transact with one another, digital documents can be shared and recognized, and I can have information flows with rules regulated—what needs to stay within the country, what can be stored abroad.”
  9. “We have digital partnership agreements now being signed, and it is important to set the rules there in a new area which is still growing, and therefore there is the chance to get things right, rather than to try and put right things which have developed and gone to a certain way over a period of time. Digital is important.”

  10. Travel and its resumption

  11. “Travel is also important. You need rules – you cannot just go back to the old days where you just buy a ticket today, and within a few hours you get onto a plane; you turn up and you do not need a visa, and then you have a weekend somewhere in the region, or maybe across the world, to do some business.”
  12. “You need agreements on what is safe, how to have corridors, how to have green lanes, how to have travel bubbles, how to do the testing, how to track, how to adjust your rules, when circumstances change. For example, if you have a travel bubble with somebody, and then I have new cases pop up, or he has new cases pop up – what do we do? We cannot be frozen, say, the bubble is blown. I have to have some way to say pause, and I squeeze down for a while until things stabilize again, then I can open up again. These are all things which need to be discussed, and I hope will be discussed in APEC.”
  13. “It is possible, but both sides have to be confident in one another and the situation has to be quite tightly controlled on both sides in order for this to happen.”
  14. “If you have a difference—‘I have few cases, you have many cases, I am afraid of you’; ‘if I have more cases than you, you are afraid of me’. Once you have that kind of relationship, it is very difficult to open up.”
  15. “Even if both sides’ cases are low, having been there before and experienced the trauma of a major outbreak, the population may be neuralgic and will be very anxious if you open up. Will that mean cases will come in and therefore put us at risk again?”
  16. “We have to reassure people not to worry: we are moving step-by-step, there are some risks and likely you will see some cases, but we are doing our best and we will keep those cases under control. Provided we can do that, then we can move a little bit further.”

  17. On human security

  18. “For the government, it is very high up the priority. People need to feel safe, and then they can put their energies and their attention on to their work and their businesses.”
  19. “Their business, of course wants to keep their business going, but from the government's point of view, it has to be a balance, and keeping people safe, their jobs, their health, as well as their families, is a very big emphasis.”

  20. Advice for business leaders

  21. “I am not a businessman, I hesitate to preach, but in this situation, you have to look forward—not back to what was.”
  22. “COVID-19 will have a very big impact on all kinds of businesses—some for the better, some for the worse. Make an objective assessment of what does it mean for your business and how you can best advance it. You may have to pivot, you may have to transform, you may have to right size, you will have difficult decisions to make, but take good care of your people and remember that your people are also stakeholders and are an important resource for you. Look after them during this difficult period.”
  23. “You may have to pivot, you may have to transform, you may have to right size, you will have difficult decisions to make, but take good care of your people … ”
  24. “… remember that your people are also stakeholders and are an important resource for you. Look after them during this difficult period. Don’t just make a short, quick decision—‘I am saving cost and I must drop so many headcount’—but take care of them, retrain them if possible, redeploy them if possible, and they’ll really pay it back to you and to your company and in the process, we will strengthen our cohesion, and one day we will prosper again.”

  25. On virtual vs physical meetings

  26. “For the meeting proper, it is not so bad because the meeting proper tend to be formal events and we each say our piece. So online or not, you listen to one another. But what you miss is informal interactions, the chance to chat, a bit of corridor serendipitous meeting, when you just bump into somebody and you have a useful exchange and he picks up something useful, or you share a tidbit of information. Those human contacts, unfortunately, are lost.”

  27. On the future of multilateral meetings

  28. “Not all meetings need to be physical. I think in the old arrangements, perhaps we were travelling around the world more than was ideal. And we could cut that back some. We still maintain the contact, but perhaps not quite as intensely—that would be ideal.”