‘Multi-plug’ role: How Singapore can help deepen understanding of Chinese businesses

As the world enters a period of geopolitical turbulence, economic bridges between East and West are key to trust building, says Business China CEO Tin Pei Ling

Next month marks the start of China's 20th party congress.

Any big policy shifts and leadership shuffles unveiled at the milestone political event will surely be closely watched from around the world, as businesses attempt to glean clues on Beijing's plans for the next five years and beyond - and how they will impact the global economy's already fragile recovery.

But without a good understanding of Chinese culture, society, history and politics, it can be challenging to grasp the full extent of the economic and political developments, and make informed decisions.

Organisations like Business China - whose founding patron, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, advocated for stronger bilateral ties between Singapore and China - provide a platform to promote understanding and cooperation, an increasingly important role as the world enters a turbulent phase full of uncertainties and possible miscalculations.

"In the past 15 years, Business China has been a platform for business leaders to keep up to date on issues relating to China, connecting people networks and catalysing meaningful collaborations between Singapore and China," says Ms Tin Pei Ling, Chief Executive of Business China, in a recent interview.

The organisation's role has become increasingly critical among business communities with the emergence of China as a global economic superpower. In 2007, the year Business China was set up, China was the world's third-largest economy. Three years later, it overtook Japan to become the world's second largest economic power, and is forecast to overtake the United States by 2030.

Singapore is like a "multiplug" with many free trade agreements that can plug into different business standards for different economic systems, says Ms Tin. PHOTO: BUSINESS CHINA

Growing fears of decoupling

In his National Day Rally speech last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted escalating US-China tensions and Russia's invasion of Ukraine as factors contributing to a "very troubled" external environment, and greater geopolitical contestation in Asia.

Ties between the world's two largest economies have deteriorated in recent months, leading to growing fears of a bifurcated global economy.

In the extreme case of total bifurcation along technological, capital and legal lines, businesses around the globe will have to undergo the painful process of factoring in cost and resource buffers to navigate the split.

These costs could be fatal to some companies, and entire economies could suffer.

"If protectionism comes forth, globalisation retreats, and sides have to be taken, that will be highly regrettable. Many countries benefited from multilateralism," says Ms Tin. "If we could resolve those differences, businesses could develop so much better, and countries could continue to progress and prosper."

Neutral spaces for dialogue

As rivalry between the world's two superpowers intensifies, businesses everywhere are seeking safe spaces in which they can continue to thrive.

And with a strong legal system and international connectivity, Singapore is among the top choices. A number of large Chinese firms have set up regional or international offices in the city-state in recent years, looking to capitalise on its status as a beachhead into South-east Asia and economic bridge between East and West.

"We see more Chinese firms expressing interest and seriously exploring setting up a node here to leverage our connectivity, whether in finance or the movement of goods, people and data," says Ms Tin. "There is a clear desire among businesses, especially private enterprises, to come to the region to expand their footprint."

The typical attractions of a Singapore presence for Chinese firms include robust intellectual property protections and the ability to interface with global partners as a company operating out of Singapore, without being perceived through a politically-charged lens.

Another key factor is talent: Chinese companies find themselves comfortable operating in Singapore's bilingual, bicultural environment.

"There is a strong desire to hire Singaporeans, especially young people. They like that our young people are bilingual and savvy enough to run operations and do business in Singapore, the region and internationally," Ms Tin says.

These benefits go both ways. Just as Chinese firms gain access to conditions ideal for expansion, the skills and technology transfers to Singapore companies and workers in terms of innovation, ideas and capabilities will strengthen the city-state's position as a global hub.

"Chinese companies have actively shaped and contributed to the development of the digital economy and green innovation. As these companies look to expand their footprint into Asean, there will be more collaboration opportunities to boost the development and capabilities of these sectors in the region," says Ms Tin.

Singaporeans, she adds, also gain exposure to the culture and thinking of Chinese firms, developing a nuanced grasp of doing business with the world's second-largest economy.

Amid pandemic-triggered supply chain disruptions, China is looking to redraw international supply chain lines through infrastructural investments - such as the planned New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor, which will cut the time taken for goods to flow between China and South-east Asia to one-third.

As connectivity between China and South-east Asia grows, Singapore's strategic position in the region means it will remain a key port of call, she says.

"Singapore is like a multiplug. We have many free trade agreements and favourable policies, and are multilingual and multicultural. We can plug into different business standards for different economic systems," says Ms Tin. "Through it, Chinese firms can click into the international business network, and vice versa for foreign businesses looking to work with China."

In that vein, Singapore is a safe space to foster deeper mutual understanding between China, and the rest of the world.

"By bringing together different communities, we can provide a platform to understand China and China-related issues from many different perspectives. With better understanding, there'll be less misunderstanding, and less misinterpretation."

About the FutureChina Global Forum 2022
Themed Stability Amidst Turbulence', the 13th edition of FutureChina Global Forum will gather more than 50 prominent thought leaders who will provide their perspectives on the impact of China's quest for stability on global recovery.

Through the forum, participants will also gain a sharper understanding of the global issues that are influencing China's phenomenal progress as one of the world's largest economies.

Topics include:
• Stabilising and enabling economies amidst geopolitical turbulence
• Picking up the pieces and building a resilient supply chain
• Building a fairer society in China: Impact on tech companies and beyond
• Enhancing societal security and sustainability in a turbulent world

Find out more about FutureChina Global Forum 2022 today.

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