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The Future of Asia 2019

Singapore needs action to meet diverse aspirations, says deputy PM

Heng Swee Keat says the government has to focus on demographic change

Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Heng Swee Keat, speaks to the Nikkei Asian Review in Tokyo on May 30. (Photo by Kotaro Igarashi)

TOKYO -- Singapore's deputy prime minister said the country's next generation of leaders will have to enhance educational opportunities to meet the diverse aspirations of the city-state's people.

Heng Swee Keat, 57, who doubles as finance minister and is seen as the country's potential next leader, told the Nikkei Asian Review on Thursday that the government has to take such steps to win public support. A general election must be called by early 2021.

Singapore's next generation of leaders need to "build trust and confidence among the people" and "maintain the high level of integrity in the government," Heng said on the side lines of Nikkei's 25th International Conference on the Future of Asia. "What is important for us is to continue to understand what, what is our people aspire to and find ways in which we can mobilize them to do things together to realize their aspirations."

Last November, Heng also became the ruling People's Action Party's first assistant secretary-general. Analysts say he is the most likely of the younger generation of party lawmakers to succeed Lee Hsien Loong as prime minister of a party that has been in power continuously since 1959.

Heng said that the government needed to focus on demographic change -- like many Asian peers, Singapore's population is aging -- keep people healthy and increase productivity.

The deputy prime minister also said the escalating trade war between Washington and Beijing are disruptive to Singapore, and the tensions are denting investor confidence.

"We must bear in mind that this slowdown investment will be very negative for growth in the years ahead," he said. To mitigate trade war risks, Singapore must continue to "inject momentum into support for free trade and globalization" and work on industrial transformation.

Speaking at the conference earlier Thursday, Heng said that recent moves to create two large free trade frameworks -- the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) -- would bring the region closer.

In the interview, he said that the proposed RCEP -- a free trade framework among 16 countries including the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations members, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand -- would be "a very big step" toward sustaining momentum for trade liberalization.

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