Fuelling the post-pandemic recovery with education, technology and trade

Rethink, relearn and re-adapt – these are essential skills Education Minister Lawrence Wong believes Singapore students must master in a post-COVID-19 world marked by growing uncertainty and ever-shifting trends.

“This requires agility and nimbleness of mind as well as the humility to listen to others and to stay open to new ideas, and then continually update our thinking as circumstances change,” said Mr Wong in a keynote address on the last day of the NUS Middle East Institute’s (MEI) Annual Conference 2021.

The three-day virtual conference, held from 23 to 25 Feb, brought together policymakers and thought leaders from across the globe to share their insights into how Asia and the Middle East can tap shared opportunities in areas like trade, technology and education. 

For Mr Wong, his focus was on preparing youth for the future – a large demographic group that accounts for more than half the population in both regions.

To ensure students are prepared for future disruptions and challenges, Mr Wong believes it is critical to train them to “think laterally”. This will enable them to make sense of complex information by drawing connections across different domains. 

“Real-world problems are often ambiguous and complex. The solutions often do not fall neatly within one box. And the best and most creative solutions often come from the cross-fertilisation across different schools of thought or even from completely different disciplines,” he said. 

This is where institutes of higher learning can play a key role, he added, by cultivating a classroom environment that focuses on interdisciplinary learning.

Training lateral thinkers

At the forefront of this shift is NUS, which has launched the College of Humanities and Sciences, and introduced a Common Curriculum for freshmen enrolling into NUS Engineering and NUS Design and Environment. These programmes will ensure that students are trained in different disciplines in order to solve real-world problems.

NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye, who moderated the panel discussion on human capital development, cited this willingness to adapt by institutions as one reason for Asia’s growing reputation for quality higher education.

Another key reason, Prof Tan added, was the growth of strategic university partnerships across Asia – including the Middle East, such as New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi. Other collaborations are NYU Shanghai in China, Xiamen University in Malaysia, as well as Duke-NUS Medical School and Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

By embracing proven global ideas and practices, and adapting them to the host country’s needs, universities are also helping to bridge the knowledge gap.

“(For) a lot of these partnerships, adapting best ideas and practices and localising them is very useful and it works,” added Prof Tan.

One example is how such collaborations prepare the Middle East for a post-oil future, said Professor Mariët Westermann, Vice Chancellor at NYU Abu Dhabi, who also participated in the panel discussion.

As they pursue economic diversification, higher-education has become a key driving force. This means equipping the youth population – expected to reach 65 million by 2030 – with deep technological skills in areas like agrotechnology, smart engineering and green energy.

According to Prof Westermann, renowned universities from the United States, Europe, Australia and Asia help to drive this change by enriching the knowledge ecosystem in the Middle East.

In fact, she pointed out that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have become exporters of higher education themselves, attracting tens of thousands of expat students yearly from countries like India and Pakistan, as well as those in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, like Egypt, Jordan and Oman.

Digitally sound

Digitalisation is another area where countries should tap on for a “more robust economic recovery post pandemic”, said Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan on Day 2 of the MEI conference.

“We must never waste a crisis. This is obvious in the potential of the digital economies in Southeast Asia and in the Middle East,” he said.

For instance, ASEAN’s digital economy is expected to grow six-fold: from about US$31 billion in 2015, to almost US$200 billion by 2025. In the Middle East and North Africa, the e-commerce market is expected to double in size to US$48.6 billion by 2022.

All this points to “a pressing need to build a multilateral, rules-based order in cyberspace”, he noted, adding that there has been progress in this area.

The ASEAN Digital Ministers have agreed to establish an ASEAN Computer Emergency Response Team, or CERT information exchange mechanism to foster stronger cooperation. In the Middle East, Oman hosts the ITU-Arab Regional Cybersecurity Center to strengthen regional capacity and to coordinate cybersecurity initiatives in the region.

The trade-winds of change

Given the growing trade, capital flows and technology developments across Asia and the Middle East, Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Mr Teo Chee Hean called for greater collaboration between the two regions.

In his opening speech on the first day of the MEI Annual Conference, he highlighted three key areas: economic partnerships, religious exchanges and people-to-people interactions.

“The recent COVID-19 pandemic has underscored how closely intertwined our countries and people have become,” he said at a discussion moderated by MEI Chairman Mr Bilahari Kausikan.

“This makes it even more imperative that we rethink, refresh and revitalise our traditional relationships; build more diverse and wider networks; and explore new areas for cooperation in technology, the digital economy and people-to-people ties.”

Echoing Mr Teo’s sentiments was MEI Executive Director Ms Michelle Teo.

“2020 was a transformative year for everyone, How we live, work and play has been forever changed. How do we ride this wave? What should we be focusing on?” she said in her welcome address.

In particular, Dr Tan See Leng, Second Minister for Trade and Industry, observed that there is potential for greater economic engagement between Southeast Asia and the Middle East as the former’s economy is expected to recover in 2021, while the latter is looking to diversify.

Dr Tan, who was the keynote speaker on Day 1 of the conference, named two pacts that will spur economic partnerships.

One is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement, the world’s largest Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which will cover one-third of the world’s gross domestic product and benefit one-third of the global population.

The other is the FTA between Singapore and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which eliminates tariffs on many products and grants market access to various service sectors.

Beyond trade, Dr Omar Al-Ubaydli, Director of Research at the Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies (Derasat), pointed out one key area where the GCC can take a leaf from Singapore: talent integration.

Due to their relatively small local population and abundance of capital, the GCC and Singapore have high numbers of foreign labour. The difference, however, is how both countries integrate them. GCC countries are warming up to the idea of naturalisation, while Singapore has successfully done so for years.

He cited the example of how the Singapore government gives scholarships to young foreign talents before offering them citizenship once they prove their ability to integrate with society.

“Singapore has long-established sophisticated systems for integrating foreign talent and having structured efforts of having foreigners transferring their knowledge to locals,” he said.

“This has been a critical reason for Singapore’s high level of innovation.”

See recordings of the three days of the conference on MEI’s YouTube channel.