Be the first movers in the Belt and Road Initiative

Let me first take a more global perspective of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Two years ago in 2015, the world was facing very slow growth, and there were only two major programmes that could in a way drive growth further. One is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), championed by America and Japan, the other is the BRI championed by China.

As we all know, after the US presidential election, the TPP is as good as dead.

So from the geoeconomics point of view, we have only one driver in the world to drive the world economy. That is the BRI.

And we cannot miss this opportunity. We have to thank China for the courage to draw a masterplan on how to promote infrastructure development to encourage growth.

So I'm all for this programme, to drive the 65 countries which represent 30% of the economy of the world and 65% of the world population, to achieve a higher level of growth. So that is my first point. It is a very important driver for us to work on.

The second point is, I think, when the programme was initiated, there was a lot of misgiving, a lot of myth, about what China is trying to do.

I was amazed that before the 14th and 15th May meeting in Beijing, every other day I've been reading in the papers from the West, whether its the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, many are saying that nobody will participate in the meeting.

I was fortunate enough to be invited, and the response was very overwhelming. They had 1500 participants and 29 heads of state participating.

So with regards to the question of whether the BRI is geopolitically China dominant, we should have clear thinking. Even today I am shocked that somebody wrote in the local papers about China's military intention behind the BRI.

So I think we should open our eyes and ask whether this is indeed the case. I mean if you ask me, any world power doing beneficial things would have some impact. The question is how does the host country take it?

I mean the Americans have the Marshall Plan, so what happened to Europe? The Japanese have their own plan to give aids. Is there influence? There will be influence.

Look at what happened to McDonalds, their outlets conquer the world and we all started to eat McDonalds. What happened to K-pop? K-pop also influenced our society. So I think it is a question of how we manage this impact from the foreigners.

But the main point is that Asia Pacific is very short of infrastructure. The estimate is that Asia Pacific, in other words including the Pacific Area, will require 26 trillion US dollars in the next 15 years. Asia itself will require 17 trillion US dollars. It works out to be about 1.7 trillion US dollars every year.

So the market is big, the market will be there. The question is should we and can we take advantage and be the first movers in this huge market?

Fortunately, Singapore has done a lot of showcase infrastructure projects, be it affordable housing, be it airports, be it MRT, be it roads, I think we have a number of showcase projects that we can export, the human capital to participate in the programme. This is a big bonus for us.

I watch over a company called Surbana Jurong. It is probably one of the largest technical services company in Asia. I'm not promoting it but we have 30,000 engineers and architects. We are doing businesses in 40 countries. As it is today, we are already in 12 BRI countries doing almost 20 projects.

So the starting point is already there. But someone will say, "Surbana is a big goverment company, we can do that. What about the SMEs?"

So even for us, given our size, we still got to work with other companies. I'm working with the Western European countries to look at projects in BRI. We have to work with others.

The small companies in Singapore could also work with us. We can bring them along. I mean it depends on cycles of the projects and bankability, for example. We have a joint venture with Asia Development Fund Trust to do local currency guarantees for bonds, for projects doing construction. This will enhance the credibility of the project. So we have to work with ADB, we have to work with bigger powers.

Smaller companies can work with us, but the main thing I want to emphasise is we must be prepared. How do we prepare ourselves?

Going overseas is not a walk in the park. You really got to prepare your organisation, your human talent, our young people. Are they prepared to go to these countries to work? So if we can mentally start to prepare them, and be the first movers, I think we have a lot of opportunities to take advantage of the BRI.


This is an edited transcript of Mr Liew Mun Leong's remarks delivered on August 15th 2017, at the third Singapore Regional Business Forum, organised by the Singapore Business Federation. He is the Chairman of Changi Airport Group and Surbana Jurong Group.