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CNBC Transcript: S Iswaran, Minister for Communications and Information, Singapore

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Below is the transcript of the First on CNBC interview with S Iswaran, Minister for Communications and Information, Singapore. The interview took place at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2020 in Davos. If you choose to use anything, please attribute to CNBC and Steve Sedgwick and Geoff Cutmore.

Geoff Cutmore (GC): While we're on issues technical and digital, we will just leave the President to make his way in, and we're going to talk a little bit about the government in Singapore. They've passed a new law there, controversial to some, which is meant to combat fake news, but opponents say it's being used to silence critics ahead of elections. An opposition party has filed a law suit against the law. Well, what's the truth here? S Iswaran is Minister for Communications and Information in Singapore, and he joins us on the set. Good to see you, this morning, sir-,

S Iswaran (SI): Good morning.

GC: Thank you for-, for-,

SI: Very nice to meet you.

GC: Coming along. So-, so just clarify here for us. Obviously, fingers are being pointed at this stage, and the argument is being made that this fake news law was primarily directed at stamping down on opposition from other parties.

SI: I think that's hardly the case. I think, if you look at the global discourse on this matter, and you talk about the digital comments, I think everybody recognizes that digital technologies and communication platforms are great enablers, but we are also very mindful, whether you're businesses, media, social societies and governments, of the potential risks, and fake news, and so on. So, I think there is a global dialogue, different countries have been seeking out different methodologies to deal with it, and this is our approach to it. And, at the heart of it, it's very simple; it's a juxtaposition of the truth with the false statement of fact. That's all that is required. And if the party concerned is aggrieved, they can have recourse through the courts, which, indeed, is the case right now. So, we think it is a system that will work in our context and help address some of the concerns our citizens have.

Steve Sedgwick (SS): You, sir, are also in charge of trade relations, I understand-,

SI: Indeed-,

SS: As well.

SI: Indeed.

SS: Talking of trade, how have events in Hong Kong affected Singapore? There is a school of thought that, if there's regional instability at all in Asia, it will help everybody, but there is also another school of thought that says, actually, Singapore can stamp its own brand of success on the situation, i.e. it can benefit from the instability in a-, in an erstwhile rival.

SI: I think we belong to the school of thought that basically feels that, when we all do well, we all stand to benefit, and if there is a problem in any one of our markets in the region, then I think it has a dampening effect on all of us, because it affects sentiments, consumer sentiment, investor sentiment, and so on. So in the case of Hong Kong, I think what we would like to see is an early and amicable resolution, so that we can then go on with the larger issues of creating jobs and opportunities for people in the region.

SS: But whether it be talent, or whether it be companies themselves, or whether it be the flow of finance, Singapore presumably represents stability, where Hong Kong, as according to Moody's only today, represents instability, you must've seen some beneficial impact.

SI: Well, I think businesses constantly evaluate, and I think they will want to take a long view, medium to long view, and not just rush to conclusions. I think the important point here is, overall stability is important-,

SS: Mm.

SI: And it's not about short-term volatility or gyrations, and I think that's really the focus that we have-,

SS: Sure.

SI: To ensure that our region remains a stable place, for investors and for businesses.

GC: I mean, one of the frustrating things is, I think it's brought capital to Singapore, but perhaps not a great improvement in economic activity, and that would be my question to you. As we look in to 2020, we have a phase one deal done, we're looking at phase two, between China and the United States now. Do you think that Singapore can improve its growth prospects, and its manufacturing output-,

SI: Mm.

GC: In 2020?

SI: Well that's one of the reasons why we are here. We are a small open economy, connectivity, innovation, trade is our lifeblood, and I think today, in Davos, in particular, but in the global discourse, digital economy is a key focal point. It offers many opportunities, but it also poses risks and implications for business models and jobs. So our objective is really to see how, beyond the more traditional sectors of the economy, how a digitalization, a digital transformation of the economy, if you will, can then position Singapore for a new phase of growth.

GC: Mm.

SI: So we are an early adopter of technology, we are actively thinking about the issues, and the reason we are here is really to share our experiences, but also learn from that of others, and find possibilities to collaborate and partner, whether it's with the private sector, or with governments, and, essentially, likeminded partners.

GC: It's been slow to see the real economic benefits, though, for things like embracing fintech, or AI, or digitization of business processes.

SI: Mm-hm.

GC: Singapore's been very good, I think, at embracing a lot of these early-,

SI: Mm.

GC: Shifts in technology-,

SI: Mm-hm.

GC: But it's been hard to see where the economic benefits have emerged.

SI: So I think – thank you for the compliment – I think we have a very vibrant fintech sector, and in AI, and many of the other technologies, I-, I agree with you, they are early stage, but I think, like any other innovation, we do need to invest in the effort, to see how we can develop them, and ensure we can try and reap rewards by applying them to the right areas. So, for instance, in Singapore, AI, we focus it on a few areas, like financial services, logistics, transportations, areas that we are already known for. But I just want to make one important point-,

GC: Very quickly-,

SI: Which is trust.

GC: Trust.

SI: I think, if you don't have trust, then it is very hard to take the full benefit-,

GC: Minister-,

SI: Of these technologies.

GC: Thank you so much for joining us, and for your comments, and we've got to wrap it up.

END

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