He added that if people can travel in and out of Singapore safely, the country can reestablish its hub status and better serve the interests of Asean and Asia.
But the linkages should also extend to the digital realm, since rebuilding physical links will take time.
Mr Lee made the remarks at the Asean and Asia Forum, with the theme of "Seeking Recovery amid Covid-19: Regional Strategies and a Digital Future".
Delivering the keynote speech at the event organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, he noted that many sectors in Singapore had been affected by movement restrictions and border closures around the world.
Companies in the construction, marine and offshore engineering sectors found themselves unable to bring in foreign workers, and travel ground to a halt, for instance.
Mr Lee said reconnecting with the world is critical for a small and open economy like Singapore's.
"Therefore, the first big step is to find safe means of reconnecting with our neighbours, while building resilience locally to cope with future disruptions that will surely come our way," said the minister who co-chaired the Emerging Stronger Taskforce (EST) set up to chart Singapore's economic recovery post Covid-19.
"If we can manage physical travel safely and become an oasis of hope during troubled times, we can better serve the interests of Asean and Asia," he added.
Even as these physical links are being rebuilt, Singapore should also push ahead with digital connectivity with its neighbours, said Mr Lee.
He noted that this was the "best window" for Singapore to embed itself in the digital networks that have grown, with many people and businesses having been pushed online during the pandemic.
In this regard, Singapore's reputation as a neutral, trusted broker may help, he said.
He cited the Alliance for Action on supply chain digitalisation, an industry-led coalition convened by the EST that set up the Singapore Trade Data Exchange, a common data infrastructure that facilitates the secure sharing of data between different parts of the supply chain.
In a separate speech, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary said Singapore and Asean would have to keep reinventing themselves to stay competitive amid digitalisation, which "brings the global market to our doorstep, but... also brings global competition".
At the national level, past investments have helped to attract 80 per cent of the top 100 tech companies to set up shop here.
The next phase of investments in 5G technology, research, and up-to-date regulations are needed to help the country become one of the most digitally connected cities and among the best to do business, he added.
Amid these developments, it would also be important to reinforce partnerships, said Dr Janil.
"In a digital world with porous boundaries, we have to recognise that economic prosperity happens only when there is a belief that the world is not zero sum," he added, noting Singapore's partnership with Asean in areas such as data exchange across borders.
Mr Lee said that ultimately, Singapore will only be able to open up carefully and safely if as many people as possible get vaccinated.
Given the virulence of the new variants, it will be impossible for the world to maintain indefinite restrictions on society and economy, he added, noting Singapore's push to work towards Covid-19 becoming endemic.
"We will open up at a controlled pace, making adjustments from time to time, so that the rate of transmission is managed without us having to return to heightened alert state," he said, calling on people to encourage their friends and relatives to get vaccinated against Covid-19.
After his speech, Mr Lee was also asked about vaccination for children who are 12 years old and below.
He said Singapore would embark on vaccinating children only when the science has shown that it is safe to do so.
But he added that it was important to keep children safe in the meantime, while ensuring that they do not become a "lost generation", deprived of the opportunity of a full education and development.
"A lot of stress and strains you see among young people, including children, that cause us to focus on the importance of mental wellness, arise from their feeling constrained, that somehow they haven't quite got that full opportunity in school," he said, noting this is why schools have restarted co-curricular activities to provide more opportunities for face-to-face interaction.
Mr Lee added that even the young people in Singapore who have been vaccinated, such as university students, were deeply concerned about the loss of opportunities to go on exchange programmes, and to travel and see the world.
"We have to be very mindful that even as we keep safe, and aspire to open up economically, we need to concern ourselves with the social aspects of this pandemic as well, such as opportunities for young people."
By Tham Yuen-C/The Straits Times
Published : September 10, 2021