Insights on International Trade

By Jejhar Singh

The Discovery+ Series is a series of events, delivered through online digital solutions, which give students the chance to speak directly with working professionals, and learn about careers they aspire to enter. Given the developments in the COVID-19 situation, Advisory is keen to provide support to the many students who are experiencing woes in this time of disruptions, by digitalising professional mentorship.

The Discover+ Panel on International Trade, held on 6 October 2020, was graced by Navjeev Singh (Moderator), Development Partner at Enterprise Singapore; Andre Wirjo, Analyst at Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Secretariat; Eleina Alimchandani, Investment Officer at International Finance Corporation; and Karen Yeo, Deputy Director (ASEAN Division) at the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Attendees included students at various levels of education with a desire to know the different career paths in International Trade, and how to best position themselves for such roles.

Some challenges including the US-China trade war and the rise of protectionist policies have been around and simmering for the past couple of years, but they have come to the forefront this year due to COVID-19. These challenges shifted supply chains at the start of this year, with many countries reducing their exports. Singapore, as an import-dependent country, could have potentially been hit hard. However, due to our strong economic diplomacy, we managed to ensure that supermarket shelves remained well-stocked. On a separate note, a fundamental tenet of Singapore’s foreign policy approach is that we are friends with all countries while not appearing subservient to one country or another. Thus, during periods of tension between trade partners, we usually try to serve as a useful bridge and interlocutor between different countries.


There are also opportunities amid the challenges. For instance, many companies in China decided during this period to relocate to Singapore. Technology is also another area of growth that has been accelerated by COVID-19, and this includes the application of fintech in payment systems, online educational services, and autonomous vehicles. Such advancements allow developing countries to leapfrog themselves from where they currently are, as well as developed countries to share their expertise with developing countries. Singapore is a testbed and hub for many new technological solutions that you see today, from urban planning to transportation and renewable energy. We should constantly be on the lookout for how we can export our solutions overseas. One way we have done this is by joining many international innovation programmes to help Singapore companies find the right partners and direct technologies, with the end-goal of building something that will be of relevance not only to the Singapore market, but also the global market.

Increasingly, there have been diverging viewpoints amongst trade partners on issues such as cross-border data flows and intellectual property, in addition to rising geopolitical tensions which can be attributed to significant segments of the population in these countries feeling left out by globalisation. Multilateral organisations such as APEC serve as fora for different member economies to come together to discuss key economic issues openly and form frameworks to ensure mutual respect and benefit. These consolidated frameworks and strategies have been crucial in allowing member states to collectively recover from the pandemic. Within this year, we have seen regional organisations being more ambitious and quick in seizing opportunities for new digital economy agreements. On a separate note, while there are many points of disagreement amongst trade partners, there are also many points of agreement that trade partners can work together on, in order to achieve progress.

As for the role of private firms, there are many avenues for the public sector and private sector to interact within this industry. For example, public agencies and organisations often seek feedback from private firms regarding the impact of public policies, as well as suggestions for how policies can be improved. Public sector and private sector think tanks also often work together on issues of common interest. Finally, the two sectors frequently collaborate on projects to bring private investment into developing economies.

My work experience across many industries and in many countries has given me different perspectives on and different frameworks to think about the problems that we are facing currently. This allows me to become a chameleon and put on different hats depending on the situation. It is easy for us living in Singapore to forget that we are in a very tricky geopolitical situation, but working overseas has allowed me to become very sensitive to changing global trends and geopolitics.


International trade is quite a broad industry, so whether or not a strong background in economics is required depends on which aspect of international trade you’re looking to work on. If you are interested in the aspect of international trade that involves quantitative and qualitative research and analysis, an economics degree would add value in terms of equipping you with the skillsets needed to calculate Gross Domestic Product, Labour Productivity etcetera. If you do not have a relevant degree, what matters is that you are willing to deep dive into unfamiliar topics. Fresh graduates should be willing to try, learn and make mistakes. In addition, your degree and what you do in your first job do not necessarily determine your entire career path moving forward – you should be adaptable and willing to pick up new hard and soft skills along the way.

Firstly, while it is difficult to secure career opportunities abroad now given the economic situation globally, having an international experience is critical for fresh graduates because being in diverse markets allows one to build the relationships and know-how needed to succeed in this industry. Additionally, fresh graduates should not just look at the classic markets such as the United States and the United Kingdom, but also think out of the box and consider moving to non-traditional markets such as within the ASEAN region. It is important to be adventurous in your career and step outside of the comfort of your home.


Secondly, interested students should follow closely the macro trends in this industry that may not be included in school syllabi, including but not limited to Artificial Intelligence and e-commerce. Having expert knowledge in these topics will give you a leg up in many different industries, not just international trade. However, even as you explore these niche topics, be sure to keep an open mind and take the time to figure out what career path is best aligned with your interests, especially since many of you are still young. Even if you are offered an opportunity that you are not particularly interested in, taking up that opportunity is better than not having any at all. In fact, you never know how one opportunity may lead to another, and your interests may change with time.


Thirdly, it is important to be thick-skinned, apply for as many opportunities as possible and be ready for a whole bunch of rejections. Find friends with similar interests and proactively seek out internships. Once you receive and accept an internship or job offer, it is important then to be humble and cognisant of the different cultural contexts and stakeholder interests that you are working with. On a separate note, when on the job, be professional and remain amicable with everyone as circles within this industry can be quite small and you will often see familiar faces across different events.