Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation bloc should extend its scope to cover the digital economy, warning that smaller companies in the 21-member grouping risk falling behind the rest of the world.

Speaking Thursday during the APEC CEO Summit virtually hosted by New Zealand, Lee said that countries need to do more to invest in digital frameworks while also identifying a common set of related development goals as the basis for global cooperation.

“APEC can play a big role here,” he said, warning that most small and medium-sized enterprises “are not as digitally prepared and risk being left behind. APEC economies must help SMEs and their workers make the digital transition.”

Southeast Asia’s internet economy is set to double to US$363 billion ($491.58 billion) by 2025, eclipsing an earlier forecast of US$300 billion, research from Google, Temasek Holdings Pte and Bain & Co. shows. E-commerce, travel, media, transport and food are driving the region’s digital growth, with online spending rising 49% in 2021 to US$174 billion.

Singapore has pioneered digital economy partnership agreements with countries like Chile and New Zealand, while the Singapore-Australia Digital Economy Agreement took effect late last year. It is also negotiating deals with the UK and South Korea.

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Such agreements have also become an arena of competition between the US and China, with President Xi Jinping saying last month it would apply to join a digital economy pact that includes US partners Singapore, Chile and New Zealand.

“We need a coherent and concerted response to manage the digital transition,” Lee said. “Digital technologies have empowered millions of people, but the gulf of opportunities between digital haves and have nots has also widened.”

Photo: Bloomberg