SINGAPORE: We are moving into a new era. Longheld geopolitical and international economics norms are being upended. Technology is also transforming how we live, work and play.
A WORLD AWASHED IN CHAOS
The trade war between the US and China poses the greatest threat to global growth as disruptions to trade flows and global supply chains come under siege.
Businesses on both shores of the Pacific are bearing the bulk of damages, especially as the bilateral relation shifts gear. The US Department of Commerce has curbed American firms’ dealings with Chinese tech giants including ZTE and Huawei Technologies.
A survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China showed that more than three in 10 of businesses are considering delaying or cancelling investments in China due to the trade war.
China’s manufacturing sector has meanwhile contracted, according to the Purchasing Managers’ Index for December 2018.
China is feeling the heat and no doubt welcomes the reprieve offered by the 90-day trade war truce. But US firms with businesses in China are also affected by the trade war.
Apple has to cut-back its revenue forecast for the first time in 15 years due to dampened sales of iPhones in China.
Once a global economic powerhouse, the European economy continues to wane. The EU is held hostage by a floundering UK entangled in a Brexit Gordian Knot that cannot seem to find a solution as the deadline to leave the EU looms.
The uncertainty has already led some international businesses to relocate UK operations. Major banks such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and UBS are all looking to relocate hundreds of staff to other European cities.
Closer back to home, despite reassurances by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore, Singaporeans awoke to the reality of the country’s food supply vulnerabilities when Malaysian officials announced limits on the export of fish and eggs to Singapore, citing shortages during the festive and monsoon seasons.
But the dawn of new technologies and their increasingly pervasive role in our lives have also shaped developments over the past year and created a fresh set of new opportunities, amid this gloomy global climate.
While the hysteria over cryptocurrency has cooled, as values in currencies like Bitcoin plummeted, Fintech continues its relentless march, as blockchain, e-wallets and micropayment apps gain considerable traction.
The use of mobile payments in Singapore doubled with the launch of PayLah! in 2017, according to a study by National University of Singapore Business School.
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PayNow, an interbank micropayment app for individuals and businesses supported across nine banks in Singapore has also gathered more than 2 million registered accounts, according to the Association of Banks of Singapore.
Even transport has been reshaped by digital technologies, as ride-hailing apps replaced flagging down a cab and the Parking.sg app supplanted paper parking coupons.
Organisations are also pursuing the use of machines to augment workers in a manpower-lean economy. Robots can be seen assisting to collect used utensils and food trays in foodcourts and delivering items in our hotels and hospitals.
Even the Singapore Police Force has augmented their streets patrols with the use of robots, first unveiled at Chingay 2018. These robots are equipped with audio and visual sensors, and capable of piping back 360-degrees panoramic views back to the command post.
Technological innovations have also introduced new jobs. New roles such as data scientists, professional gamers and social media influencers were mostly unknown a decade ago.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is no longer a futuristic concept, but a reality unfolding before our very eyes.
In this new era, long-held concepts, assumptions and practices no longer hold true. There are massive implications. But are professionals, businesses and educational institutes keeping up?
Those who attended business schools in the past three decades would have been exposed to management concepts such as first mover advantage and value-chain. But the prevailing business paradigm today is one of disruption. Many of these concepts need rethinking.
Ten years ago, Apple’s launch of the iPhone earned it the smartphone market’s lion share but Huawei has since unseated the American company, as it learnt very quickly what consumers wanted and adapted.
So much for Apple’s advantage in being a first or at least an early mover. With first-mover advantage greatly diminished, the focus now is for businesses to be more agile and innovative, and be smarter in managing their intellectual property.
The emergence of a fast-paced and dynamic networked economy, where goods and services are created and exchanged rapidly, has led to new business modus operandi.
Winning in this dynamic and volatile environment is less about organising value chains as it is about having a platform strategy, to entrench a network of providers and consumers, and a well-coordinated business ecosystem of suppliers, distributors, shareholders and regulators that can affect the production and delivery of products and services, to seize new opportunities.
While online businesses like Taobao and Lazada are classical examples of a platform strategy at work, brick-and-mortar businesses can also apply such strategies to their business. They should also look at other companies from a business ecosystem standpoint and evaluate opportunities for cooperation and co-evolution instead of seeing them stereotypically as competitors, suppliers or customers.
While contemporary business schools are already incorporating these concepts into their curriculum, those who have not kept themselves abreast with developments may still be clinging onto outdated strategies and old mindsets even as we enter a new era.
Technological disruption has also spawned new demand for technical skills such as coding, data analytics, machine learning and other artificial intelligence techniques.
Mastering the language of a growing digital economy and understanding the nuts and bolts of this new business landscape will be invaluable.
Younger Singaporeans are already being equipped en masse with these skills in universities, polytechnics, and even in secondary schools.
A NEW HABIT OF LIFELONG LEARNING
While younger Singaporeans are being equipped with new strategies and skills needed in this new era, older Singaporeans in the workforce must cultivate a new habit of lifelong learning in order to remain relevant and competent.
Unlike past generations where one set of strategies and skills acquired during one’s formative years is enough to sustain a career lifetime, this new era of hyper-change demands a constant mode of learning, unlearning and relearning.
In this context, the SkillsFuture programme, which aids Singaporeans to upgrade themselves through subsidies for courses and programmes aligned to changing industry needs, has been prescient. The subsidy for some of these courses and programmes may even be as generous as 90 per cent for Singaporeans above 40.
Universities and polytechnics are also offering a gamut of courses and programmes to help the workforce remain relevant. For example, the Singapore University of Social Sciences offers SkillsFuture-subsidised courses and programmes in financial technology, digital marketing and intellectual property management.
There are also reputable Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) platforms such as Coursera, edX and Udacity that offer online courses on up-to-date topics such as machine learning and big data for free or a small fee. Many are conducted by faculty from world renowned universities including Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Developments such as the SkillsFuture movement in Singapore and the growth of MOOCs movement leads a much needed democratisation of education and access to knowledge that will fuel dynamic change and innovativeness, tackle educational inequalities and enable more inclusive growth.
These small steps are no panacea as they depend heavily on people to cultivate a habit of lifelong learning in a world that will only grow increasingly more complex and uncertain. But they represent a first step towards building national resilience to deal with changes in the global economy.
Calvin M L Chan is director of the Office of Graduate Studies at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, and teaches technology and innovation management at the business school.