SINGAPORE: Singapore companies have no choice but to think regionally or globally from the start against a backdrop of economic uncertainties, said Minister for National Development and Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong.
“You could say that it’s a handicap or disadvantage but in a way, it’s a motivation, a catalyst,” said Mr Wong during Channel NewsAsia's Singapore Budget Forum 2017, which was broadcast on Thursday (Feb 23).
Drawing inspiration from Sweden, Mr Wong noted that the small country with a population of 9.6 million has produced technology start-ups like Spotify and Skype as well as iconic brands such as IKEA and H&M.
“They said one reason why they have succeeded is because they are forced to go global from the get-go … The average Swedish company takes about a year after starting up to go overseas. That’s very fast compared to other countries and I think that's what we have to do too,” he said.
The hope is that many companies from Singapore will grow, scale up and become the future household brands and powerhouses of Asia, said Mr Wong, adding that being in the heart of Asia, Singapore is well-placed to take advantage of opportunities that can create more jobs and income growth, and help Singaporeans move forward in an uncertain world.
He described Budget 2017 as putting in "a deliberate effort with resources set aside to really help our companies scale up and go overseas".
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat had on Monday announced a suite of measures to help enterprises expand overseas, including the Government’s commitment of S$600 million to a new International Partnership Fund that will co-invest with Singapore-based enterprises to help them scale up and internationalise, as well as enhancements to International Enterprise (IE) Singapore’s Internationalisation Finance Scheme.
Singapore must chart a new way forward, Mr Wong emphasised, amid uncertainties, strong headwinds to growth and disruptions to businesses and people brought about by advances in technology.
“(Singapore) cannot rely on old formulas to continue growing our economy in the next phase of development,” he said.
“We had success in attracting multinational companies (MNCs) from all over the world to Singapore in the past. Now it’s our turn to show the world what we can do to export some of our capabilities, expertise and companies,” Mr Wong explained.
It was a point shared by Chope's founder and chief executive officer Ariff Ziaudeen, who was also on the programme's panel. “Singapore is a great place to operate and hire talent, but it is a small market so … we are pushed to globalise and move into other countries as soon as we can,” he said.
Describing the measures announced at Budget 2017 as “deliberate attempts by the Government to step in” which are “big and exciting”, Mr Ziaudeen noted that “the devil is going to be in the details here. We will need to know how this partnership fund can be deployed.”
JOBS THE BEST WELFARE FOR OUR PEOPLE
The National Development Minister also addressed the need for reskilling amid an uncertain economic environment. Acknowledging that companies may be reluctant to employ people and add headcount, even though their sectors may be growing, Mr Wong lauded the newly established Attach and Train initiative, which was announced at Budget 2017.
The initiative allows companies to attach and train people, to prepare them for when companies are prepared to hire, Mr Wong said.
At the national level, the Government is also taking a more targeted approach to map skills to sectors, and people to skills through the Industry Transformation Maps, he added.
“We’ll work industry-by-industry, step-by-step to map out where the industry is heading, what the new required skills are, and how the Government can support unions and workers in upgrading themselves to prepare for the future,” Mr Wong highlighted.
Citing the precision engineering industry as a good example where there will be shifts in required skills, Mr Wong pointed out that the sector provides parts for aerospace and electronics but may go from using handcrafted moulds to using computers and digital manufacturing.
“This will be good for the industry, as it will grow and there will be new jobs created, but we have to help existing workers train and equip themselves with skills for the future,” he said.
Mr Wong also touched on the issue of help for families dealing with unemployment and said there is a range of financial assistance schemes for those in need, but pointed out the Government’s philosophy of supporting Singaporeans to take up work opportunities.
“Jobs are the best welfare for our people, and work is the best protection for our workers … which is why now we are putting in a lot more effort to do professional conversion programmes and we are doing this together in partnership with the unions, the businesses and the associations," said Mr Wong.