SINGAPORE: Even as the country tackles the immediate challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, Singapore must look further ahead and invest in areas that develop its “intangible strengths”, its infrastructure, as most of all, its people and businesses, said Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing.
Mr Chan was speaking on Sunday (Jun 14) in the fourth of a series of six national broadcasts by Cabinet ministers laying out the nation’s plans for the future. The first of these speeches was delivered by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Jun 7.
SINGAPORE’S INTANGIBLE STRENGTHS
Noting the Future Economy Council, formed in 2017 and led by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, had already been driving such preparations, Mr Chan highlighted the things that set Singapore apart – its intangible strengths.
He noted that while many investors have chosen to locate and expand their businesses in Singapore, this was not based on factors such as the availability of natural resources or cost.
“They chose us because of our strengths, which are not easy to replicate elsewhere. We are open, and connected with the world, we are trusted, we are united and stable as a society, and we have a skilled workforce,” he said.
While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made many countries put up protectionist barriers and pull further back from globalisation, Mr Chan warned that Singapore must resist such pressures.
“A less connected world means a poorer world and fewer opportunities for all. A less connected Singapore means fewer and poorer quality jobs for us.”
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But despite the growing trend of protectionism, Singapore can still “make a living and more”, Mr Chan said.
He added the country can “build capabilities to play critical roles in global supply chains to produce high quality products and services that others value”, noting that Singapore makes four out of the world’s top ten drugs and is the world’s seventh largest exporter of chemicals.
Singapore’s resilience comes from building networks and diversifying its supply sources and markets, he said, adding the country would never be able to have everything it could possibly need for the next crisis.
“Indeed, when lockdowns started across the world three months ago, many of our supply chains were disrupted, if not broken. Credit goes to the ingenuity and tenacity of our people for keeping us going,” he said.
“Our public and private sectors swung into action, reached out to their networks, opened new supply lines to bring back essentials like masks, PPE (personal protective equipment) and test reagents from across the world,” he added.
The minister thanked people from organisations such as ST Logistics, Singapore Airlines and Sheng Siong, describing them as the unsung heroes who allowed people in Singapore to live their lives normally over the last few months.
Mr Chan also pointed to trust as another of Singapore’s intangible strengths, noting the country continued to show the world it was trustworthy even through the COVID-19 crisis.
“We did not impose export restrictions or nationalise foreign investments. We kept our production lines open for global supply chains, including critical materials for surgical masks,” he said.
“We worked with companies to increase their production, so that we could meet Singapore’s and the world’s needs, and we facilitated the continued flow of essential goods and people through our ports and airports.”
Singapore’s “trusted brand” counts for even more in uncertain times, he said.
He used the example of the oil crises in the 1970s, when Singapore did not restrict exports, thereby enhancing its credibility to establish Jurong Island as a global petrochemical hub in later decades.
“We will work to stay connected with the world, even as the world threatens to fragment and regress towards protectionism.”
Singapore can lead the way for other countries, Mr Chan said, pointing to how its initial partnerships with Brunei, Chile and New Zealand grew to become the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and how an agreement with New Zealand to resist export restrictions and uphold global supply chains has now expanded to include eleven countries.
“We are building a network of digital economy partnerships. The partnerships will define the rules for competing and cooperating in the new economy,” he said.
“They will create opportunities for our companies to grow their overseas markets. We have concluded such agreements with Australia, Chile and New Zealand. More are on the way,” he added.
Singapore is also looking forward to signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement this year, Mr Chan said, noting the agreement - which includes all 10 ASEAN member states as well as countries such as Australia, China and South Korea - would lower the cost of imports for consumers and exports for producers.
“These agreements and other FTAs (free trade agreements) open up new opportunities for our businesses, and will make us a more attractive base for investments to serve the region. This will signal to the world our confidence and determination to press on with regional economic integration,” he said.
Singapore’s past prudence has given it the means to continue investing in its infrastructure, giving the next generation a “higher starting base, just as how our predecessors did for us”, said Mr Chan.
“We will press on to build our connectivity infrastructure to reinforce our position as a choice hub for business, finance, trade and data flows,” he said.
The country’s long-term plans - such as Changi Airport’s fifth terminal and the Tuas mega port, as well as regional developments like the Punggol Digital District and the Greater Southern Waterfront - remain sound and will be paced according to demand.
“But do not doubt this: we will get them all done. Together, they will create a vibrant and innovative Singapore for our children – full of opportunities, full of life,” he said.
Meanwhile, Singapore will also intensify efforts to “attract the best ideas and talent to compete on our side, and complement our strengths”, he added.
“Initiatives like the Global Innovation Alliance connect us with talent hubs across the world. We will make ourselves a more attractive safe harbour for talent, ideas and intellectual property, to grow more businesses and create better jobs,” he said.
“Competition is intense. Talented people, including our own, can go anywhere.”
“I know many Singaporeans are concerned with foreign competition, but closing ourselves up is not the answer. We cannot escape competing with the world, and proving our mettle,” said the Minister.
“We will give our workers the training and support to excel, and we will ensure that the competition is fair. This is the best way to improve the well-being of our people.”
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SINGAPORE’S BUSINESSES AND PEOPLE
The Government will ensure everyone in Singapore shares the benefits of the country’s growth, said Mr Chan, pointing to efforts in two areas - digitalisation and internationalisation.
“COVID-19 has pushed many businesses and consumers to embrace the digital world. The digital trajectory will only accelerate, and not reverse,” he stated.
“We must enable every Singaporean, young and old; every business, big and small, to go digital and thrive. Companies will embrace digital tools to create new business models and transcend our local market constraints,” he said.
He pointed to how the Singapore Tourism Board is helping companies in the events and hospitality fields use digital tools to beat the collapse in travel demand.
“One event organiser – WiT or Web In Travel – is engaging global audiences though a virtual travel summit later this month, across different countries,” he noted.
Digitalisation and data will transform this generation, the same way computerisation and automation uplifted Singapore in the 1980s, he said, pointing to how the country was building a thousand-strong Digital Ambassador Corps to help small and micro enterprises apply digitalisation, as well as help senior citizens learn to use technology.
But he cautioned that digitalisation is not enough – establishing “real partnerships in the real world” must follow.
“Many Singapore businesses have established regional and global presence in the past years, often in partnerships. The more established and larger companies help newcomers and smaller businesses,” said Mr Chan, pointing to how CapitaLand brings other Singapore companies in its overseas development projects, allowing them to enter new markets.
Singapore will step up efforts in nurturing a new generation of regional and global businesses, and will facilitate more industry partnerships, including those in the digital space, as well as better organise overseas Singapore business chapters and missions to guide newcomers venturing overseas.
“Our business leaders and workers will be key to these efforts. We must have the aptitude and attitude to serve global markets,” he said.
“Our people must have the entrepreneurial spirit to venture abroad to compete, and seize the opportunities of a fast-growing Asia. We cannot be content with doing well just within Singapore,” he added.
“We introduced Scale-Up SG to groom promising local companies into global champions. So long as our companies have the ambition, we will find the resources to support them.”
“We will intensify the overseas exposure of our people, through initiatives like the Global Ready Talent Programme, so that they gain fresh perspectives and networks,” he said.
Mr Chan pointed to how the co-founders of online marketplace Carousell had spent time in Silicon Valley, as part of the National University of Singapore’s Overseas Colleges programme, which gave them the confidence to later expand to eight markets across Southeast Asia.
The minister also said the Education Ministry’s 70-70 target to allow more institutes of higher learning to gain overseas exposure would be continued once the COVID-19 situation allows.
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“We will never be done upskilling our people. This is especially so for workers who have left school many years ago and did not benefit from the more recent improvements in our education and training system,” said Mr Chan.
“Our promise is this: We will create opportunities for all Singaporeans, no matter how old you are, to improve your lives at every stage of your careers. So long as you are able and willing, we will support you,” he added.
“Every Singaporean, regardless of background, can have the chance to take on the new jobs being created.”
CONFIDENCE FOR THE FUTURE
“We can be confident that our investments in our strengths, our infrastructure, and our people are all coming together,” said Mr Chan, pointing to the S$13 billion of investment commitment secured by the Economic Development Board in the first four months of 2020.
Investors are continuing to base “new and exciting projects” in Singapore - such as the Hyundai Mobility Global Innovation Centre in Jurong, to be ready in 2022 - while local companies of different sizes and industries are actively transforming their businesses, he said.
“What cheered me most is that they have upskilled their workforce in the process. They didn’t leave the workers behind,” he said.
“As you can see, there are still many opportunities for us, but we must be on our toes. Survival favours not the strong, but the agile.”