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Economic Affairs

Singapore at a Fujifilm moment

The Republic is at its own snapshot point of adapt or fade away. Some of its sectors such as logistics are giving change a shot. What about others?

Back in the 1980s, Japanese company Fujifilm was locked in a titanic battle with its rival American Kodak for dominance of the camera film market.

But even as it fought with Kodak for market share, Fujifilm's leaders anticipated that its core product would eventually give way to newer technologies - digital cameras, in particular. It started plotting to reform its business and looked to different forms of business, relying on its mantra, kaizen, roughly translated as "change, good".

Today, Fujifilm is a health and beauty company as much as it is an imaging expert. Using its decades of research in colour and light, the company has launched a range of cosmetics products and is thriving. Kodak, on the other hand, filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

The story of Fujifilm holds a deeper lesson for all businesses - change or die.

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I was part of the Committee on the Future Economy and took part in many discussions about the future of Singapore's economy. I believe that Singapore is, in many ways, facing that Fujifilm moment.

Technology is racing ahead and pushing us into a new era. Big data, automation, smart robots and artificial intelligence will dominate and alter every aspect of our lives - from the way we eat and play, to how we live and work.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed this point at the May Day rally, saying transformation of the economy is key to Singapore's future.

"That means everybody has to play their part. Employers, to invest in technology and train up workers. Unions, to work with employers, identify where the new jobs will be and help the workers get the new skills," he said, adding: "We have got to make this happen."

ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

I agree with PM's vision. If our economy fails to adapt and transform, many of our businesses today will disappear tomorrow. Our workers will suffer if they do not acquire industry-relevant skills to take on new jobs of the future.

MAPPING THE WAY FORWARD

In confronting this new reality, there are two basic assumptions.

First, all industries will be hit by technological disruption, at some point. Second, companies that do not change will fall by the wayside.

According to research firm Innosight, 75 per cent of the S&P 500 - a benchmark index comprising 500 of the most influential companies in corporate America - will be replaced by 2027.

In short, all of us face an impending battle to survive, stay relevant and remain competitive.

The good news is that the battle plans have been drawn up. The Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) are plans that the Government is jointly developing with all partners - industry players, trade associations and chambers, and unions. These action plans were rolled out last year. They may sound complicated but the idea behind them is a simple one.

The economy is made up of multiple industries. Each needs to change but will transform differently. You can't expect logistics to change in the same way that retail is going to.

The ITMs, which will be rolled out to 23 industries covering 80 per cent of the economy at a cost of $4.5 billion, are aimed at facilitating these changes. It has four main components: boosting productivity, tapping on innovation, upgrading workers' skills, and going global.

The ITMs seek to get all players in each sector - from companies and trade associations to unions and training and research institutes - to work together to help it grow.

SECTORS THAT ARE INNOVATING

But to succeed in this push for transformation, all three main players of the economy - the government, employers and unions - need to push in the same direction. Tripartism has been the bedrock of Singapore's success and will continue to be so.

Take the logistics industry. Contributing 7.4 per cent of gross domestic product in 2015, it employs more than 200,000 workers, or over 8 per cent of the country's workforce.

With Asia continuing to grow, the potential for supply chain management and advanced logistics is huge. But to grab the opportunities, companies here must equip themselves with new capabilities, and scale up.

Many companies in the industry are already doing this. At YCH, we are putting disruptive technologies together in a "smart" distributed logistics facility, Fusionaris, where autonomous drones equipped with RFID (radio frequency identification) scanners and video analytics capabilities can be deployed to automate the manual counting process.

Other companies are also experimenting with sensors, semi-automatic machines and big data to raise productivity. Doing so also creates new jobs and opportunities for workers.

By transforming, companies will also help their workers gain new skills and prepare them for the new economy. In so doing, they continue to fulfil the social role of generating jobs for Singaporeans.

SUPPLY CHAIN 'HUB' APPROACH

What the ITMs will do is to turbocharge the pace of transformation by multiplying the various technologies across the industry, ensuring that all companies have access to scale up.

For the logistics industry, we target to get companies to link up and work together.

The Supply Chain City in Jurong Innovation District is a good example of how this can be achieved. To be officially launched later this year, the complex is envisioned to be the "mini-Silicon Valley for logistics".

The ecosystem that we hope to build at Supply Chain City is already thriving, with close partnership among training provider Supply Chain and Logistics Academy, industry body Supply Chain Asia, innovation firm Y3 Technologies and investor group SC Angels (YCH's venture arm).

The hub approach promotes collaboration across the value chain and gives smaller players a chance to be part of an integrated eco-system. Indeed, collaboration is crucial across the industry. To this end, industry associations play a big role in facilitating change.

The Container Depot and Logistics Association (Singapore), for instance, launched the Electronic Container Trucking System (eCTS) last August. By connecting truck drivers to ports, container depots and trucking offices through a single IT platform, the eCTS cuts down time wastage from using different IT systems, reduces congestion at container depots and minimises work repetition. This improves productivity for container logistics players.

Other countries are also showing how to think harder about collaborating on a company-to-company level. One area that has yet to take off here in a big way is shared logistics.

In 2003, Kimberly-Clark Corporation launched a collaborative distribution trial with Lever Faberge (now Unilever's home and personal care unit) in the Netherlands. The two companies made joint deliveries to their customers, with each company filling half of each truck.

Today, shared logistics is sweeping across Europe and the United States, with rival logistics companies using each other's trains, trucks and ships to cut spare capacity and raise productivity.

We have an excellent opportunity to make this transformation work, especially in the context of a fast-growing Asean.

Connectivity was a key strategy of the Committee for the Future Economy and if we band together to transform our economy, we can meet the challenges of the future even as we capitalise on the opportunities that arise. Whether we like it or not, change is coming. And we must be prepared to meet the challenge head-on, together.


  • Robert Yap is executive chairman of YCH Group, one of the largest home-grown logistics companies. He is also president of the Singapore National Employers Federation.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2017, with the headline 'Singapore at a Fujifilm moment'. Print Edition | Subscribe