From a broad perspective, there isn't a more pressing and timely subject than the challenges Singapore faces from disruptive technologies that are changing the way people live, work and play. Everyone has been affected by how social media has changed the way we communicate. Many can also see how online retailers have affected brick and mortar shops, and how Uber and Grab Taxi are overturning the traditional taxi business. There are many other transformative ideas of the digital age, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was right in noting recently that people and businesses cannot be shielded from these changes. That would be the surest way to turn the little red dot into a disappearing speck of irrelevance.
Disruptive technologies are about new ways of doing things, usually faster and cheaper and more in sync with people's changing needs. Singapore, of all places, needs to embrace these so that it can continue to be relevant to the rest of the world.
There are two challenges. First, how to help existing businesses adapt and do well in the new environment. Second, how to make the country a place for innovative companies to grow and create new jobs for the people.
The first challenge requires companies to accept the new reality quickly. If customers prefer to shop online, retailers need to get into this space. If many obtain their information via online and mobile platforms, businesses must be on top of these new ways of interacting with customers.
On its part, the Government needs to ensure its regulations keep up with these changes and the playing field is level. Often the new players enjoy advantages over incumbents. Properties listed on the online accommodation site Airbnb are not subject to the same regulatory conditions as hotels. And Uber drivers are not tested as strictly as taxi drivers. A balance needs to be struck between encouraging new ideas to blossom and protecting existing players who offer essential services from unfair advantages.
The second challenge is harder to overcome. Can Singapore produce start-ups that might one day grow to become another Facebook or Uber? How does it create a culture in which people dare to try out new ideas, risk failure and think big? Some of the initiatives the Government has launched should help, including offering space to start-ups. But the critical factor is changing mindsets and culture.
Singapore was a disruptive force in the early years of nation building. It had a start-up mentality equal to the best in present-day Silicon Valley, when it overturned conventional wisdom in many areas, such as attracting multinational companies to invest here and housing the bulk of the population in public housing. Modern Singapore needs to rediscover that pioneering spirit. It surely can because it's there in its DNA.