Moments of change have spurred on Singapore to look for fresh ways of forging ahead. The 1985 recession resulted in the formation of an Economic Committee which, among other things, sought to remove structural rigidities by adjusting wage costs to fit leaner times. The creation of the Economic Review Committee in 2001 reflected the need to remake Singapore into a globalised, entrepreneurial and diversified economy that would be willing and able to host risk-takers. A global recession prompted the commissioning of the Economic Strategies Committee in 2009. Now, a committee on the future economy is needed to draft a blueprint to ride global tides of further change.
The committee's mandate is to create opportunities and see how the country can help workers and businesses to adapt to a weaker global economy and a leaner labour market. For the panel's mission to succeed, its work will have to be far more than a typical budgetary exercise or arbitration process which seeks to reconcile the competing wish lists of stakeholders. Examples of conflicting tugs are lower business costs and better wages for changing job roles; more foreign workers and less foreign competition; reduced taxes and increased subsidies.
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, who will chair the committee, is well-equipped to lead the consultative process. His stewardship of Our Singapore Conversation showed his ability to listen to constructive criticism and reflective feedback. The same patience should help him to source ideas for viable change from the range of economic participants - employers, trade bodies, workers, unions, experts and planners.
The panel should not be wedded to whatever has worked well in the past but must cast an unsentimental eye on the structural drivers of the global economy, and look for ways to leverage on them. For example, one might see software embedded in so many things that coding could be a necessary skill picked up in schools and applied in different ways to assist tasks - many of them simple, others elegant and some esoteric. Similarly, easy-to-use 3D printers and off-the-shelf robots could help even an ordinary worker to execute a series of tasks that might now require more steps, workers and time.
Of course, any economy moving up the technological ladder will encounter challenges, including global downturns. One long-term fear is a large-scale replacement of human labour by so-called intelligent machines. A focus on creativity, culture and the human touch can help the future economy to remain inclusive. A blueprint is crucial as it will guide planning in key areas like education and training, infrastructure and communication networks, labour relations and external markets. Like the Internet of Things, a sound future economy plan can help connect everything.