The role of the Economic Development Board (EDB) has been largely synonymous with the evolution of Singapore's economy. In the 1960s, low-end commerce was the mainstay of an economy in which a handful of industries existed to serve the needs of domestic consumption. Bringing in foreign investment, the EDB's mandate then, helped to push Singapore out of the economic backwaters into the rising tides of the global economy. It is a reflection of that success, and also an indication of the scope ahead that the EDB sees its job now as creating billion-dollar businesses in Singapore from ventures of any size - start-ups and multinational corporations alike.
In expanding on the organisation's latest focus at the recent EDB-Straits Times forum on the Republic's future prospects, EDB chairman Beh Swan Gin noted the importance of tapping the richer and maturing markets of South-east Asia. Singapore once needed to leapfrog the region to become a global city. The need today is to become a firmer part of an emerging regional market buoyed by middle-class household incomes. Singapore is a nodal economy of Asean, which, with more than 600 million people, is the world's third-largest market. If the integrative impulses of the Asean Economic Community are managed wisely, it could boost the region's economies by 7.1 per cent between now and 2025 and generate 14 million more jobs.
These developments call on Singapore businesses to move beyond being middlemen and aggregators and become regional business enablers. Essentially, this transition would entail moving beyond a fixation on old-style economics, the predictability of past business cycles and the job security of yore. Instead, Singapore needs to develop an entrepreneurial culture driven by innovation which can be a powerful motive force for growth. The seeds of that culture must be planted in diverse ways, as officials have noted - the expectations of parents, the messages that a teacher sends out in a classroom, the tone that a boss sets in a small or medium-sized enterprise, and society's general appetite for risk.
Thankfully, the environment is now fertile for go-getters, like the young Singaporeans stepping up to front start-ups. That has been made possible by the greater availability of funding and support for innovators. The fear of failure that once stigmatised entrepreneurship is giving way to a mindset that sees risk-taking as normal. While the safe rice bowl will always have its lure, young Singaporeans are coming to terms with an approaching future in which even robots will not have secure jobs. Good jobs increasingly will be those that will be created by entrepreneurs for themselves and others. By thinking big and and embracing a region ripe with possibilities, as the EDB believes, they can ensure such jobs remain sustainable.