Policy views expressed by the business community recently reflect the nature of the psychological progress being made in the national effort to restructure the economy. Alongside the broad agreement among business chiefs that transformative change is necessary is the narrow mindset of smaller entrepreneurs who prefer to remain within comfort zones. Standing at opposing ends of a spectrum, the first group is prepared to think strategically with an eye on the future, while the second tends to think operationally and focus on the present.
Tellingly, the Singapore Business Federation's (SBF) position paper on the future economy accommodated both concerns - the strategic imperatives of a New Economy as well as the perennial issue of rising business costs. The Budget, to be presented in March, might provide a fiscal answer to cost issues but strategy lies largely in the hands of market players. The SBF was right, therefore, to give adequate weight to global shifts - driven by economic geography, demography and technology - that firms cannot afford to ignore.
These call for a strategic response which many smaller enterprises in particular might shun as it's a fraught exercise, with large-scale changes portending both opportunities and risks. Hence the key question is how local firms can be helped to take the "bold and decisive" steps required to energise Singapore, as SBF chairman Teo Siong Seng put it. The Government has a role to play but one might also ask if business federations ought to do more - for example, helping small and medium-sized firms to deconstruct critical issues of change, and to chart strategies to operate on a higher plane. Also, could such associations form networks for the sharing of deep expertise in specific fields that SMEs cannot afford to tap on their own?
That this is the first time the SBF is presenting a paper of such scope to the Government is an indication of the psychological shift in the corporate reception of restructuring goals. Various recommendations have emerged which will no doubt be weighed by the Future Economy panel and government agencies. Among them are the need for the setting up of a cost review committee (as proposed by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry), for the easing of foreign manpower curbs and for a review of rules that are "over-prescriptive, over-regulate, (and) compromise business performance", in the SBF's words.
Decisions to be made about specific proposals aired by entrepreneurs must, of course, take into consideration the larger public good as well. For example, would using CPF savings to invest in local firms undermine the CPF Board's duty to reduce exposure to market risks? One must distinguish goals that are strategic from what is merely expedient. The clearer that logic, the better the chances of avoiding untoward consequences.