May Day rally: Fair competition one way to help existing companies take on disruptive players, says PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the May Day rally.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the May Day rally. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Taobao, Airbnb, Uber. These are some of the companies that have come up in recent years, introducing new business models and disrupting existing ones but also improving the lives of consumers.

The Government's approach to them is two-fold, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the May Day rally on Sunday (May 1).

First, ensure these businesses compete fairly with existing ones, and second, help industries and companies compete better by supporting them as they transform.

Mr Lee noted that industries are changing rapidly.

Online shopping site Taobao, which is owned by Alibaba, has become the world's most valuable retailer but does not own any shops or carry any stock.

Airbnb, which some Singaporeans use when they travel, rents out people's homes for vacations. It now books more rooms than the Hilton and Marriott chains to become the world's largest accommodation provider, without owning a single piece of property.

 
 
 
 

Then there are car sharing companies like Uber, which is now the world's biggest taxi company while hardly owning cars.

"All these new ways of doing business have disrupted our old models and processes," he noted.

Retail stores now compete with online platforms like Taobao and Amazon, and taxi operators fight for passengers with Uber and Grab.

"I don't think we can stop this phenomenon and I don't think we should try," he told unionists gathered at D'Marquee in Downtown East.

"We cannot put up a Great Singapore Firewall to block websites like Amazon or Taobao, or ban ride sharing and taxi booking apps, like some other cities...we would end up hurting ourselves, because these new businesses have improved our lives as consumers, made things more convenient."

These businesses have given people more options, better deals and have put pressure on existing businesses to up their game.

What the Government can do is to "make sure that these businesses with new models compete on fair terms with existing ones", he said.

For example, with Uber and Grab, the authorities have reviewed the rules to ensure a more level playing field with traditional taxi operators, to make sure that they are properly regulated and that the drivers are properly qualified and have clean records, and that consumers are protected.

More fundamentally, Mr Lee added, the Government is helping industries and companies to compete better by supporting them as they transform.

He said this was the reason this year's Budget set aside $4.5billion over five years for the Industry Transformation Programme to help industries use research and development and technology to "adapt to a new world and thrive".

The programme includes initiatives such as an Automation Support Package to help firms with the financial outlay that comes with scaling up their businesses, as well as a set of financial and tax incentives to support smaller businesses.

"If they are creative and bold, even help them to find new models and processes to out-compete others. Be the disruptor. And if we can do this industry transformation, it's not just the businesses and consumers who benefit, but the workers in those businesses," he said.