Olympic high jumper shows the way for economic leap

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam made the remarks in an interview with the NTUC This Week publication.
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam made the remarks in an interview with the NTUC This Week publication. PHOTO: ST FILE

Tharman refers to Olympian's technique to illustrate a game changer that spurs economy

Known for his love of sport, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam dug into the annals of sport to explain the complexity of getting Singapore's two-speed economy to do better all round.

Like other countries, the slow domestic sector's workers earn less, while those in the bigger, outward-focused sector do better.

The challenge is to ensure a large part of the economy does not get stuck in low gear, he said, turning to the Fosbury Flop to illustrate how a bold and disruptive leap can be a game changer and set new highs.

High jumper Dick Fosbury pioneered the technique at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, where he ran in a curving loop towards the bar before leaping backwards, head first, with his legs coming over last.

He broke the Olympic record by 6cm to win the gold medal.

DUAL STRATEGY

We need both - the bold breakthroughs as well as the constant copying and tweaking that spread change throughout an economy.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER THARMAN SHANMUGARATNAM, on what is needed to ensure all-round economic growth.

Others refined and improved on it and, in the next 30 years, the record went up a further 15cm.

"That's how it must be in the economy, and especially in the industries that have been stuck in low gear. We have to allow and encourage disruptive change," Mr Tharman said.

One example is how e-commerce is already transforming retail.

Mr Tharman, who is Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, made these remarks in an interview with the NTUC This Week publication.

His office released the transcript yesterday, when he was awarded NTUC's Medal of Honour, its highest May Day award, for his contributions to the labour movement and to the working people of Singapore.

Mr Tharman noted that it is natural for some companies to be at a slower pace. They may be content on low gear as long as they can just survive.

"But if a large part of the economy is stuck in low gear, then overall wages too will see little growth, and lower-wage workers especially will see little improvement," he said.

What is needed are bold, disruptive changes, introduced by firms that want to transform industries, he added.

"We also need more of the copying, tweaking and improving by other firms, so that each new innovation isn't just a big leap forward for one firm or one cluster of firms, but spreads throughout the industry," said Mr Tharman.

"We need both - the bold breakthroughs as well as the constant copying and tweaking that spread change throughout an economy."

SkillsFuture, the Industry Transformation Maps, and directions set by the Committee on the Future Economy will help, he noted.

"But bold innovations will usually put firms and people doing the traditional jobs out of work, so we have to help them get into new and good jobs as quickly as possible," Mr Tharman said.

"If we can achieve this - both the bold, disruptive changes and the constant improvements that are part of an innovative economy - we can keep growing wages for the majority of Singaporeans.

"If we don't, then wages get stuck and the living standards stagnate. So innovation is critical, not just for firms, but for inclusive growth."

Lower-skilled workers will not be left out as the economy transforms, said Mr Tharman.

Lifelong learning enables Singaporeans to pick up new skills when an industry is disrupted and jobs are lost, and also allows workers to keep on deepening skills so they stay relevant and get satisfaction on the job, he added.

Mr Tharman also said companies had to "take more responsibility" on this front. "We still don't have a widespread management culture in Singapore of wanting to invest in developing each and every individual in the team," he said.

He credited the NTUC for "nudging and pushing" employers to invest in workers' training.

"This inclusive culture of learning is really the future. It's about collective bargaining not just over wages, which is, of course, important, but negotiating over the effort and investment that companies must make in workers' learning," he said.

"That's what is going to determine our success - whether we can help everyone to keep learning."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 14, 2017, with the headline 'Olympic high jumper shows the way for economic leap'. Print Edition | Subscribe