Singapore's industrial champions are rewriting their playbook

Transformation involves mergers, acquisitions and shifts to clean energy, digital banking

The triple shock of the pandemic, disruptive tech and climate change is pushing Singapore to rewrite one of the world's most successful economic models.

Over the past two years, at least eight state-linked companies have announced major mergers, acquisitions, asset disposals or privatisations in the island's biggest industrial overhaul in two decades.

Oil-rig builder Keppel Corp has been pivoting towards clean energy, while Sembcorp Industries shed its rig business altogether. Singtel is going into digital banking.

"I compare this to the restructuring phase of Singapore conglomerates in the early 2000s" in the aftermath of the Sars outbreak and the crash, said Nikko Asset Management's Mr Kenneth Tang.

The Singapore Government has, for decades, curated the nation's economic future through a group of state-owned champions, shifting direction as needed to stay relevant in the global economy. But the latest rewriting of the nation's industrial playbook may prove harder as the giant firms take on competitors that are often newer and more nimble.

The Government has been pumping billions in recent years into transforming 23 industries including manufacturing, financial services and real estate to meet the challenges of digitalisation. At the same time, Singapore has created a 2030 road map to become a regional hub for carbon trading and green finance.

It has also set aside about $25 billion up to end-2025 for research in areas such as health and biomedical sciences, climate change and artificial intelligence. And a series of industry-led groups have been set up to explore opportunities in areas such as robotics, e-commerce and supply-chain digitalisation, with government support.

For Keppel, Sembcorp Industries and Sembcorp Marine, the changing global economy means trying to shed or merge oil-related businesses and focus on renewable energy such as offshore wind and hydrogen. It is a major shift for one of the world's top oil trading and refining cities, particularly at a time when the fuel's price has been rising. Singapore has oil-refining capacity of 1.5 million barrels per day, according to the United States' International Trade Administration website. It is the fifth-largest refinery and export hub in the world, the US Energy Information Administration says.

While Keppel has increased its focus on renewable energy, it is also expanding its liquefied natural gas business. It is in talks to merge its rig-building operations with smaller rival Sembcorp Marine, which has also moved into clean energy in recent years, while it still works on fossil-fuel projects.

"They are trying to build a new train while they are keeping the oil train running," said National University of Singapore associate professor of accounting Mak Yuen Teen. Sembcorp Industries has been working on solar and wind energy projects across India, China and Britain but still gets the majority of revenue from selling energy from conventional sources such as coal and natural gas.

Singapore's oil-refining industry is not going away, partly because many of oil's by-products are still ubiquitous, used in everything from toothpaste to synthetic fibres.

Its biggest renewables exports are likely to be goods such as semiconductors and services for companies seeking energy efficiency, said economist Song Seng Wun.

The Government is also promoting environment-friendly services in areas such as agritech and waste management.

Singapore is among the first nations to set up a platform to trade carbon offsets that is backed by a national stock exchange. But it faces competition from CME Group, which introduced trading of carbon offsets futures last year.

A headline-grabbing change that the city-state is making to transform its economy is in finance - opening up to digital entrants.

Singtel was among the four winners of digital-banking licences in December 2020, in partnership with ride-hailing and food-delivery giant Grab Holdings. The Republic's three conventional banks, including Temasek-backed DBS Group Holdings, are also embracing virtual services.

Some of the companies themselves acknowledge that the process of change will be gradual.

So far, the restructuring has had a mixed impact on the companies' stock performance, and has failed to boost the overall market.

The Straits Times Index fell 3.1 per cent over the past two years versus a 34 per cent surge in a measure of global stocks.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2022, with the headline Singapore's industrial champions are rewriting their playbook. Subscribe