Budget puts S'pore in good stead for future challenges

Charting a nation's future in this era of transformational technologies and socio-economic-geopolitical centrifugal forces is no easy task.

People tend to think in linear terms but technological progression sometimes takes an exponential and disruptive trajectory.

Navigating in this day and age of fluidity requires institutional agility - a systemic capability that senses and responds to rapidly changing conditions - within a holistic and coherent strategic framework. Many business leaders will vouch that a winning game plan is never static, and is almost worthless without agile and adaptive execution.

Singapore has transformed its economy numerous times since Independence. It has emerged stronger every time, and has been able to take on each successive economic transformation from a position of increasing strength.

In its next phase of economic development, innovation will be an increasingly critical component.

Budget 2017 will further strengthen Singapore's ability to innovate in a changing world by using technology and embracing digitisation.

The Government is committing an additional $500 million to the National Research Fund, as well as an additional $1 billion to the National Productivity Fund.

These are significant investments and have to be coupled with strong industry partnership to deliver the desired outcomes of commercialisation and economic value creation.

The Budget also contains programmes targeted at small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), such as the SMEs Go Digital Programme, and support from various agencies such as the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) for technology adoption and access to intellectual property. Executed correctly, these can be game-changers, provided SMEs step up and harness the benefits of leveraging digital technologies to scale up.

We also see a more deliberate approach to equip our workforce with deep skills, and the ability to operate in a global and interconnected environment.

Nevertheless, there are important considerations in the areas of talent and speed of execution. In a technology-intensive future economy, a strong and world-class science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) talent pool is both a foundational requirement and a critical success factor.

Building an outsized pool of such talent as a proportion of our population, in the nearest possible timeframe, will better position Singapore for disruptions that are inevitable in the digital economy.

Having spent more than two decades in a high-tech multinational corporation from Silicon Valley, I have found that thoughtful risk-taking, a high learning rate, and speed are critical attributes of successful tech enterprises.

These enabling attributes strengthen a fundamental core competency of enterprises to connect three things - looking ahead, ideating and productising in a reinforced learning system.

Translating this into reality requires a fine balance between good judgment and a perfect but typically elusive strategy. And as digital technologies become a dominant feature in the future economy, organisational agility and speed will become increasingly important attributes for governments and enterprises to succeed.

 

The combination of innovative enterprises, an enlightened workforce and a technology-enabled nation is a transformational one that will allow Singapore to transcend its current constraints of land, resources and talent. This is within the nation's grasp.

If coherently harnessed by our enterprises, workforce and Government, digital technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing and bioengineering present a unique breakthrough opportunity for Singapore.

Budget 2017 is a step in the right direction - the start of a renaissance that could reshape this little red dot into a leading global innovation node while remaining a city-state of inclusive opportunities for its citizens, in a future that will be remarkably different from today. This contest for our future has begun.

•Mr Russell Tham heads Applied Materials' regional business in South-east Asia. He is a member of the Committee on the Future Economy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2017, with the headline 'Budget puts S'pore in good stead for future challenges'. Print Edition | Subscribe