Manufacturing sector seeks new edge, faster growth

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing during a visit to precision engineering company Univac on Jan 25, 2021.
Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing during a visit to precision engineering company Univac on Jan 25, 2021.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing during a visit to precision engineering company Univac on Jan 25, 2021.
Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing during a visit to precision engineering company Univac on Jan 25, 2021.PHOTO: MTI

Singapore aims to grow its manufacturing sector by 50 per cent over the next decade, while it works to ensure that the sector will maintain its contribution of about 20 per cent to the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

But it is not just about the numbers, said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing yesterday as he shared his medium-term vision for the sector after a visit to local precision engineering firm Univac.

The broader goal, he said, is to raise the global competitiveness of Singapore's manufacturing sector and create higher-skilled jobs for locals by focusing on developing "unique capabilities and products that cannot be found elsewhere".

The manufacturing sector contributes about 21 per cent, or around $106 billion, of Singapore's total GDP, hiring about 450,000 workers, or around 12 per cent of the workforce.

Last year, the sector expanded for six consecutive months from July to December, and experts have said it will continue to be a key driver of Singapore's economic growth this year.

Yesterday, Mr Chan said the Covid-19 pandemic underscored the importance of the sector which helped to bolster the overall economy last year.

He also noted how during the height of the pandemic, "securing essential supplies sometimes became a barter trade" and may continue to be so as global supply chains continue to be disrupted.

"Whether people choose to sell to us, often depends on whether we have things that others value and wish to obtain. This goes beyond the issue of whether people are willing to pay the price for it," he added.

Mr Chan said the 2030 goal will require the sector to grow by around 50 per cent in the next decade - the same pace of growth as the last 10 years.

It is an ambitious target considering it will become harder to use foreign labour to supplement the Singaporean workforce, he said, adding that the sector's workforce will continue to make up around 12 per cent to 15 per cent of the total Singapore workforce, but with higher-skilled roles.

For the sector to achieve the 2030 goal, it will have to develop its competitiveness through its ability to innovate quickly and produce higher-value products, he said.

To do that, the Government has outlined a three-pronged strategy.

First, it will continue to attract the best global and local companies in niche areas that will help Singapore remain a critical node in global value chains.

Second, Singapore will ramp up its efforts to grow the size and capabilities of local enterprises in advanced manufacturing to create better job opportunities for Singaporeans through tailored programmes and global networks.

Third, the Government will work with polytechnics and universities to make engineering and manufacturing attractive to students.

"We want to attract more Singaporeans into manufacturing, across all levels and especially in the critical roles," said Mr Chan.

Efforts to upgrade the skills of older workers will also continue, with the help of chambers such as the Singapore Manufacturing Federation (SMF).

SMF president Douglas Foo said the key goals of the Government's 10-year plan for the sector are attainable with the "unified efforts of different stakeholders".

Mr Foo also agreed with the minister that, in future, the sector cannot hope to achieve growth on the basis of cost competitiveness and foreign labour.

"The SMF welcomes all who are interested to join us on the journey we have already started in driving manufacturing forward into the future," said Mr Foo.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2021, with the headline 'Manufacturing sector seeks new edge, faster growth'. Subscribe