Singapore must guard against complacency and manage wage disparity: Chan Chun Sing

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing speaking at the Economic Development Board Society's 30th anniversary commemoration event on Dec 30, 2020.
Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing speaking at the Economic Development Board Society's 30th anniversary commemoration event on Dec 30, 2020.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - To stay ahead of the competition in the next stage of its economic development, Singapore has two critical tasks at hand, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said on Wednesday (Dec 30).

One, it has to rally people to action by being upfront about the challenges, continuously guarding against complacency, and developing a nation of people and businesses that are not afraid of global competition but seek to thrive in it.

"We must assume that we can easily be overtaken by others who are hungrier, and who can leapfrog us," he said, noting this has happened to some areas in ICT, finance and advanced manufacturing.

"We will not just play defensive to try to get back to where we were. Instead, we are constantly challenging ourselves to come up with new ideas and value propositions to capture new markets ahead of others amidst the pandemic," he added of the Covid-19 economic recovery.

Two, Singapore must manage the long-term challenge of wage disparity by equipping people with skills for the future, enabling them to compete globally, and having a collective social conscience where those who have succeeded help those who have not.

"We must take tangible and sustained actions to level up our people and companies for the long term, rather than just resorting to populist actions like elsewhere to either shut out foreign competition, or conduct unsustainable redistribution of a shrinking pie," he said.

"The real competition is not among the local and foreign workers or companies here in Singapore. The real competition for our five million people is with the seven billion people outside Singapore."

Mr Chan was speaking at The EDB Society's 30th anniversary commemoration event, which was held in a hybrid format at the Capitol Kempinski Hotel, ahead of a closed-door dialogue with the society's alumni.

In his speech, Mr Chan outlined how the Economic Development Board (EDB) has been a key driver of Singapore's economic development. It secured $13 billion of fixed asset investment commitments in the first four months of 2020, despite the pandemic. In comparison, it attracted $15.2 billion of commitments for the whole of 2019.

He also touched on three global trends and how Singapore planned to respond to them.

First, while shifts in global supply chains have accelerated through the Covid-19 crisis, they present opportunities for Singapore, he said, noting that the ability to create trusted environments and systems to attract capital and talent, as well as generate and protect intellectual capital, are areas the country can capture.

Second, growth disparity across economies, as well as in corporate earnings and wages, are also likely to continue widening, Mr Chan said. But economies and companies which can adapt to technological trends and global shifts will excel, as will workers with the right skills and in the right companies and industries, he added.

Singapore is not immune from such inequality, he said, adding that governments have to muster the political will and resources to distribute the fruits of trade and help businesses and people adjust to new realities and embrace new opportunities.

Third, major powers such as China, the European Union and the United States are likely to be more wary in shouldering global responsibilities for greater integration, given their own domestic challenges, and other counties may need to step up to reinforce the rules-based system by which the world operates.

"The responsibility to uphold and update the global trading system cannot be the sole prerogative and responsibility of the two major powers alone," he said, adding that Singapore cannot afford to be passive given the severe repercussions of a retreat from multilateralism.

"We must work with like-minded partners to stand as an integrative force, deepening country-to-country linkages, and set high-standard global rules with partners to enable businesses to thrive," Mr Chan said, noting Singapore's role in regional cooperation and its efforts to engage both China and the US and keep them invested in this region.

Covid-19 may be the crisis of a century, but he is confident that Singapore is well-placed to emerge stronger from it, Mr Chan said. "Not only that, if we do things right, we can also turn this into the opportunity of a generation, for us to pull apart from the competition and distinguish ourselves as a nation (with) how we take care of one another through thick and thin."

On Wednesday, the Distinguished Fellow of the EDB Society award was conferred on two former chairmen of the EDB - Mr Teo Ming Kian and Mr Lim Siong Guan.

Mr Teo held the post from 2001 to 2006, while Mr Lim was chairman from 2006 to 2009. Former recipients of the award include Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the late President S R Nathan.