Budget 2020 Roundtable: Virus outbreak could force firms to transform - or perish

The coronavirus outbreak comes at a time when digital disruption and economic transformation are posing challenges for employers and workers.

Even with measures to keep enterprises afloat, many will have to learn to evolve quickly or perish, said experts at a roundtable last week.

"You have a few exacting forces and challenges in the short term as well as medium and longer term," said one panellist, MP Patrick Tay. "With this Covid-19 situation, we see workers on the ground having anxiety over the future of jobs, in particular, employment, as well as employability issues."

Nominated MP Walter Theseira said the outbreak has exposed the strengths and weaknesses of globalisation, and may force some firms to confront painful realities about their long-term viability. The economics associate professor added: "You do need a certain amount of, you might say, churn in the market for the economy to get restructured and improve. The issue is, how does this process happen in the most gentle way possible?"

Singapore's foreign labour restrictions may mean firms heavily reliant on foreign workers may have to exit the market here, which may be an "intended policy outcome", Prof Theseira said.

Singapore Business Federation chief executive Ho Meng Kit said it will not be easy for some of these industries to get more local workers, but one way around it is to modernise and transform jobs. The construction industry, for example, is increasingly adopting the use of pre-fabricated structures.

"So construction workers become technicians in a manufacturing job. They do all the pre-castings and you press a button and you do design work," he said.

But he added that more still needs to be done to get industries and institutes of higher learning to collaborate and train diploma holders for the industry while making the jobs more attractive to them.

Mr Tay agreed, adding that it is "imperative" to do so.

He said: "There are jobs, but the quality of the jobs will determine whether we can attract people into those sectors."

While many of the Budget's measures that are part of the Transformation and Growth strategy will benefit multinational corporations, small and medium-sized enterprises that are doing well and are less affected by the outbreak can also take advantage of them, said UOB senior economist Alvin Liew.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 23, 2020, with the headline Budget 2020 Roundtable: Virus outbreak could force firms to transform - or perish. Subscribe