Coronavirus: The Great Disruption

Building windmills to catch the winds of change post-pandemic

Opportunities for economic stimulus exist - in regional education and being a first-mover in providing virtual work solutions and business continuity planning

Despite having become one of the world's most admired success stories, Singaporeans have always been aware that staying ahead requires relentless investment in continuous improvement and innovation.

By constantly reinventing ourselves in line with the ever-changing world and focusing effort inwards, we have managed to grow per capita earnings and improved overall welfare, meeting the rising expectations of Singaporeans.

This remains truer today, during the coronavirus pandemic, than ever before.

The common consensus is that once the dust settles post-pandemic, the emerging dawn will herald a very different landscape radically altered by lasting changes in socio-economic fundamentals. Subsequent to the crisis, new norms will be established.

Having adopted new ways of doing business during the lockdown, corporate travel may reset at a greatly reduced pace as corporations embrace more time-and cost-efficient remote collaboration and communication platforms.

Global trade will require time to recover as nations and corporations navigate near-term economic challenges and assess transpired vulnerabilities as they rethink their supply chain strategies.

It is likely that travel and tourism-related sectors will struggle due to a lack of consumer liquidity as some people choose to stay closer to home and focus on rebuilding battered personal finances.

In a similar manner, Singapore, with its globally interlinked economy, will be impacted. Many of its business sectors will be under pressure for a considerable period ahead. These will include traditional segments such as tourism, hospitality, airlines, shipping and trade-related sectors, as well as financial, real estate and Reits (real estate investment trusts).

Fortunately, Singapore is well positioned to emerge a clear leader and beneficiary of several significant opportunities, the requirements of which make our nation a natural ideal candidate. Four are briefly discussed below.


One inadvertent by-product of the Covid-19 tragedy is the realisation of how beautiful our natural world is and how quickly visible pollution vanishes with lower activity.

This is in contrast to the devastation that some of nature's underlying forces can bring if unconstrained.

While the ensuing economic recession may slow or halt some climate change initiatives embarked upon recently, many emphatically believe that sustainability-related investments will continue to double every three to four years over the next few decades. At least one third of such investments, envisaged to amount to hundreds of billions, will be in Asia.

Singapore is ideally placed to become the Asian catalyst providing advisory, financial, logistical and innovation support for activities such as carbon sequestration, waste management, pollution control, water-related and many other similar initiatives. Singapore is already a leader in waste management and water treatment.

The Covid-19 crisis has accelerated the future of "working from home" by at least a decade. Many companies are now comfortable using remote home-based distributed work-from-home operational frameworks. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

If we can support the right skill development and encourage the creation of the prerequisite institutional framework, sustainability-related industries have the potential to become one of the top three sectors for the Singapore economy in the next decade.


Geopolitical and ethnic tensions from Covid-19 and increased protectionism policies are going to result in more intra-Asia exchanges, going forward.

Coupled with rising costs and lower purchasing power, these could lead to reduced demand for long-distance, overseas education for students from Asia. Singapore universities and our relevant skills-rich talent pool are well placed to offer an online-offline framework in education which is likely to emerge as the norm and preferred platform for education for future generations.

The focus should be on acquiring relevant skill sets. Through their improved reputations and rankings, as well as lower price points, universities here should be able to compete with all but the most prestigious Western universities for Asian students seeking an overseas education. Universities and polytechnics should aggressively work to improve and refine their online and remote education offerings, given some greater reluctance or inability to travel post-Covid-19.

Singapore could enhance its potential offering as a host country by looking to combine complementary elements from its tourism infrastructure and partnerships with global universities.


The Covid-19 crisis has accelerated the future of "working from home" by at least a decade. Many companies, normally unwilling to embrace telecommuting, are now comfortable using remote home-based distributed work-from-home operational frameworks.

This has accelerated acceptance of such platforms and served as a large-scale pilot or proof of concept for what may become the future norm for many functions.

  • Coronavirus: The Great Disruption

  • How will the world change post-Covid-19? Already, the pandemic is upending societies and ways of life, sending countries into lockdown, triggering recessions and massive job losses.

    To make sense of its impact on economies, business, governance and international relations, leading opinion leaders share their views in Coronavirus: The Great Disruption, a special series in The Straits Times Opinion section.

This significant paradigm shift holds tremendous potential for enormous opportunities.

Singapore could create a council or body to encourage and facilitate collaboration between corporations, government agencies, telecommunications companies and service providers.

The objective would be to lay down the standards and framework for creating a robust ecosystem and support system for such virtual work solutions for this new world. The key is to come out with a digital platform strategy.

To facilitate this, network bandwidth will need to be significantly increased and service-level consistency guaranteed, adopting an "Always On" standard.

Potential conflicts between service providers at last-mile delivery points or kerbside need to be resolved and a protocol established.

We can consider providing "on tap" connectivity and large-scale virtual secured network services with multi-level security built in as a standard. Those could be unmanaged, or various network management services could be provided. The objective is to enable almost anyone to migrate to secure distributive systems at will, with minimum fuss.

Singapore's telecommunications companies should work with solution providers locally and globally to ensure that best-in-class regional business continuity planning (BCP) facilities are co-located in Singapore.

The Government may want to encourage efforts that would ensure that the entire BCP supply chain is simultaneously and congruously present in Singapore by designing multiple autonomous BCP zones which would provide redundancy respectively to each other.

For similar reasons, multiple secure server farms within Singapore and perhaps with others strategically located across Asia could provide a cost-effective platform offering a compelling value proposition which less-developed countries could tap.

If we gain first-mover advantage and establish common standards, with traction from smaller less-developed countries in Asia and Africa tapping our platform, and with economies of scale, Singapore could become a major player in this area.

An important prerequisite for this would require us to relook and bolster up data protection legislation and bring those in line with global requirements.


Post-Covid-19 recovery will be predicated on many factors, both local and global. Businesses will see increased demand only with the return of sufficient consumer liquidity.

To boost recovery, initiatives to stimulate demand for domestic goods and services are needed.

For instance, government initiatives can subsidise Singapore-centric leisure and vacation activities to boost domestic tourism and aid employment in related segments.

Weekend activities could be created or sponsored across the city's parks and malls to help kick-start local employment-heavy sectors. If such activities have associated health benefits, all the better.

During post-depression times, many Western economies experimented with such domestic demand-boosting measures.

Given that many future jobs are likely to revolve around freelancers/contract/part-time workers, as companies restructure themselves in a post-Covid-19 world to have a lower-cost structure, steps need to be taken now to help boost the livelihood and real income of freelancers, who are likely to increasingly grow into a sizeable segment of the workforce and become a growing driver of domestic demand.


When the winds of change rage, some build shelters while others build windmills, so goes a Chinese proverb.

At an individual level, this crisis has led many like myself to re-pivot our lives and focus on what is most important.

For Singapore, it is also a time to re-pivot as a society. Forging a position of leadership and an unrivalled reputation for providing best-in-class products and services, Singapore emerged over the past decade as an economic powerhouse and the go-to place for anyone trying to do business in Asia or with Asia.

We must learn from the crisis and recalibrate to be future-ready after Covid-19.

• Tan Chin Hwee is regional chief executive of a multinational company active in trading and logistics. During this home-based learning period, he looks forward to playing mahjong in the evening with his three kids.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2020, with the headline Building windmills to catch the winds of change post-pandemic. Subscribe