Evolve, adapt, innovate - S'pore's keys to the future

Faced with global disruptions, what will it take for Singapore to continue to succeed? Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing examined what has worked for Singapore thus far and how that might be applied to future challenges at the launch of a book by former minister Lim Hwee Hua on Thursday. Edited excerpts of his speech follow:

A stock keeper checking toilet paper rolls set for delivery at a warehouse last April. At the height of the pandemic, Singapore sprang into action to keep its supply chains open and its trade flows moving.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

The pandemic has brought to the fore the role of governments around the world: from ensuring the health and safety of people to securing vaccines and essential supplies, to supporting businesses and workers to tide over the crisis. Each of these decisions directly impacts millions of lives and livelihoods. Globally, we have witnessed how they have sparked off collective reflection, over the duty and remit of government.

Singapore's unique circumstances

However, the heart of this debate is not new. Throughout history, we have seen a plethora of theories on the role of government. Some examples:

The Qin Dynasty, China's first imperial dynasty, was anchored by Legalism, an ideology that prized social order, strict adherence to rules, and strong state control; in the West, the Keynesian school gained prominence during the Great Depression and post-war years, when government spending and regulation expanded significantly. This was followed by a return to more limited government, and laissez-faire market policies in the 1980s.

The question of big or small, active or passive government might be the subject of vigorous debates in some countries. But here in Singapore, we have never been beholden to ideological or philosophical preconceptions.

Singapore's unique circumstances demanded the ingenuity of our people, public and private sectors.

When the British withdrew their bases east of Suez, they accounted for about 20 per cent of our gross national product. Faced with a lack of natural resources, models could not simply be adopted. They had to be adapted for our own unique circumstances.

Then Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee was one of the chief architects of our early economic and national development. When asked later about his visionary role, Dr Goh said: "I had no initial vision. You just start it and hope for the best."

It's not that Dr Goh set out with no aim or direction in mind. It's about agility, humility and learning by doing. We don't fall for our own plans, or let that blind us from challenging our own assumptions.

For Singapore, we distil the essence from different countries, different models, and tailor them to our own unique context.

I think of our "model" of governance as one that evolves with time and in context. This is something that we have never taken for granted, and is always a work in progress.

So instead of getting caught up in theoretical debates, we need to understand what works best for us, and apply it boldly, creatively and judiciously.

Shifting global trends

As a nation, we have weathered numerous crises, precisely because we have never been dogmatic about our approach.

Some of us might be tempted to see Covid-19 as a temporary disruption. But the truth is that profound global shifts were already under way prior to Covid-19. And if anything, the crisis has accelerated many of these trends.

I would like to highlight three key trends, to get us thinking about the Government's role in business.

First, growing geopolitical uncertainty is reshaping global trade and production patterns.

Major powers are facing increasing domestic pressures. It is unsurprising that many of them have become more circumspect about exercising global leadership.

Even before Covid-19, we were witnessing a shift in many supply chains from "just in time" to "just in case", in response to the growing fragmentation of the global system. Now with Covid-19,we can expect further reorganisation through reshoring and diversification, to hedge against the vagaries of geopolitics.

Second, rapid advancements in technology and digitalisation are changing the way we live and work.

During the pandemic, we saw the deployment of digital technologies - such as in teleconferencing, payments, delivery platforms and e-commerce - on an unprecedented scale and speed.

We too had to adapt quickly. Hwee Hua mentioned the example of taxi and private-hire drivers who were allowed to deliver food and groceries, to supplement their income while meeting the surging demand on delivery platforms.

Both in peacetime but especially in times of crisis, the challenge is how do we enable businesses to transcend local markets, to create new products, service to not just serve the local market but the global market? How do we equip our workers with the skills to capture these new opportunities?

I always encourage our businesses to strengthen their capabilities; to compete on quality and standards, and not quantity or costs; to improve their speed to market, and also their speed to evolve. In today's world, competition is not just about being able to produce better-quality products, it is increasingly about our ability to evolve products, services, production systems and speed in response to the changes in the market.

This applies to governments as well to keep pace with the demands of the market and businesses.

If we do not move quickly to foster the right environment to allow businesses to mobilise capital, aggregate talent and protect intellectual property, we will be bypassed. By doing so, the Government will be able to attract a new generation of businesses that are less dependent on previous factors of production. The ability to evolve will also make it difficult for us to be displaced in the global value chain.

Finally, we are also witnessing widening disparity in incomes, both across and within economies.

A recent United Nations report showed that more than two-thirds of the world population live in countries with a growing wealth gap. If left unchecked, this will increase resistance to globalisation, trade openness and connectivity and regional integration; all of these are critical factors that have contributed to our success.

There are no silver bullets - we are always dealing with trade-offs in public policy. In the face of this delicate balance, governments must strive for the courage to:

• Press on with sound, coherent and long-term policies;

• Help businesses and workers embrace new realities; and

• Ensure that the fruits of growth are enjoyed by all.

Tasks ahead for the Government

So how do we continue to succeed? If I may offer three hypotheses:

First, the Government's role as regulator should not be seen as purely defensive play.

Regulation often lags behind innovation, especially when it straddles multiple domains, or when traditionally distinct sectors merge. Our goal is not to play catch-up reactively. We want to be a proactive enabler of innovation, opportunity and growth.

Our Pro-Enterprise Panel (PEP) plays a vital role in ensuring that we keep abreast of the concerns of our business leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators. Since its founding in 2000, the PEP has taken in over 2,000 suggestions. More than half of these have contributed to concrete regulatory changes.

How can we ensure that our regulations are consistent, predictable and serve the public interest, while allowing new business ideas to germinate?

Our regulatory sandboxes in fintech, healthcare, energy, and more, play a critical role. PEP's New Idea Scheme also enables businesses and agencies to accelerate and standardise the facilitation of new ideas, especially for those which might not fall neatly under current regulatory frameworks.

Through levers such as regulation, we will continue to ensure that our businesses stand ready to capture emerging opportunities in new sectors, so as to entrench ourselves in critical parts of the global value chain.

Second, if the market is unable to deliver a fair and just outcome to allow our businesses and people to fulfil their potential, then the Government will step in, to balance social and economic objectives.

As a small, open economy, issues of resource allocation relate directly to our survival. From our public housing programmes and implementation of the Ethnic Integration Policy to mandating national service soon after independence - none of these would have happened if left to the market alone.

These may not always be popular decisions. But with the faith and industry of our people, they were given a chance to succeed. More importantly, we apply models in context for our own circumstances.

More recently, our efforts in ensuring our trade security and supply chain resilience show the vital role of the Government, especially in domains which businesses cannot navigate on their own, particularly in a crisis.

At the height of the pandemic, we sprang into action to keep our supply chains open and our trade flows moving; we also worked with our businesses and partners across all sectors in implementing their business continuity plans, from manpower to logistics and supply chains. It was a whole-of-nation effort.

While border closures and trade restrictions created uncertainty around the world, we resisted the temptation to nationalise any essential goods, and sought instead to diversify our sources of supply. In a world where populist voices often speak louder than sound policy, it is ever more crucial that we build a foundation of trust, and remain committed to the well-being of our people.

Finally, to achieve this, we will continue to strengthen public-private-people collaboration.

Our strong culture of tripartism between workers, businesses and the Government has been a defining contributor to our success. To solve the increasing number of wicked problems that we face today, we need to bring diverse groups together in finding common ground.

Our efforts in open innovation challenges with government agencies and corporates, through the Open Innovation Network and National Innovation Challenges, embody this spirit of collective problem-solving.

We also continue to experiment with new modes of public-private collaboration.

So moving forward, it is crucial that we continue to strengthen our engagement with our workers and businesses, to ensure that our policies continue to serve the needs of diverse groups among us.

Ultimately, there is no secret formula. Governance is about applying what is the most appropriate in each instance. Our role is both fluid and multifaceted, but we are undergirded by immutable principles, which is our commitment to transparency, consistency, and accountability.

Our success thus far could not have been possible without cohesion and understanding, achieved through the high level of trust between people and the Government.

Perhaps the success for Singapore is that we were able to do the simple things consistently, cohesively and with discipline. So the secret isn't with what we do, but how we have done so.

Going forward, there will still be many difficult problems for us to solve. But ultimately, the ability to get things done will rest not just on who has the superior solutions, but who is able to execute the solutions well as a people.

If we continue to maintain our cohesion and have the intellectual rigour to keep challenging ourselves, then I am confident that we will continue to do well.