Thinking Aloud

Singapore must learn spirit of cooperation to survive disruption

Companies here need to overcome competitive instinct and work together. Regulators and leaders need to speak up, and help drive that integration and collaboration. Not doing so will ensure Singapore's economy dies a slow, complacent death.

Singapore is well into a new era economically, and it will have to change its ways quickly to survive in the new age.

The much-talked-about disruption is no longer out there in the future. It is very much with us. The fear is whether we are too late to respond to it.

Just how urgent the situation has become was driven home for me last week with two bits of news.

The first was the sudden announcement by listed taxi company ComfortDelGro on Tuesday, after the market had closed, that it was in talks with ride-sharing app provider Uber. When a traditional business considers getting into bed with the disrupter, you know things are heading for a crisis.

The second is the news that my own company, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), is exiting its stakes in two entities of media group Mediacorp, which in turn is turning its print tabloid Today into a digital-only news product. It's clearly a quid pro quo arrangement, with Mediacorp going back to TV, and SPH taking hold of the print space even as it pushes ahead with its forays into the multimedia digital world.

This came 17 years after Singapore's experiment with a media duopoly, with the print and broadcast companies both crossing into each other's territories.

As with other duopolistic structures created by regulators at that time, it was consistent with the ethos then, when the talk was about market liberalisation and competition.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

But perhaps those structures reinforced a mindset of domestic competition that has become an obstacle to a more collaborative mindset that Singapore needs today, in a global, digital-heavy economy where domestic borders matter much less.

Today, the talk is all about global markets, consolidation and collaboration. But within Singapore, the markets for key services had become fragmented. And the habit of competing had become entrenched in Singapore business leaders' mindsets.

 
 

Just as traditional taxi and media companies now have to dialogue with the disrupter, so too do many others. As an open economy, our companies are being buffeted by disruptive changes taking place outside.

Each day brings news of more companies consolidating, selling or buying new entities to integrate their operations.

American online giant Amazon entered the Singapore retail market recently with a modest rollout of its Prime Now service, promising two-hour deliveries of groceries and a limited range of other goods. It's only a matter of time before Amazon's vast marketplace of goods opens up here.

That might be good for consumers. But in business, analysts talk about the "Amazon Effect" - the chilling impact Amazon has on retail and sometimes the real economy when it enters a market.

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is already active here. It bought into South-east Asian e-commerce company Lazada and online grocer RedMart. Its bike-sharing company ofo is here, claiming over half the bike-sharing market, with more than 100,000 users clocking more than 20,000 bike journeys daily. Alipay, its e-payment system, will soon be ubiquitous.

While Singapore is used to foreign companies operating freely here, the difference is that the game these days is on a different level.

The digital economy and the use of technology and data mean that companies want touch points with customers across their lifestyles.

So Alibaba, for example, will know what you spend on, which groceries, electronics, clothes you buy, where you live and travel to on your bike. Once you have its Alipay app on your mobile phone, it can sell you more things, and gather more information on your habits, which it can then sell to advertisers.

One article in Fast Company magazine in March on innovative companies put it thus: "Hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers now depend on these all-in-one apps to do, well, everything: interact with friends; pay for cabs and utility bills; book hotels, flights, and even dentist appointments; find love; and read news."

Data is so important and potentially so valuable, it has been described as the new oil. Companies team up to get more data. Meanwhile, hundreds of small retailers, and logistics companies, risk being shut down.

I wonder if our regulators and companies sufficiently understand the new economic landscape. They can't operate under business-as-usual mode because the wave of change is already on our doorstep, and entering our homes. It will crescendo into a tsunami soon enough.

Singapore companies have to unlearn the habits of the 1990s, and pick up new mindsets, new tools for the 2020s.

First, they must set aside their natural instinct to compete domestically, and think of ways to collaborate and work together for regional impact.

It may not be easy for Singapore CEOs to get over their habit of competing, to cooperate with each other. Many Singaporean bosses are used to being chief decision-maker in our tiny little outfit, whatever it is. Collaborating means giving up total control and taking on board other interests to be as vital as your own.

We must learn to think differently. We have to think beyond fiefdom, to kingdom; beyond company, to country; beyond personal ego, to joint value.

Already, the failure to cooperate has cost us light years in e-payments. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted in his National Day Rally speech last Sunday, Singapore is surprisingly backward in its adoption of cashless payments for such a high-tech, advanced society.

One bright spot after PM Lee lamented the slow take-up of cashless payments is that Singaporean entrepreneur Tan Min-Liang of gaming company Razer offered to get a team going to set up an e-payment system in 18 months. PM Lee tweeted back asking for a report. Mr Tan is taking up the challenge.

It isn't just companies that need to cooperate. The public sector too should work with the private sector and seek their expertise. So, for example, government agencies putting out a request for ideas and crowd-sourcing for solutions for cashless payments in hawker centres and heartland shops is a good step.

Working individually may be good for your own organisation, but failing to work with others can set back the entire country. Singaporeans who go to Hong Kong have long wondered why their mass transit card Octopus is so widely used in shops, whereas Singapore has the ez-link card for trains and buses, the Nets card for shopping, and the CashCard for electronic road pricing.

Which brings me to the second point: Our regulators must step up.

Companies will have their own vested interests. They may not be inclined to collaborate even when there are benefits from it, or put it off until the situation is desperate, by which time it may be too late.

That's where regulators must play a role. The Land Transport Authority could have been faster to take the lead in restructuring the public transport landscape. The Monetary Authority of Singapore could have moved faster to get banks to cooperate on one e-payment app. It was only this year that PayNow was introduced.

Regulatory agencies must understand that their role is not just to set rules for today. They must be active in facilitating conditions for tomorrow. Step up, and use your regulatory influence to encourage collaboration where necessary. If that fails, use your power to compel.

Take a leaf from the Chinese, who two weeks ago announced something that again got my Singapore-worrier antenna up.

We know that America has its Google, Facebook, Apple, Netflix and Microsoft, each trying to create a digital universe to wall in customers and their data.

China too has its Internet giants - Alibaba in e-commerce, search engine Baidu and social media behemoth Tencent (of WeChat fame). They compete ferociously in China: In 2013, Alibaba bought Yahoo China to try to rival Baidu, while in 2014, Baidu and Tencent teamed up with Dalian Wanda, a real estate group, to create an e-commerce marketplace to take on Alibaba.

Even in communist-run China, competition is vital to keep companies' instincts sharp. But they come together when there is a state interest, and when the regulator steps in.

Just two weeks ago, news broke about a consortium being formed of about a dozen companies, including Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, insurer China Life Insurance, ride-hailing company DiDi Chuxing and Shenzhen-based Chinese technology conglomerate Kuang-Chi Group.

Their common purpose? Putting nearly US$12 billion (S$16.3 billion) of investments into state-owned China Unicom, a Shanghai telecoms company with a vast reach.

China wants to inject private capital to take its state-owned enterprises to a mixed-ownership model. In return, these investors will get seats on the board.

While there is market scepticism about whether the consortium partners were arm-twisted to accept the deal, and some confusion over the financing rollout, there is no denying that it's a good example of China Inc in action. It shows the political will of the regulator in dreaming up this deal and being willing to sacrifice control over the reformed state- owned enterprise (SOE). It also shows the willingness of fierce competitors to come together for a common good.

When an e-commerce giant, social media company, ride-sharing company and a big telco team up, what data can they unleash for their profits? China's SOE reforms will target banks and medical institutions next. We can only imagine the potential for profits and public good that can unlock. That ability to cross-fertilise functions is one reason that China is leading the world in digital technology.

I am certain that Singapore's business and public sector leaders have seen the future and know what is at stake.

They must know that Singapore is at risk of a complacent slide that will precipitate a quick drop into economic irrelevance. We tend to operate in silos still, behave as though it's business as usual, even as foreign competitors enter our shores.

The watchmen in the tower, who know how the world is changing, must speak up about the threats to our economy. Of course, we in the media too bear a responsibility to inform our readers just how, and how fast, the world is changing. This is essential to get Singaporeans to see the big picture.

And then our leaders must reach out to companies, find common ground and get them to work together so that Singapore companies can level up to embrace the digital economy.

In fact, Singapore's political and economic structure lends itself to collaborative efforts. Its political and public sector elite is interconnected, and via their frequent secondments to government-linked, Temasek-linked or labour movement-linked enterprises, they are also commercially influential.

Everybody more or less knows everybody important in Singapore. It should not be that difficult to reach out to work together.

As a journalist more used to writing on social or political issues than the economy, I hesitated before tackling this issue, which has been bugging me for a while.

In my job as a newspaper editor in charge of op-eds, I read scores of commentaries daily on a wide range of issues. Over the months, I became more aware of the widening gap between Singapore's complacent, peaceful economy - where a national task force is formed over infant milk powder - and the rapid pace of change in global businesses, where companies face extinction from disruption by digital platforms, drones and mergers.

They are here, in Singapore, amid us, disrupting our retailers, our neighbourhood stores, our drivers, our courier workers.

The future is here, and I fear we are not yet ready.

And yet, Singapore has so much going for us. We have smart people. Big, successful companies. Habits of hard work and enterprise. We need to adopt new habits of cooperation and collaboration, and have a more global mindset.

For that to happen, we need leaders in the public and private sectors, and regulators to step up. We need companies to adopt a global mindset, and we need to work together for the long haul.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 27, 2017, with the headline 'Singapore must learn spirit of cooperation to survive disruption'. Print Edition | Subscribe