Expectations of a detailed map for the future, dotted with big new ideas, are out of sync with the thrust of the Committee on the Future Economy. Yet these surfaced in some responses to its report released last week. Those who found it "underwhelming" might have anticipated a top-down script, specifying the winners and what is expected of players. Yet the blueprints of past committees have been criticised for not providing "broad-based support" to all players and for adhering to "command planning". This time, a broad strategic approach was adopted, given the complexities facing the nation.
A mismatch between public expectations and sober realities would bode ill for the economy because the future calls for a more participatory and collaborative agenda. The Government has roles to play in crucial areas but it cannot order the future economy by diktat. That is so particularly because the future is likely to hinge on the collective response of people to sweeping changes.
Essentially, the future economy calls for certain mindsets. Being open to trade, talent and ideas, for example, will be more important. That means being open to tapping the best, regardless of background of race, language, religion, or origin. It means overcoming the latent antipathy to workers from foreign shores, which seeped into public consciousness in recent years. Singapore cannot be a global hub with walls. Those running enterprises also need to learn to connect and partner each other more in order to innovate. And employers must support job seekers who make sacrifices to learn new skills, by giving them a chance to learn more on the job, rather than insisting on prior experience or favoured paper qualifications.
Civil servants, too, will have to think differently. For example, they will increasingly have to reconcile competing policy demands, like safeguarding public resources while heeding the call to be less risk-averse. Agencies might take steps that dovetail with established policy or fulfil institutional goals, but they should guard that the overall effect does not impede the development of the future economy. Some rules, for example, might catch innovators by surprise and result in investment losses. Others might protect the interests of certain groups but at the expense of entrepreneurial scope in an emerging field.
The future economy will never arrive if Singaporeans work at cross-purposes. The overall impact of the "accumulation of many small decisions" taken by different agencies should not be ignored, as noted by a senior civil servant. Similarly, progress will be impeded if the many decisions typically made in the private sector, or the personal sphere, lack understanding of the wider context of disruption unfolding all round. The committee has made clear it has no "silver bullet" for the future, which everyone must pitch in to make.