SINGAPORE - Constant adaptation, restructuring and transformation have been central to Singapore's economic story over the decades, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Monday (Aug 31).
But even as the Republic adapts to change brought on by Covid-19, it needs to stay true to its values, he told Parliament during the debate on the President's Address.
In a speech outlining how Singapore needs to adapt as an economy, as a society and as a people, as it works to best ensure the survival and success of the country and improve its citizens' lives in these unprecedented times, Mr Heng highlighted four areas where the Republic needs to strengthen its economic capacity to emerge stronger.
First, Singapore needs to take an even more integrated and coordinated approach to economic transformation, he said.
He noted that the Republic's economy has multiple stakeholders, and tripartism - the Government, businesses and the labour movement working together - has been a tremendous source of strength in the system.
But there is room for greater collaboration, he said, citing the Netherlands and its "triple helix" model of innovation where government, businesses and academia work together to build knowledge, test prototypes and scale innovation.
"Singapore can build on our tripartite partnership to be a test-bed that create deeper linkages with an expanded set of stakeholders - including our education and research institutions, our community groups, and interested partners from around the world," said Mr Heng. This can create good jobs for Singaporeans and new opportunities for entrepreneurs, he added.
Second, Singapore must redouble its efforts to develop everyone to his fullest potential, so that its people can take on new opportunities and flourish in their chosen pursuits, said Mr Heng, who is also Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies and Finance Minister.
"We need a holistic approach for this that spans the lifetime of individuals, from birth to pre-school to schools, all the way to lifelong learning as part of SkillsFuture," he said, noting that workers are embracing upskilling, with about half a million people taking part in SkillsFuture programmes in 2019.
The country has to explore new possibilities for developing its people fully, Mr Heng emphasised, highlighting that the National Research Foundation is supporting research programmes that address the broader goal of enhancing human potential through measures during pregnancy and childhood, including nutrition, parenting and learning.
Third, Singapore must strengthen its path-finding capacity to find new bright spots amid economic disruption, Mr Heng said, pointing to the Emerging Stronger Taskforce that was set up four months ago to identify and seize new opportunities in emerging trends.
"The ideas being explored are promising. They range from environmental sustainability to smart commerce, supply chain digitalisation and the use of robotics. These can create new growth markets for our businesses and good jobs for Singaporeans," he added.
For example, many hawkers and small businesses islandwide are going digital, Mr Heng said, citing a fruit seller known as "Ah Boy" who operates a stall in the market and food centre at Block 58 New Upper Changi Road. In addition to the physical stall, the hawker also sells his fruits online and takes orders through text messaging service Whatsapp, he added.
In addition, Singapore will invest in incubating and accelerating start-ups, and supporting established companies to expand their research and development to build competitive strengths, Mr Heng said.
"Such a vibrant innovation ecosystem will build up our path-finding capabilities."
Fourth, the Republic must find new ways to be a vital node with rich and deep interconnections with the rest of the world, Mr Heng said, noting that being open is its strength and opportunity given its position as a small city-state.
"We cannot take for granted that, in a post-Covid-19 world, we can continue to be the same kind of hub that we used to be. We must therefore forge new forms of connections, such as digital economy agreements, while deepening our linkages with regional markets to ride on Asia's potential," he added.
Mr Heng also emphasised the need for Singapore to remain open to investment and talent from around the world, acknowledging that many Singaporeans are anxious about their livelihoods.
"Our starting point is that our economic strategies must serve the interests of Singaporeans," he said, adding that the foreign investments attracted must create meaningful jobs for Singaporeans and strengthen the country's corporate ecosystem, and Singaporeans must receive fair consideration in the workplace.
Manpower policies are being adapted to changing circumstances to ensure that Singaporeans' interests are upheld, Mr Heng said, but Singapore must resist the temptation to turn inwards.
"We cannot close ourselves to the world, or make foreigners unwelcome in our society."
The best way to serve the interests of Singaporeans, he said, is to ensure that Singapore remains useful and relevant to the world by keeping its economy vibrant and competitive, so that Singaporeans and other people choose to be here to invest and do business, thereby creating good jobs and opportunities for all.
Singapore must also continue to develop its people fully to have the confidence to seize new opportunities post-Covid-19, including by working with partners from around the world.
Responding to labour MP Patrick Tay's suggestion to refresh and relook the Industry Transformation Maps to address the challenges ahead, Mr Heng said that Singapore should enhance the linkages between what it does to develop its people and job creation, in the form of skills maps, job redesign and reskilling workers to take on new job opportunities.
"In particular, we must also make a deliberate effort to develop Singaporeans for leadership roles in companies, so that they can take Singapore forward. Singapore, as a regional operational headquarters, has what it takes. Singaporeans, in a multiracial, multi-religious, multicultural environment, can connect with people all around us and build deep linkages with our friends in the region," he added.
As Singapore adapts to a changing world, it needs to stay true to its values, such as its sense of unity as a people and its composition as a multicultural society, Mr Heng said.
"We must stay true to our value to the world as an oasis of harmony in this fractious world."