Parliament: Help local firms grow by helping them to play a significant role in rail expansion, says Ang Wei Neng

An engineer checking equipment that controls air-conditioning and tunnel ventilation at the Tampines West station on Sept 22, 2017.
An engineer checking equipment that controls air-conditioning and tunnel ventilation at the Tampines West station on Sept 22, 2017.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

SINGAPORE - As the Government pumps in billions of dollars to expand Singapore's rail network, it should also try to ensure local companies are brought along on the journey, Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) said in Parliament on Wednesday (Feb 28).

Mr Ang, who is chief executive of transport group ComfortDelGro's taxi business, was making the larger point that local companies should be helped to become competitive not just locally, but also regionally or even globally.

Currently, local construction companies typically take on the role of sub-contractors to large foreign companies that undertake most of the train tunnelling work here, Mr Ang said. These foreign firms include Japan-based Nishimatsu Construction, China-based Shanghai Tunnel Engineering Co and German-based Zublin.

Similarly for rolling stock, which includes trains and the signalling system, or the brain of the train system, the main providers are foreign firms such as Thales from France, Alstom or Siemens from Germany, Bombardier from Canada and Kawasaki from Japan, he added.

Many of these large foreign players grew with the support of their own governments, he said.

Noting that Singapore plans to double its rail network length to 360km by 2030, Mr Ang said while it may not be feasible to grow local firms into international giants overnight, the Government could perhaps require overseas firms involved in local train projects to form joint ventures with local companies.

This would allow Singapore firms to learn from these foreign giants, he added.

He said: "For the first 180km of MRT lines, our local firms played a supplementary role in building, supplying and upgrading the MRT system. For the next 180km, I hope our local companies can play a significant role in building, supplying and upgrading the Singapore MRT system that we can be proud of."

Touching on a similar theme, Ms Cheryl Chan (Fengshan SMC) noted that Singapore's competition is no longer local.

"Regional, global markets with substantive scale and actively hunting for talents are what constitutes our competition," she said in her speech.

To face this more dynamic business landscape, companies must be forward-looking in job creation, such as fully embracing the hiring of senior workers and hiring mid-career workers who have retrained themselves in new skills but may not have relevant prior working experience, she said.

"Today, hiring managers are very focused on past relevant experience and not the potential or the value-add that the candidate can bring to the job. This will limit how we can leverage the skills of the individual in adapting to uncertainty at the workplace," she said.

"I believe this is also one of the factors that stereotype and keep many in the mindset assuming older workers are a burden, whether in terms of health, efficiency or knowledge."

In his speech, Mr Ang said another important step forward for the Singapore economy is for regulations to keep up with a rapidly-evolving business landscape.

After all, many companies, especially the most successful ones, are providing services across different industries, he said.

For example, China's Alibaba offers services ranging from e-commerce to finance.

"We need to encourage such creative diversification from our own entrepreneurs. Hence, regulatory bodies need to rethink how to regulate such multi-modal industries or 'ecosystems' differently," he said.

"It is important to strike a balance between over-regulation which would stifle creativity, or under-regulation which might create unfair competition to existing players."

Noting that some observers have said traditional rule-making is unable to keep up with digital businesses, he suggested that the authorities could consider allowing industry players to design their own approach towards regulations.