Singapore economy must transform, like Disney's shift from Mickey to Star Wars: Ong Ye Kung

Star Wars fans coming face to face with Stormtroopers and the TIE fighter at Changi Airport last November. Over the years, US film company Disney has shifted its focus from cartoons featuring Mickey Mouse to blockbuster movies based on Marvel superhe
Star Wars fans coming face to face with Stormtroopers and the TIE fighter at Changi Airport last November. ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG
"We cannot fail the young," said Acting Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung.
"We cannot fail the young," said Acting Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - Acting Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung believes the way Hollywood's movie giant Walt Disney has changed over the years holds a lesson for Singapore.

Initially, its focus was on marketing iconic cartoon characters Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

Today, the spotlight is on the superheroes of Marvel comics fame and the Star Wars series.

Similarly, Singapore's economy needs to transform itself to be more competitive and attractive so that it does not fail its young.

"For the young, their biggest concern is their jobs and their career. What are the opportunities for them?" he said on Monday (Jan 18), his mind on the projected slowdown in economic growth in the coming years and Singapore's drive to restructure its economy to keep growing.


"We cannot fail the young," he added.

Mr Ong, who was speaking about inclusive growth at an annual conference on Singapore by the Institute of Policy Studies, helms the higher education and skills portfolio.

He cited strategies that will play a crucial role in Singapore's economic transformation.

These include the five-year Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 scheme that will pump $19 billion into science and technology, and SkillsFuture, which promotes lifelong learning for workers to stay skilful and relevant.

But two experts said they worry Singapore's sputtering productivity can be a blight on its economic future. They are Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Chua Hak Bin and former government chief economist Tan Kong Yam.

Mr Ong said he shared concerns that "the Committee on the Future Economy (will) end up just tinkering and not doing something bold that can transform us just like Walt Disney".

Mr Ong is a member of the 30-member committee, led by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, that will produce plans for the next phase of Singapore's development.

"We must find a way to translate research to innovation, innovation to enterprise," Mr Ong said. "Research converts money to discovery, and innovation, discovery to business ideas. Enterprise converts business ideas back to money, hopefully more than when we started. So we have to push forward."

In his speech, Mr Ong said Singapore's progress and prosperity have raised incomes, and helped lower-income families.

But he also acknowledged the prevailing concerns over social mobility and income inequality.

The question of how to achieve inclusive growth - which he said is "elusive" - points to the need of a system that best delivers dignity and pride for its people.

This is regardless of whether government policies lean left or right, he added.

While the Government has taken steps to help those left behind, such as the Workfare Income Supplement for lower-wage workers and the Silver Support Scheme for poor elderly people, Mr Ong said: "If you look further left, there are still more left policies on the table for debate."

These include having a national minimum wage as opposed to a sectoral one as is the case now, or defining "absolute poverty", he added.

On the opposite end are extreme right policies, like further restricting - or freezing - the inflow of foreign workers, or nationalising some companies and having them contribute to national coffers, he said.

"Ultimately, we don't move left for the sake of moving left. We don't move right for the sake of moving right... we decide on what policies will best serve the welfare of our people and help achieve that elusive inclusive growth."

One measure towards inclusive growth that Mr Ong noted is happiness, of which an important part is philanthropy. If top-income earners volunteer, the "psychological disparity" can be narrowed, he said.

Mr Yeoh Lam Keong, former chief economist of sovereign wealth fund GIC, argued that more could be done for the lower-income by, for example, increasing payouts for redistributive schemes. This will cost 0.7 per cent to 0.8 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product, he projected.

Replying, Mr Ong said it is not that straightforward: "You need to ask how to implement, at what cost, who pays, and in the long-term, what is the impact."

But, he added, "this is the direction the Government has been moving towards".