Act now to digitalise, or Singapore risks losing competitive edge: Chan Chun Sing

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing stressed that companies should not be preparing to return to business as usual. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - If Singapore does not act now to transform its economy, it risks losing its hub status and seeing its businesses' and workers' competitive edge erode, said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing on Tuesday (Sept 22).

He stressed that companies should not be preparing to return to business as usual, adding that digital transformation is the key to helping the country thrive and transcend "the tyranny of geography", in reference to Singapore's small size.

Now is the time to re-engineer processes, build a new economy, and transform to create the right opportunities for businesses and people, said Mr Chan, who was speaking at the opening of the Future Economy Conference and Exhibition.

"Digital transformation will truly unlock for us the world as our hinterland and market," he added. "But that is if we make the right moves now, harness the power of digital to grow our businesses, drive our economic recovery, redefine our competitiveness and relevance to the world."

More than 1,000 business leaders registered for the two-day conference, which is being held online. It is focused on how businesses can rebuild in the new normal using digital tools such as data analytics. The 19 speakers include representatives from United Overseas Bank, online payments giant PayPal and professional services firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers, who shared their experiences going digital.

At the virtual meeting, it was also announced that the Singapore Business Federation and Infocomm Media Development Authority have renewed an agreement to continue driving digital transformation across the business community and to position firms to seize opportunities over the next three years.

One speaker, Aviva Asia executive chairman Chris Wei, noted that making use of data was key to the insurance giant's digital strategy. This meant using data to make it easier for existing customers to make claims, and to increase operational efficiency and achieve growth.

But to do this, the organisation's culture has had to change, he said, adding that there was a "massive clash of culture" when Aviva first embarked on its digitalisation journey.

"It really does require leadership, it requires a lot of time, a lot of mediation, to make sure that priorities are aligned," said Mr Wei, who is also global chairman for Aviva Digital.

"It needs leadership from the top... the CEO needs to be personally engaged, and whoever's responsible for digital has to spend the time and get into the nuts and bolts of the detail."

Another speaker, Ms Janet Young, who is UOB's head of group channels and digitalisation, pointed out that her organisation - like many other established firms here - is no digital native.

"They're not born digital. They're not digital natives... But you have to become digital," she said.

In the bank's case, it looked to transform its business as a whole and reach a new "digital generation" of customers, rather than just using technology to plug gaps. "Don't digitise inefficient processes, but truly look at the opportunities that would come about," Ms Young added.

In his speech, Mr Chan noted that the pandemic has accelerated the pace of digitalisation. Going digital comes with challenges, but these should not prevent the Government, businesses or individuals from working towards change, he added.

"Be it digitalisation or globalisation, they require us as individuals and businesses to adjust and adapt. To not do so, to resist change, inevitably means that we will be left further behind."

He stressed: "The faster we adapt, the faster we recover. There is no place for treading water and waiting for normalcy to return. Others will overtake us, and the opportunities will pass us by."

At the same time, 1,000 digital ambassadors have been deployed to help the less tech-savvy segments of society keep up. Placements, traineeships and skills upgrading under the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package and other reskilling programmes like the Tech Skills Accelerator have also been ramped up, Mr Chan said.

"As our people gain new skills, the digital challenge will become less daunting," he added. "And we will become more productive, be able to take on higher value-added job roles, gain greater job satisfaction and, ultimately, form the digital backbone that every company needs to power... business transformation."

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