After more than 50 years of drawing big foreign firms to Singapore's shores, the Economic Development Board's (EDB) "new job" was now "to create billion-dollar businesses" in Singapore from ventures of any size, start-ups and multinational corporations (MNCs) alike, chiefly by tapping the richer and maturing markets of South-east Asia.
EDB chairman Beh Swan Gin set out the organisation's new focus at the fifth EDB-ST forum on the Republic's future prospects at the Arts House yesterday. The dialogue was with businessman Koh Boon Hwee, banker Peter Seah and 230 EDB Society members and Straits Times readers.
This paradigm shift in focus came right after Forbes magazine announced its latest Global 2000 rankings of the world's most powerful and profitable listed companies. DBS Group Holdings, chaired by Mr Seah, OCBC Bank and Singtel were the highest-ranked among the 17 Singapore companies on the list, compared with 20 last year.
Dr Beh added that the billion-dollar dream was within Singaporeans' sights if they did more business regionally, as South-east Asians now have incomes of between $10,000 and $15,000 per middle-class household monthly.
Better yet, Mr Koh noted, there were now many more bright and gutsy young Singaporeans fronting start-ups here, and finding plenty of seed money for them to do so. In the last 10 years, he added, "the eco-system around entrepreneurship has improved dramatically. If you say you cannot find seed and angel funding in Singapore today, I would say you are incapable of becoming an entrepreneur."
He seconded Dr Beh's point that the region was where Singapore's economic future lay, urging entrepreneurs here to be regional business "enablers", rather than try to be "another Google or Facebook".
In that, Mr Seah said business people here should accept the lack of a domestic market, be nimble to harness new technologies and spend whatever it takes to train workers for a future in which they would keep having to change jobs, and perhaps even lose them to robots.
The panellists also tried to correct the common misperception that the Government has since Independence pursued a growth strategy heavily reliant on MNCs to the exclusion of SMEs. "It is not an issue of either-or," said Mr Koh, the first Singaporean to head an MNC - Hewlett-Packard - here.
When forum moderator Han Fook Kwang, who is ST's editor-at-large, wondered how worried Singaporeans should be about the last four years of slow growth, Dr Beh said he was sanguine, and 1.85 per cent growth in GDP yearly was par for the course for developed countries.
Mr Koh disagreed, saying, to his mind, "three to seven years of really slow growth is actually the worst possible scenario for Singapore". He said he much preferred a sharp economic downturn, when everyone would spring to action.
As for shaping a Singaporean core within the workforce, Mr Koh said: "If two candidates for a job are equally good, I choose the Singaporean. It's logical and it's what other countries do."
Even so, Dr Beh urged all to consider growing the core by welcoming anyone who "wants to call Singapore home". He added: "Ourselves, our parents, our grandparents, we were foreigners also at one time. That's our heritage."
What it should have been (published on May 31, 2016)
In last Saturday's story, "EDB's new job: Create billion-dollar businesses", we wrongly quoted businessman Koh Boon Hwee as saying: "If two candidates for a job are equally good, I choose the Singaporean. It's logical and it's what other countries do." It was actually banker Peter Seah who said this.
We are sorry for the error.