ST-MCCY roundtable: Getting together in agile fashion to turn headwinds into tailwinds

The country's next steps will be to examine new opportunities that present themselves, said PSA International group chief executive Tan Chong Meng.
The country's next steps will be to examine new opportunities that present themselves, said PSA International group chief executive Tan Chong Meng.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah (centre) with panellists at The Straits Times roundtable on Singapore Together through alliances (from left), Dr Gillian Koh, Mr Tan Chong Meng and Ms Melissa Kwee, and moderator Zakir Hussain.
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah (centre) with panellists at The Straits Times roundtable on Singapore Together through alliances (from left), Dr Gillian Koh, Mr Tan Chong Meng and Ms Melissa Kwee, and moderator Zakir Hussain.ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - In some ways, the Covid-19 pandemic was a rude shock that forced Singapore to re-examine aspects of its economic transformation strategy by exposing the weak spots, said PSA International group chief executive Tan Chong Meng.

Many of these trends, such as changes in consumer behaviour due to digitalisation and a greater emphasis on sustainability, were not brand new, he added.

But the pandemic threw them all into sharp relief, disrupting supply chains and connectivity, and putting a halt to global travel.

"Are we truly resilient? Is our economy really strong?" said Mr Tan, who co-chairs the Emerging Stronger Taskforce set up to guide the country's economic recovery.

"Are there places in our economy where we have actually been taking our time, and we are not prepared to be fully engaged... and growing in a more digitally enabled economy, never mind a sustainably driven one?"

These are questions that Singapore will have to grapple with as it forges ahead, and these are best tackled through collaborations like the Alliances for Action (AfAs), Mr Tan told a roundtable of public and private sector thought leaders.

"These can be headwinds, but if we get them right, they can also be tailwinds to help us pivot to a different set of priorities," he added.

Building on these, the country's next steps will be to examine new opportunities that present themselves and take action that will see it through the next five to 10 years of economic growth, he said.

Much of the discussion revolved around such industry-led alliances, which were formed to devise ideas and generate jobs in areas such as sustainability, robotics and education technology. These coalitions are designed to be agile and bring together a variety of players in differing fields of expertise.

It was these AfAs that shone the light on the vulnerabilities in the economy, said Mr Tan. These include challenges faced by Singapore's small and medium-sized enterprises, and difficulties of workers in keeping up with new productivity-based solutions for work.

The people who come together under the AfA umbrella may have previously been kept in "verticals" - that is, in their own niches - but are now coming together to address complex issues with the aim of creating something "bigger than any of us individually", he added.

Mr Tan drew a distinction between the work of AfAs and government agencies, which tend to move at a slower pace. "Policymaking often tries to get to a more perfect answer that is rarely available at a given time. This approach gives us more agility," he said.

"It leads you to solving the deeper, longer-term challenges while at the same time keeping ourselves very focused on delivering quick outcomes," he said, adding that the overarching goal is not for AfAs to be a one-hit wonder but aim for a "longer-term moonshot".

On the economic front, the pandemic has made everyone sit up, noted Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah.

"(They) say, 'OK, it's time to transform. It's time to really change the way we are doing things, and the change cannot be a superficial change - it has to be a permanent change; a structural change,' " she said.

But this will ultimately stand Singapore in good stead for the next crisis, Mr Tan said. "If Virus X comes, I think we will be more able to cope with anything that is thrown at us."