Covid-19 pandemic opens doors for firms to shape fairer, greener, more inclusive future: Finance Minister Lawrence Wong

Singapore is capitalising on new growth opportunities in sustainability, including in areas such as agritech and green finance. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - Two years ago, like many people around the world, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong had not heard of video-conferencing app Zoom.

He preferred to meet people for discussions and scoffed at the idea of having virtual meetings, he said.

Yet today, nearly all his work meetings are conducted online.

"I've found them to be equally effective in getting things done. I'm sure many of you share a similar experience," he told a group of corporate leaders on Wednesday (Sept 8).

Speaking on the theme of Asia's Renaissance: The New Era Of Recovery And Reopening at the Singapore Institute of Directors Conference, Mr Wong added that traditional barriers to digital adoption are falling, especially in industries that were slow to adapt before.

This will likely speed up digital transformation in sectors such as energy, construction and other domestic services, where there are still many opportunities for digital solutions to generate new value and productivity gains, he said.

He added that Covid-19 is likely to become yet another endemic disease that people will have to learn to live with, such as chicken pox and influenza.

"So we can't talk about post-Covid-19 anymore because Covid-19 will continue to be with us.

"But at some point, the pandemic will end, and we must start preparing now for this new post-pandemic world."

Mr Wong said Covid-19 has accelerated other trends, including the importance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues in business.

Governments everywhere today recognise that globalisation and free market competition create efficiencies but also vulnerabilities, he added.

"We know that left to market forces, the fruits of growth will not be so evenly distributed. We also know that corporates will always tend to optimise from their own perspectives, and may not maximise the common good.

"So there is a greater role for the government to step in, and work with the private sector, to address our collective concerns, be it for more resilient supply chains or to tackle the threat of climate change."

He pointed out that all this is a positive catalyst for ESG, which was once seen as a niche but is now increasingly mainstream.

Investors worldwide, he noted, are starting to use ESG matrices in measuring the sustainability of their investments.

"Compared with Europe and America, Asia has been somewhat of a laggard in ESG investing. But post-pandemic, I have no doubt that we will see Asia catching up."

Singapore has and will continue to capitalise on these trends, he said, by investing heavily in digital infrastructure, including expanding 5G coverage to the entire island by 2025, and helping businesses harness new technologies.

It is also making supply chains more resilient and has launched the Singapore Green Plan with ambitious targets over the next decade.

The country is capitalising on new growth opportunities in sustainability, including in areas such as agritech and green finance.

Urging businesses to adjust to the post-pandemic world, Mr Wong noted that while some local firms are keeping pace with the best in the world, others continue to lag behind.

Some have told him that they are struggling to survive and deal with basic issues like manpower shortages and the cost of doing business, and so do not have the bandwidth to worry about other matters.

"But if we do not start thinking ahead and acting now, the gap between leaders and laggards will continue to widen, and the need to restructure and transform will likely increase in the future," said Mr Wong.

"So firms have to continually innovate. They have to look at ways to optimise their operations, reconfigure processes to be more efficient, and to bring productivity up a notch."

Some firms can look to expand overseas while others may need to pivot to adjacent emerging sectors. Others, he added, may have to consolidate and merge to become stronger.

"All this is part of the creative destruction we see in any dynamic economy - where firms with new ideas and innovation will render existing models obsolete, and thus replace existing jobs and activities. This ensures the continued renewal and rejuvenation of our businesses," he said.

Stressing the Government's readiness to partner businesses in their transformation journey, he said that the pandemic may have closed some doors but is opening many others.

"It has created the possibility for change and reform. It is up to us to seize this opportunity and to shape a fairer, greener and more inclusive future together.

"We cannot sit back and just hope for the best. We must be the ones to make things happen and usher in a new renaissance for Asia and for Singapore."

The two-day conference is being held in a hybrid format on Wednesday and Thursday.

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