News analysis

Emerging Stronger Taskforce report: A long read, a few gems, and work in progress

The task force has identified five things Singapore needs to focus on to prepare its economy for the longer-term impact of the pandemic.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - The Emerging Stronger Taskforce's report is 118 pages long, but a Venn diagram on Page 38 neatly sums it up.

The diagram depicts the task force's vision of a Virtually Unlimited Singapore, one that sits at the intersection of three circles, or focus areas: creating new virtual frontiers; a sustainable nation; and one that is stronger together through public-private and international partnerships.

The two broad themes to guide this vision? Connectivity and sustainability.

Singapore must remain connected physically and digitally. It must also be sustainable - environmentally and economically, by including all segments of society.

There are a few things commendable about the report, and also a few issues to raise.

First, the extensive engagement of almost 2,000 private and public sector participants across 900 organisations.

The task force also reached out to those not directly involved in the industry-led Alliances for Action (AfAs), through Emerging Stronger Conversations with members of the public and civil society.

Some will argue the number is not large enough. But given the time constraints and Covid-19 restrictions, I would venture to say the organisers took a good stab at it.

Second, the strong emphasis on building capabilities.

The report's recommendations vary according to sector. In those hardest-hit by the pandemic such as tourism, workers must retrain to move quickly into new or adjacent job roles, while those in growth sectors should be ready to "regear with future skills and competencies".

The report also calls on firms to work with unions on "preventive or predictive upskilling" - in short, identifying job disruption and training needs early on.

This differentiated approach makes sense for training providers and planners.

But workers themselves may not understand training in such granular terms. Employers will need to communicate how the training relates to their career pathways, and how it links back to the company's transformation.

Is moral suasion enough to do this? Or are stronger incentives and even penalties needed, to nudge employers to invest in training?

Third, the acknowledgement that failure can be expected, and progress is not linear. This is a bold position for any official report to take.

"In the spirit of entrepreneurship, and in line with the AfAs' 'start-up' approach, we should be prepared that not every AfA will succeed in the traditional sense of delivering the outcomes it had set out to achieve at the start," the report said, adding that AfAs could "graduate" in different ways.

The individual AfA case studies - where the scope of projects is clearly defined and there is industry buy-in - are where the report truly shines. These range from piloting autonomous vehicles, to hybrid travel conferences.

But taking things from the company or sub-sector to the industry level is a quantum leap. Challenges such as grooming local champions, for example, have been discussed for years.

What is not that clear is how establishing economic AfAs under the Future Economy Council (FEC) will lead to systemwide change, or how they will be scaled up so that they are "a key enabler for transformative economic growth".

The report does state that the FEC, as the proposed custodian of these AfAs, should continue to refine the AfA model; and criteria should be set for commissioning and closing AfAs.

The FEC will also incorporate the task force's recommendations into ITM 2025, which charts a new way forward for the economy for the next five years, by institutionalising and scaling up AfAs.

Under ITM 2025, each of the existing 23 industry transformation maps (ITMs) and sector strategies will be refreshed.

In this regard, a few AfAs seem to have more of a head start.

The one on digitalising the built environment, for example, has set concrete targets on common data standards and the number of supply chain partners - no doubt spurred by the immediate need to build resilience in this sector during the pandemic.

Conversely, the conversation on edutech still largely revolves around building enablers to develop the sector, such as skills certification and analytics.

One does not dispute the importance of enabling continuing education through technology, or building consortiums to export Singapore's education products.

But it remains a challenge for the diverse private sector education stakeholders to scale up individually, let alone band together overseas.

Then there are the initiatives where the pace of adoption depends on how fast other countries can move.

Take strengthening digital connectivity in South-east Asia towards a single digital area, for instance.

Willing and able Asean members may work with one another to shape a common set of documents and guidelines. But the momentum is still largely driven by regional consensus, and not all the outcomes are binding.

The authors of the report have struck a delicate balance: Leave things too open-ended, and it risks being seen as wishy-washy. Be too prescriptive, and critics would accuse the authorities of heavy-handedness.

Those who are wedded to the idea of the Government having all the answers may be uncomfortable with the report.

Others who favour a flexible approach involving "trial and execution", as task force co-chairman Tan Chong Meng said, would find it assuring.

As his co-chairman, National Development Minister Desmond Lee, said on Monday (May 17), the work does not end here. What matters is whether workers and businesses benefit from the recommendations, and whether efforts are sustained beyond the report.

The task force's proposals are a good start, but Singaporeans will have to make meaning of how the proposals will impact their jobs and lives.

Businesses, too, must discuss what works for them and what does not, as the nation hurtles towards an uncertain post-Covid-19 future.