Think of the economy as a social ecosystem, says Tharman

Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said Singapore has managed the pandemic's spread well while keeping its workers safe.
Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said Singapore has managed the pandemic's spread well while keeping its workers safe.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Countries have to avoid thinking about economic objectives as separate from social objectives, said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Thursday (Nov 19).

"If you are not socially sustainable, you are not going to have a competitive economy in the long term," he said, adding that this is something seen across the world.

Speaking during a virtual dialogue at the Singapore Tech Forum, Mr Tharman said a competitive and efficient economy can create a lot more opportunities for people.

But if left entirely to the market, these opportunities become more polarised over time, with those who have an advantage staying ahead and those who start off with less ending up with less, he noted.

"But if you think of an economy as a social ecosystem - not just a business ecosystem - you are able to create opportunities, starting upstream in education, but moving into work, because work is still fundamental to any sense of equality of opportunity," he said.

This will help create a society where everyone feels they and their children are more likely to do well if the economy is doing well, said the Coordinating Minister for Social Policies.

Conversely, in a society that lacks cohesion and has divisions widening over time, it is very hard to sustain an economic strategy that involves being open, finding the most efficient ways of doing things, and being able to grow, he added.

Mr Tharman noted that Singapore is one of the few advanced countries that has managed to sustain the middle majority of its society moving up over the decades.

It has managed to lift up those lower down the ladder not just by tax and transfer, but also by improving jobs, he added.

"There is still a significant work to be done, significant collaboration to upskill people and help them to take opportunities and move up. It will make us a better society. We are not at all done."

Asked by moderator Koh Shiyan from venture capital firm Hustle Fund on his views about culture and social resilience required, Mr Tharman said a sense of "togetherness" among people is needed. 

That is different from conformity, different from just sameness, he noted.

"We need a sense of togetherness, but at the same time that we need a greater sense of individualism in thinking, in creating, in wanting to do things differently. And that is not a contradiction."

Unlike the old model of a certain conformity and moving together that East Asia was known for some time ago, the new model is about developing a streak of wanting to be different, but at the same time retaining a sense of togetherness in society, he said.

And I think we can achieve that...You need to have the that sense of individualism in thinking, without being socially individualistic, or where you try to elbow other people out."

Mr Marc Benioff, who is the chair, chief executive and founder of tech firm Salesforce, also participated in the dialogue.

Singapore is a safe haven for companies around the world to do business due to its good governance, he said, citing the country's response to Covid-19.

Unlike many places in the world, Singapore has managed the pandemic's spread well while keeping its workers safe, he added.

During a recent visit to Singapore, Mr Benioff said his employees told him they felt quite safe, and he felt free to meet with customers and conduct business.

"I can work while I was there, wow, that is very important. A functional government that can operate and keep the economy going during a crisis," he said.

The Singapore Tech Forum, a global industry and networking event in its third-year running, is organised by the Singapore Global Network - a division of the Economic Development Board - and the Government Technology Agency (GovTech).