The Committee on the Future Economy would have had an outsized job if it was meant to produce a blueprint, complete with "killer" 21st century business ideas to keep the economy aloft in both the near and distant future. Such crystal ball gazing on a national scale would be beyond even the most high-powered committee, as the future is unknowable, particularly in a world fraught with uncertainty. Rather, the exercise is akin to an effort to scan the horizon amid much disruption and change, and establish signposts and markers to point the way forward.
The committee's report, released on Thursday, is timely, given the nature of the growth one can expect, the changing profile of manpower, job disruptions being wrought by technology, creative destruction of markets, and widespread backlash against globalisation, whose effects are only starting to be felt. The vision is to position Singapore as a global city that is "open to trade, people and ideas", and has deep capabilities that will allow its people and companies to "seize the opportunities in the world". Conversely, turning inwards and viewing diversity with suspicion would narrow the nation's options and severely crimp growth. To avoid that fate, the committee has mapped seven broad strategies to help businesses and people remain relevant in the future.
Unlike previous high-level economic committees, the latest one was not convened to deal with a recession. But the need to act is no less urgent as the nation has to find a way forward in volatile circumstances and amid unsettling geostrategic shifts. As a small, open economy, Singapore is not in a position to shape the global mood. Instead, it has to spot emerging trends, adapt and prepare to ride the waves, as it has done for 50 years. This time, the task is much tougher than those undertaken before because it calls for nothing less than a transformation of industries, and the mass upskilling of workers for jobs that are still evolving.
It has become harder to identify with certainty which industries will succeed, and which jobs will remain relevant over time. Businesses will have to weigh risks, make key decisions and reinvent themselves in the face of disruption. And workers will have to be prepared to learn and relearn new skills - and deepen their knowledge - as the job landscape changes. Enterprise and manpower are two central pillars upon which the growth of the nation rests. Getting either wrong would hold far-reaching implications, as social needs rise due to demographic changes. This is the backdrop against which political, business and union leaders will have to take risks, strike out boldly and cut losses when the situation calls for it. Tripartism everywhere could face its greatest test yet should the global climate turn adverse in the future. In Singapore, however, it is likely to persevere, if past lessons of collaboration are not forgotten.