Singapore can rebuild 'better, stronger, faster', like The Six Million Dollar Man: Indranee Rajah

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah said the key to doing so is enabling businesses to transform and workers to reskill. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - The Six Million Dollar Man, a TV classic, opens with these lines: "Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability... Better than he was before."

These words - originally referring to an astronaut who is rebuilt with superhuman capabilities following an accident - encapsulate Singapore's position now as the country works to recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, said Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah on Wednesday (March 17).

"I think we are exactly at that stage," she said at the Southeast Asia Development Symposium. "We do have the technology, we do have the capability, and we are trying to position ourselves to come out of that stronger."

The key to doing so is enabling businesses to transform and workers to reskill, with extra help going to lower-income, less well-educated workers, Ms Indranee added.

The minister was one of four speakers who shared ideas on solutions for a post-coronavirus world during a discussion moderated by CNBC senior correspondent Sri Jegarajah.

Topics that came up included financing regional economic recovery, sustainable development and changes in consumer patterns.

More than 3,000 people are expected to attend the two-day virtual conference organised by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Responding to a question on how Singapore plans to finance its economic transition given a tight fiscal backdrop, Ms Indranee noted that Singapore is fortunate in that it was able to deploy its reserves to tackle the problem.

On top of that, it is also looking at borrowing to fund "nationally significant infrastructure", and has indicated that the goods and services tax will have to go up. It has also signalled its intention to review the carbon tax, she added.

"But I think the key thing is really to focus on growth," Ms Indranee said. "Because growth is what brings the revenue that augments your corporate tax, your personal income tax, and it just gets the whole economy going."

The topic of financing was also addressed by Mr Ahmed M. Saeed, ADB's vice-president responsible for operations in East Asia, South-east Asia and the Pacific.

Already, governments in South-east Asia have spent $420 billion fighting the pandemic, he said. At the same time, their tax bases have been eroded, given the slowdown in the pace of economic activity.

Where the ADB can play a role is in helping countries collect taxes more efficiently and design programmes that are more progressive, Mr Saeed said.

He also spoke briefly on vaccinations, noting that in December, the ADB launched a US$9 billion (S$12 billion) vaccine financing facility to help developing countries in the region get access to vaccines.

But even as this is done, governments have to invest in recovery that is equitable, forward-looking and resilient, Mr Saeed added.

"If there's one thing this crisis has taught us, it is that there is a lot of fragility in our economic arrangements," he said. "I think that's an extraordinarily tall order, and all of that has to be done against a backdrop of governments that are stretched."

The other panellists were Grab group president Ming Maa and Morgan Stanley chief marketing and chief sustainability officer Audrey Choi, both of whom lent a private sector perspective to the discussion.

Mr Maa spoke of how consumer behaviour has changed since the pandemic hit, with customers opting for delivery and cashless payments here to stay.

Asked for her thoughts on "greenwashing" in the corporate world, Ms Choi added that investors are increasingly savvy about companies who are simply paying lip service to the ideal of sustainability.

"Don't just say that you've a green fund or green investment - we actually want to see transparency around carbon disclosure and around a whole variety of sustainability metrics," she said.

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