Future for Singapore lies in South-east Asia, says business professor

SINGAPORE - Their country's economic destiny lies in South-east Asia, but Singaporeans are not sufficiently equipped for this future, said a visiting international business expert Wednesday (March 21).

In a public lecture, University of Michigan professor Linda Lim said Singapore will become less relevant as a bridge connecting China to South-east Asia.

"China doesn't need us, they like to do things themselves. And it's not clear we possess anything that can help them. We do not have enough knowledge of our neighbours," she said at the event, held by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Instead, Singapore should find out what middle-class consumers in its neighbouring countries want and deliver it to them, she told an audience of 100.

During the discussion which followed, Prof Lim, who is Singaporean, and several audience members also lamented how younger Singaporeans lack the cultural know-how and skills needed to do business in the region and suggested ways to improve the situation.

Although globalisation is slowing down, South-east Asia is on the rise, argued Prof Lim, an expert on the region, in her lecture titled, Back to the Future: Singapore, China and South-east Asia.

While the developed world is experiencing slower GDP and productivity growth, GDP growth in Singapore's own neighbourhood of South-east Asia will outpace all other world regions except South Asia.

This growth will be driven by technology, the youthfulness of South-east Asia's populations, and strong consumption demand from emerging Asian middle classes, she added.

Although Singapore prides itself as a regional hub, its role linking multinational corporations to South-east Asia will wane.

These companies can reach their customers directly using technology and bypass any hub, Prof Lim pointed out.

"You don't need to go to Singapore to go to Indonesia, you can just go there directly," she said.

Given this, she suggested Singaporeans themselves pitch products and services for consumers in neighbouring cities such as Jakarta and Bangkok.

"There's a much, much bigger market out there than the top 1 per cent in Sentosa," she said.

But this requires deep cultural knowledge and a shift in Singaporeans' mindset, which she said has been "excessively Western-focused and then excessively China-focused".

For instance, Singaporeans are mostly uninterested in learning regional languages like Bahasa Indonesia, spoken in what is projected to be the world's fourth-largest economy.

Instead, they ask their business partners to speak in English, she said.

Moderator and former Asean secretary-general Ong Keng Yong afterwards recounted how many South-east Asians tell him that Singaporeans are very business-like and clinical.

He said: "They don't see us as too Western or too Chinese, but too modernised and too fast for the South-east Asian tempo."

The Singaporean's mindset is that "if people cannot catch up, we leave you at the station and come back for you later", he said.

Audience member and businessman Kwok Kian Tow, who has worked in Malaysia and Myanmar, agreed that Singapore should pay more attention to the countries in the region.

Referring to China's One Belt One Road plan to connect with the region around it, Mr Kwok quipped: "It would be good to create our own One Sarong, One Lorong."