Thinking Aloud

Chan Chun Sing's call for new social compact make sense as S'pore confronts globalisation

PM Lee Hsien Loong and Chan Chun Sing stress need to keep economy open, while caring for those who fear being left behind

Some years ago, when I was still a fairly young journalist, I was invited to have lunch with a very important person.

There were four of us at this sit-down lunch. The food was good and the conversation interesting.

I ate at my usual pace, which I have come to realise is very slow, relative to most other people.

In this case, the very important person happened to eat very fast. But I, being young and self-absorbed, did not realise that I was holding everyone up until I finally put down my fork and spoon.

The very second I did, I heard a buzzing sound. It was to let the butler know he could come through to clear the dishes. My host, I realised then, had had his finger on the buzzer the whole time I had been helping myself in a leisurely fashion to more food and chewing mindfully.

I do many things slowly, but there are also times when I am the one racing ahead while family, friends or colleagues struggle to keep up. That was the case in Tasmania where a friend and I went on a walking holiday.

We were hiking along the coast, near Wineglass Bay, and my legs were starting to hurt - not because the trek was tough, but because I had to walk at what to me was an excruciatingly slow pace, so as to stay with my friend.

I eventually asked her if I could stride ahead and wait for her at the end of the trek. I was very relieved when she said okay.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

It's hard when other people or circumstances force us to move either faster or slower than we want to or are used to.

Yet, that is precisely the challenge many of us face today, in a world that is fast transforming due to advances in technology and globalisation. And, by us, I mean not just people but companies, organisations and countries.

NEW SOCIAL COMPACT

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing was right to highlight the need for a new social compact to "help the slow keep pace with the fast".

In his speech at The Straits Times' Global Outlook Forum last Wednesday, he took a strong stand on the need for Singapore to embrace globalisation in spite of the disruption and disquiet it causes to large parts of the economy and many segments of the population.

"Conventional business models have been disrupted. Companies and people realise that geography can no longer insulate them from competition nor protect their jobs as it used to in the past. Labour has to be quickly reskilled or risk being displaced by technology or more competitive sources elsewhere. Social integration of more diverse people, in what were once relatively homogeneous societies, has become a source of political challenge and tension.

"The relative gap between those who progress faster and those who progress slower further compounds the socio-political challenges faced by many countries," he said.

Since Singapore has no choice but to stay open to the rest of the world and to the integration of trade flows, production and value chains, what can it do about the gap between those who are fast to transform and those who are slow?

It needs no less than "a new social compact", Mr Chan said, "to address the challenges of social mobility, social mixing and social integration".

"This is not just about inequality of who has more or who has less. We must redouble our efforts to help the slow to keep pace with the fast. The fast must see it as part of our social responsibility to reach out to those who are slower and less able, for us to progress as a society together."

BANKING ON TEAM SINGAPORE

"To build globally competitive teams for Singapore, we will need to groom Singaporeans to be able to work with the very best in the world - be it in Singapore or beyond Singapore," Mr Chan said.

 
 

"This is the reason for us to want to build the Singapore Global Network where our people have the opportunities to form partnerships with Singaporeans overseas and non-Singaporeans overseas and here in Singapore. The goal is to build the most competitive team to perform and compete for Team Singapore.

"We must never close ourselves from the rest of the world, be it in terms of trade, financial, data or talent flows. It is not about shielding our people from competition. It is more about enabling our people to excel amid the competition, which is always global and never just local," he said.

REASSURE WORKERS, SAYS PM LEE

Half a world away, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered essentially the same message to global leaders attending the G-20 Summit in Argentina.

Countries must embrace change, he said, not yield to anxieties by trying to obstruct forces that disrupt.

At the same time, governments must play their part to help workers adjust. PM Lee spoke of how governments could work with businesses and unions to equip employees who are at risk of being displaced with new skills, and to redeploy them.

Besides such practical support, workers should also be reassured because for every person displaced, many more are worried and anxious.

"We must give them the confidence to make the adjustments, intervening wherever possible before the workers are displaced," said PM Lee, adding that this is what Singapore is doing.

A NEW WORKPLACE COMPACT?

The disparity and the difficulties that the two Singapore leaders spoke of are present at the workplace too, especially in companies whose long-established business models are being disrupted.

I work for one such company. It's no secret that news publishers the world over have been hit hard by disruption. And yet, what often goes unsaid is how exciting the process of transformation can be, especially for those who are eager to learn and ready to give new ideas and ways of working a go.

At the same time, I can see how disconcerting and anxiety-inducing the new work environment is to some of my colleagues.

It is trying when people in an organisation are moving at very different speeds, resulting in a yawning gulf between those who are ready to embrace the new and those who are loath to give up the old ways of doing things.

Of course, those who are racing ahead feel they are being held back needlessly by colleagues who are afraid of and resist change.

Then again, those who are holding firm to old ways of working wonder if the change champions really know what they are doing, and worry that professional values and relationships built up over many years will be discarded.

Those are valid concerns.

My own view is that those who seek to lead change have a double duty. They must first model the new ways of working, which includes unleashing those who are faster at grasping the new, but may be lower down in the traditional corporate hierarchy, and letting them run ahead.

At the same time, change leaders must show concern for those who are moving slowly and find ways to help them make the necessary transition. And that is so, whether those colleagues will be transiting to jobs within the company, or without.

That is easier said than done, but here is where being part of a small, well-organised country helps.

The Singapore Government not only plugs the reskilling message, it also funds many programmes to help workers learn new skills so they remain employable and even if displaced, can move on to new jobs.

Companies and workers, too, have to do their part.

At the workplace, each of us can reach out to help colleagues-in-need adapt to change. By doing so, we live up to our end of the new social compact Mr Chan spoke about.

Only if we do will Team Singapore stand a chance of not just moving ahead, but also staying together as it runs the global race.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 02, 2018, with the headline 'Unleashing the fast, pacing the slow as Singapore runs global race'. Print Edition | Subscribe