Singapore firms must be nimble, tech-savvy and inclusive: Heng Swee Keat

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat speaking at the two-day Bridge Forum CEO Summit in San Francisco, on April 17.
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat speaking at the two-day Bridge Forum CEO Summit in San Francisco, on April 17.PHOTO: GIC AND EDB

SAN FRANCISCO - Singapore companies must take innovation and technology seriously, be able to change quickly, yet not leave workers behind, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat told an audience at the two-day Bridge Forum CEO Summit in San Francisco.

Mr Heng said he had been impressed by the entrepreneurial and innovative mindset of Silicon Valley-based businesses after sitting through a series of presentations at the event.

"It's quite critical... that our companies really go out to make all these changes quickly, and two, we should not leave our workers behind," he told an audience of about 200 people on Wednesday (April 17).

Mr Heng was speaking with Sequoia Capital managing partner Doug Leone, who highlighted the unique risk-taking mindset of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as a key ingredient of its success, and advised Singapore to focus on attracting talent and raising its output of Stem (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduates as much as possible.

The session was moderated by Economic Development Board managing director Chng Kai Fong.

"If you look at the backlash against globalisation, it is in all the places where the workers felt that their interests had been compromised, they have not been taken care of," Mr Heng said. "People must believe the change is good for them."

He said he was optimistic about Singapore as a country, with respect for intellectual property, rule of law, a pro-business government and competitive tax rates, as well as it being a multiracial and multicultural nation.

The Bridge Forum CEO Summit, organised by Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC and the EDB, is held to create exclusive access to knowledge with business leaders - many from Singapore but many also from GIC partners from other parts of Asia - getting to hear first hand from companies developing and implementing cutting-edge technologies.

It was first held last year with real estate tech as a focus; this year, the focus was financial tech.

The idea is to connect nodes of innovation across the world, and particularly between Asia and the world, Mr Heng said.

"I hope Singapore can serve as Asia 101 for global companies that are seeking to get into Asia, and Global 101 for Asian companies that are looking to go out to the world," Mr Heng said.

Citing Asia's vigorous growth - and that the fastest-growing region in the Internet economy is Asean - Mr Heng said: "Asian economies are a lot more open, a lot more integrated and powering ahead in terms of competitiveness."

Asked about China, the Minister said every country wanted to develop and move up the value chain, but while the global value chain was very well integrated, the pecking order may not be permanent.

"It is important for all of us to focus on one common objective, which is how do we all move up together," he said. "And the leaders in front of the pack will have to move a lot faster. There I think America has great opportunity.

"The question is how do we do this well. Global rules that define the rules of the game are important, and that's why the WTO (World Trade Organisation) is a very important forum," he added. "We should be talking about how we can reform the WTO so that we have a multilateral, rules-based international order to resolve issues."

"The growth of China, of South-east Asia, India, Japan, South Korea, the growth of the US, all these are pluses, because we hope that life can be improved not just in our own country but across the world.

"When you deal with global issues like climate change, the possibility of a global pandemic, the problem of pollution, the problem of deforestation, and problems in the ocean, all these require a global effort.

"It's very hard to get countries which are extremely poor to say I'm going to contribute my part. But a more prosperous world allows us to tackle common issues, and at the end of the day, we are in a better position to safeguard the global commons."

Asked by Mr Chng what he would do if he was a fresh 21-year-old graduate today, Mr Heng drew a round of applause when he answered: "If I were 21, I would still join public service."

He said: "I have been in public service all my life and I do think it is meaningful work, and at the end of the day, what we do has significant impacts across all parts of society."