Aviation needs liberal policies to thrive: Tharman

SINGAPORE - Commercial flexibility in the aviation sector is needed to help economies maximise their growth potential, and this is Singapore's ultimate aim in pursuing greater competition in the sector, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

In addressing a hall of about 300 guests at the opening dinner of the Singapore Airshow Aviation Leadership Summit on Sunday, Mr Tharman, who is also coordinating minister for economic and social policies in Singapore, outlined five strategies - most of them focusing on political commitment to liberalising the aviation market - that Singapore is pursuing in ensuring the growth of the aviation sector. The sector accounts for about 6 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product.

Mr Tharman's comments come on the back of fears of a worldwide economic slowdown, falling airline share prices and unresolved geopolitical tensions that threaten the growth of the global aviation sector.

Opening his speech with a remark that globally, "confidence in the future is weak", he stated that politics has not been helping global growth.

"We have to find ways out of this economic and political funk we've caught ourselves in around the world . . . Aviation is a real opportunity, a bright spot in this future."

Promoting market access is one of the approaches that Singapore is pursuing.

Limiting air traffic rights, and implementing ownership and control restrictions, hurt travellers by limiting their choices, said Mr Tharman. They also impede airlines in innovation.

"In short, it prevents economies from performing at their full potential. It is also why Singapore has consistently taken a liberal approach towards competition and market access. Our end-goal is not the success of Singapore Airlines, but the vibrance of the Singapore air hub."

Mr Tharman also drew attention to the importance of safety in aviation.

Two of the sector's recent greatest mishaps - both of which befell Malaysia Airlines - have seemingly been stalemated by political wrangling between countries.

The fate of the missing MH370 plane still remains unknown almost two years after it disappeared without a trace. Governments continue to dispute responsibility over the search mission, compensation for families of victims, treatment of suspected debris from the plane, and even the public announcements of important information about the plane's whereabouts.

At the same time, perpetrators of the shooting down of MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 - as a civil war waged between rebels who are suspected to have Russian backing and the Ukranian government - are still at large.

In highlighting that air mishaps not only take away human lives, but also dent public confidence in the sector, Mr Tharman said: "Aviation safety must continue to take top priority in both domestic and international policymaking, and we should certainly not let politics lead us to decisions that compromise safety."

Investing in infrastructure that alleviates air traffic congestion is another prong in the plan to ensure growth of Singapore's aviation sector.

A congested airspace hurts passengers and the environment, said Mr Tharman. Singapore has thus made infrastructural improvements to its airport and in air traffic management so that it can handle a much greater volume of air traffic.

The promotion of technology is also an important approach in ensuring the growth of aviation. Stating that the current oil price rout presents an opportunity for the sector to invest in new technologies to enhance efficiency and productivity, Mr Tharman said that Singapore has been crowd-sourcing ideas and engaging in research and development so that its aviation sector can grow further.

Singapore is also strengthening its aviation sector via investment in human capital as the industry - and the country's economy as a whole - continues to face manpower challenges.

"We know we cannot rely only on the education that people get before they get into a job. The skill requirements will keep changing on the job, including the need for new competencies that help us make the most of new technologies," said Mr Tharman.

This article was first published on Feb 15, 2016.
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