Singapore risks losing its leading edge: Panel

Singapore's economic transformation is moving in the right direction but the country is at risk of losing its leading edge amid fast-moving global trends, business leaders said at a conference yesterday.

They noted that large local companies can do more to help their smaller counterparts expand abroad, develop deeper skills and build a competitive edge.

The conference, organised by the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) at the Pan Pacific Singapore, centred on a position paper which the association released last week.

The 32-page paper, which contains key recommendations for Singapore's economic future, was officially presented to Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat at the conference. Mr Heng is chairing the Committee on the Future Economy, which will formulate plans for the next phase of Singapore's development.

The document contains 18 key recommendations, some of which have generated significant debate since its release last Wednesday. It calls for, among other things, the Government to review its foreign manpower policies and for workers' Central Provident Fund (CPF) monies to be used to help revive Singapore's lagging stock market.

The document was compiled from June to December last year after a series of discussions with 29 trade associations and about 70 corporate leaders, academics and economists.

Mr Heng thanked the business community for its "thoughtful" recommendations and said government agencies will take the ideas into careful consideration.

Some suggested strategies - such as developing Singapore into an economy unconstrained by its geographical boundaries, cultivating entrepreneurship in schools, and developing opportunities for the workforce to build deeper skills - are in line with the Government's priorities, he said.

The SBF solicited additional views from the wider business community at yesterday's conference, which was attended by over 400 representatives from trade associations, large firms and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

PwC Singapore executive chairman Yeoh Oon Jin, who was part of a panel at the conference, said many Singapore SMEs are too focused on the domestic market and might be losing out on global trends. "The mindset tends to be quite narrow... The way to fix this is to go on to the global stage."

Panellists said more platforms should be created to allow SMEs to collaborate with larger firms and to tap their expertise. A strong workforce will also be key, they noted.

Mr Han Fook Kwang, editor-at- large of The Straits Times and the final editor of the SBF's paper, said Singapore's economic transformation is moving in the right direction but the country still lacks a "deep appreciation" for skills across all segments of the workforce.

"We have not reached the same level of appreciation of each other's work as other advanced societies that have done very well, such as Japan, the Netherlands and Australia," said Mr Han, who was part of the panel. "There's a very high level of professionalism across a broad spectrum of their economies."

But in the shorter term, many firms are still grappling with the challenges of restructuring and costs remain a key concern, said Far East Organisation chief executive Philip Ng, who was also on the panel. There is also a "unified cry" for more manpower in industries such as hospitality, construction and retail, as well as concerns that the pace of restructuring is too fast.

"We all understand where we need to go... but there are stresses in various sectors and in the businesses that we operate," said Mr Ng.

This article was first published on Jan 13, 2016.
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