Lessons from Portugal and Switzerland for Singapore

SWITZERLAND - Singapore deals with many challenges similar to those faced by other small countries such as Portugal and Switzerland, and it is important that it strives, like these two countries, to remain globally competitive.

To do this, Singapore's workforce must be well-trained, innovative and flexible, and it must improve its productivity as both the Swiss and Portuguese have done, President Tony Tan Keng Yam said yesterday.

He shared these views during a media briefing capping off his weeklong visit to the two European countries. He spent two days in Lisbon before flying to Switzerland.

"Singapore, Switzerland and Portugal have different economic circumstances and are in different regions, but all three... are relatively small with fairly limited natural resources," he said. "In a sense we have all adopted the same economic philosophy, to be open and globally competitive."

Dr Tan reiterated his praise for Portugal's "great success" in turning its economy around and exiting a financial bailout programme after three years of recession.

"The fact that they've now put their house in order, reduced the budget deficit and introduced labour flexibility has made their economy more productive and competitive, and I think that's something that deserves commendation," he said.

"They've taken a long-term view. They introduced measures which they knew were politically unpopular but good for the country and people in the long run."

And while there may not have been much interest in Portugal from Singapore's business community in recent years, Dr Tan said he hopes this will change as the recovery of the Portuguese economy signals "a new start".

The expansion of the Panama Canal will open up new opportunities and Singapore firms could partner Portuguese counterparts to expand not just into Europe but also into Portuguese-speaking African nations such as Angola and Mozambique, he added.

Switzerland, meanwhile, offers lessons to Singapore on the importance of a well-trained and productive workforce and a strong competence in technology and high value-added activities, Dr Tan said.

"Our workforce must build up capabilities, we must continue to emphasise research and development, upgrade our education and continuously improve our productivity. Switzerland shows it can be done."

After visits to two technological institutes and the Nestle Research Centre, he said he was impressed by how the research carried out in these organisations is not only for academic purposes but is also meant to be commercialised and benefit consumers.

"Our universities and companies would do well to learn from them," he said, adding that he hopes more Singapore firms will work with Swiss companies.

"We have a lot to gain from deepening cooperation with Switzerland so I hope my visit enhances this relationship."

Dr Tan also noted that despite being a strong economy with an enviable competence in almost any industry they undertake, the Swiss face challenges too.

A recent referendum, for example, showed that the Swiss public is uncomfortable with mass immigration.

"So they have to work out a level of immigration that Swiss people are comfortable with without damaging their economy. Knowing the Swiss, I think they will do this in an orderly, thoughtful way and they will come up with the right balance."

The last stops on Dr Tan's tour of Switzerland last Friday were the Nestle Research Centre and the Olympic Museum, both in Lausanne. Nestle has run a research centre in Singapore since 1982 and some of the findings from research done in Singapore for products such as Milo have been implemented worldwide.

At Nestle, he took a look at the centre's efforts to better understand food and nutrition, and how advances in their research can be used to make healthier food for everyone, from infants to senior citizens.

At the Olympic Museum, he met International Olympic Committee's president, Dr Thomas Bach, and chairman of the committee's finance commission, Mr Ng Ser Miang.

Dr Tan flew home yesterday and arrives today.


This article was published on May 11 in The Straits Times.

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