The Singapore Business Federation (SBF) hosted a dialogue session with Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing and Mr Tan Chong Meng, Co-Chairman of the Future Economy Council (FEC)’s Emerging Stronger Taskforce (EST), on 14 August. Participants included members of the SBF Council and leaders of businesses and Trade Associations and Chambers.
During the dialogue session moderated by the Chairman of SBF, Mr Lim Ming Yan, participants exchanged views on how businesses can address current challenges and forge a new path forward amidst the severe economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the present downturn expected to be protracted, the dialogue focused on the opportunities that businesses can seize by leveraging digitalisation and internationalisation.
Participants noted that for businesses to be able to survive, thrive and seize opportunities, they also need a conducive macro and domestic environment. They expressed appreciation to the Government for the various relief measures and assistance schemes and for maintaining a good business environment. These remain critical moving forward.
In particular, participants shared on the continued need for a strong local workforce and access to some skilled foreign manpower to meet the needs of the economy. There was a call for some limited resumption of business travel in a safe way through green lane arrangements.
Participants agreed that cross-border trade continues to be essential to a small and open economy like Singapore’s, and that businesses cannot take their current and past roles in the global value chains for granted. Singapore cannot compete on cost alone and needs to carve out a niche that is valued and not easily replicated. Singapore’s extensive network of Free Trade Agreements also plays a critical role in enabling our role as a trading hub.
Participants also commented on the importance of cementing Singapore’s status as an aggregator and a business hub. This would help put Singapore businesses in a position to continue punching above their weight internationally. With digital protectionism rising in tandem with businesses and people digitalising, Singapore must be careful not to get shut out of the global digital economy, and needs to become the choice landing spot for telecommunication cables, hosting data centres, and processing data, just as Singapore is a top entrepot for merchandise trade and a business services hub.
On the resumption of international travel, Minister Chan said that a rapid testing solution for the virus that is quick, affordable, and reliable, together with a seamless process that can be integrated with border control processes, could present a sooner and more practical solution than waiting for a vaccine.
Participants noted that while businesses remain concerned about navigating the challenges of COVID-19, many have also started pivoting to new areas of growth. They expressed confidence that new market opportunities, both locally and overseas, amidst the pandemic will allow businesses to remain sustainable and emerge stronger in the eventual recovery. These opportunities in new growth areas include food and agricultural technology, supporting sustainability and climate change efforts in the green technology business, as well as supply chain diversification to support new market penetration.
Participants also noted the importance of ASEAN as a market and the opportunities this presents for Singapore companies.
During the dialogue, participants also lauded efforts of the EST in looking beyond the immediate challenges to seek new paths for Singapore so that the economy can be strengthened in the process. Participants noted that companies, especially those severely affected by the crisis, must re-strategise their businesses now or risk becoming irrelevant.
In tandem with this, workers must also reskill themselves to prepare for new job roles when old ones cease to exist. Participants also suggested the need to develop a longer-term manpower strategy, one that would not only look into strengthening the Singaporean core, but also the augmenting of our talent pool with suitable foreign manpower so as to meet the needs of the economy.
Reflecting on the conversations, Mr Lim said, “As COVID-19 continues to severely impact global economies, businesses cannot afford to sit out the storm, and will need to innovate and reinvent themselves now to emerge stronger from the pandemic. This requires us to take swift and decisive actions to remain viable in the current conditions and to concurrently transform our business models to thrive in the new normal.”