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Speech by Minister Chan Chun Sing at the 28th Singapore Retail Industry Conference & Exhibition

Speech by Minister Chan Chun Sing at the 28th Singapore Retail Industry Conference & Exhibition

1. Good morning everyone. I want to talk about some of the challenges this morning and explain why you should stay encouraged about prospects in the retail industry. 


2. We all agree that generally, the retail scene is very challenging. Let me ask you this, based on your estimate, how many retailers out of 100 retailers today have a positive trajectory of sales? Less than 30. Assuming you are right, what does it tell us? 

3. Actually, I learnt from someone in the audience, that if you are a real entrepreneur, the question to ask is whether I will be one of the 30 and not whether it is the end of the world since the whole market is down. And even if the market is tough, how can we collectively be the 30 companies that are growing? That would help us distinguish ourselves locally and overseas.

Working together to position ourselves for tomorrow

4. Having said that, things are tough and may get tougher in the months ahead because of the downside risks and the many uncertainties around the world. Today, we are here not just to talk about all the difficulties and the downside risks, but to see what we can do to collectively position ourselves such that we in Singapore become the 30 out of 100 companies that are growing. And more importantly, to prepare ourselves for the next wave of hard work. 

5. It is a very dangerous thing during a slowdown, for everyone to say they will cut back all investments and trade and just try to survive. The bold and enterprising ones will ask, notwithstanding the current challenges, how can we do better?

6. Let me share with you a few suggestions on how we hope that you will partner the Singapore Retailers Association (SRA), and how SRA will partner economic agencies like ESG, IMDA and others to position ourselves for tomorrow. 

Upskilling our workers 

7. Today many people buy things from Taobao, and so forth. But let us ask ourselves, what would make you patronise a conventional store instead of buying things from or Taobao?

8. Customer experience. One of the things that balance this equation is that while there is efficiency and scale when people go to the online platforms, we are human beings and we also like to have an experience with real human beings. Then the question for us is, are we able to provide that level of experience that will attract people to come back to the brick and mortar store. What do we need to do to train our workers?

9. Many of you here are SMEs. It is very difficult for SMEs to have individual training programs for your respective workers and if that is the case, I challenge SRA to aggregate your training. You tell SRA the workers you need to train, the modules you think your workers need, and we will get NTUC, ESG and the various training providers to curate the courses so that you can have your workers trained and prepare for the next step. 

10. Individually, none of you will be able to do it. You cannot afford the time, money to do the syllabus and so forth, but this is one tangible thing that we think we can partner you to do. And if each of you can send one or two of your workers collectively in batches of 50 and 100, we can get something done. This is the first thing.

Adopting relevant technologies

11. You have heard about adoption of technologies and I am sure that you want to, but what are the real challenges that we need to look out for? How many of you can afford a Chief Technology Officer in your company? How do you know that all this stuff that is being talked about is relevant for you?

12. Artificial Intelligence and blockchain are the solutions but very few of us know what is the question. So how do we overcome this? We need platforms, we need to aggregate, and there are solutions on the market.

13. DBS with Singtel, and UOB with Google have some programmes on this. We can tap on these platforms to help ourselves, and again, this is an area whereby SRA as the trade association for this sector can help to aggregate people, then we can design the modules to help SMEs choose and apply those technologies that are relevant to your operating model. 

14. In fact, we should not start from the basis of technology. Technology is an enabler. All of us need to start from the basis of how we are going to change, evolve or transform our business model to serve our customers better, then we can find the technologies to provide the suite of solutions. For example, when I was in NTUC, the DBS and Singtel package help SMEs and retailers to settle their HR and finance processes at the back-end with common modules. You do not have to spend your own money and time designing, updating and curating those modules. Those modules are available. A few weeks ago, I launched the SME Leadership Academy by Google and UOB which is targeted at SMEs with ready-made data analytics solutions which can be applied by the various SMEs. 

15. So we need to have these little platforms promulgated and proliferated across the economy for all of you to benefit. This is my offer and my challenge to ESG and SRA - let us work together to make available those modules that are already in existence to allow our SMEs to have these plug-and-play solutions. 


16. So the first thing is the training of the workers and the second thing is the adoption of technologies. If we can do these two things well, then at least we have concrete actions to not only weather the current downturn, but more importantly, prepare ourselves and our workers for the next upturn. And if we can do that, I am sure when the cycle recovers, we will be in a good position. 

17. But having said that, today I am very encouraged because all of you here are not just wallowing in all the difficulties but today, in the exhibition behind and from what I have heard, you all are constantly exploring new solutions, new concept ideas. 

18. I heard about the OMO store, which is trying out new concepts and ideas of having a store without physical human presence, and OctoBox. The exhibition shows the spirit the sector has, that even in difficult times, we are still constantly innovating and trying out new solutions and that gives me confidence that this sector will be in good shape because if we are just playing defensive, then even when the upturn comes about, we might not be ready. But on the other hand, even when times are tough, we are playing offensive by constantly testing out new ideas


19. So today, just three simple messages that I want to encourage you with. Number one, do not stop trying out new ideas. The more difficult the times, the more we need to try and today we have many new, good ideas being shared. Try to learn from each other, try to share with one another. 

20. Number two, do not forget the training of the workers. It is tough but we can get it done. We can aggregate the training required so long as SRA works together with you, ESG and IMDA. My promise to you is that if you aggregate the workers and tell us what is required to be done, we will get it done for you, with you. 

21. Number three, do not forget the technology application. It is not difficult if we can aggregate our demands together and use the platforms available. It is difficult only if each and every one of us are doing it by ourselves because we will not have the resources, time, money and talent. 

22. So these are the three things that we can work together on. On the part of the government, we know what you are going through and we stand ready to help and we are going to help in a very surgical way by building the capabilities to enable you to compete even more effectively. In the current situation, it is not one whereby we can just do a general pump-priming to get out of the crisis. This current situation is quite different. But what is not different is that even in this current difficult situation, if we surgically build up the capabilities of our local enterprises, it will be a more effective way of using our money and a better way to help our companies position for the long term. 

23. So rest assured I know what you are going through. It is not easy and it has never been easy. I am committed to make sure we partner SRA to partner you, to build up those capabilities necessary to move on. 

24. I wish you all the best. It is not easy, but we will go through this together as one. Thank you very much. 

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