Speech by Minister Chan Chun Sing at the Future Economy Conference & Exhibition (FECE) 2020

Speech by Minister Chan Chun Sing at the Future Economy Conference & Exhibition (FECE) 2020

1. A very good morning to everyone. 

2. Much has changed in the past nine to ten months. And I think we are sure that many more things will change in the coming months. 

3. At the end of 2019, no one could have foreseen the millions of infections and hundreds of thousands of deaths from a deadly virus, nationwide lockdowns and recurring waves of infections, huge numbers of shuttered businesses, and rising unemployment. 

4. As we would already know, we have narrowed the Singapore economic forecast for 2020 to contract between 5 and 7 percent. Businesses are understandably worried, and are cautious about new hirings. To help them tide through this challenging period, we have pushed out many initiatives to support our businesses and workers.

5. But, there is one important reality that we must come to terms with now, and that is this. We are not returning to a pre-COVID world. We should not be preparing for ‘business-as-usual’. Or preparing to return to the good old normal. Now is the time to re-engineer our processes, build a new economy, and transform to create the right opportunities for our businesses and people.

6. If we fail to act now, we may very well see Singapore’s hub status being challenged and bypassed. We may see our businesses and workers losing their relevance and competitive edge, and in turn, our economic and geopolitical manoeuvring space will be more limited and constrained.

7. The question then is, how do we overcome these challenges? 

8. One set of answer is in today’s conference title – empowering our people, embracing digitalisation. 

Embracing Digitalisation

9. To be frank, even before COVID hit us, businesses were already embarking on digital transformation. The advancements in digital technologies were requiring more to redesign ourselves for a world of data, software, and deep tech. 

10. Today, we are seeing a dramatic uptick in the use of digital technologies. 

11. These have proven extremely useful for companies, helping them to respond nimbly to the severe COVID disruption. It has given businesses greater visibility and control over their operations, allowed them to develop new business continuity plans and re-organise themselves better for resilience. It has reduced face-to-face interactions, to safeguard employees’ and customer’s health and well-being. Digital solutions have also allowed them to offer new products and services, access new markets even without a physical presence, or plug into cross-border data and information flows to gain new insights and ideas. 

12. Customers are also riding this digital wave, globally. Lockdowns caused a sharp increase in e-commerce adoption, with more customers switching to online channels. Because of this, companies have been able to venture out and capture value from the increasing volume of digital transactions and grow their customer bases by many more times. 

13. As the emcee mentioned, Microsoft felt that they had moved three years in just three months in terms of digital adoption. But this is not unique to Microsoft. There are many other digital and non-digital businesses that have seen this rise in digital adoption in the past few months. And it goes beyond retail. We are seeing a broad migration to digital in other sectors, like financial services, tourism, healthcare, and education. 

14. Governments too are also turning digital. 

15. For Singapore, our aim is for all government services to go digital from end-to-end by 2023. For us to deliver more efficient and effective services for greater convenience and safety, and to lead digital innovation and build new capabilities towards our vision of a Smart Nation. 

16. In fact, our efforts had enabled us to respond decisively and quickly to the COVID outbreak. We developed a suite of digital tools to help disseminate timely information, and enable our agencies to manage the crisis more effectively. Such as the TraceTogether app and the SafeEntry digital check-in system, which are now used nationwide. All these help to facilitate contact tracing and support our wider efforts to resume business in a safe manner. These digital tools rely on the active cooperation of companies and the public, and we are thankful for everyone for chipping in, in order for us to resume our economic activities, save businesses, and save jobs. 

17. In February this year, we enhanced the Ask Jamie chatbot on the Gov.sg site with more advanced natural language processing capabilities to address COVID-related questions. The improved platform allowed us to perform analytics to help us understand trending topics, so that the bot can be trained real-time. We were able to extend the service to various social messaging platforms too.

18. So, if we take a step back, this COVID crisis is in fact a COVID catalyst. And we must not waste a crisis. 

19. COVID has impacted every one of us, and forced us to re-look our assumptions. But most importantly, it has shown us that with digital transformation, it can not only help us survive a crisis. It can help us to thrive in a crisis. 
20. It will allow us to transcend the tyranny of geography and size for a small city-state like ours. Digital transformation will truly unlock for us, the world as our hinterland and market.  But that is if we make the right moves now, harness the power of digital to grow our businesses, drive our economic recovery, redefine our competitiveness and relevance to the world. 

21. At the same time, we must acknowledge that digital transformation comes with significant challenges. And I can understand the concerns of our businesses and workers. Navigating the technology competition between US and China, and the likelihood of a global technological fracture; worried about being left behind on development or lacking the right skills, talent, or resources; worried about having to change, abandon old habits and learn new ways to do things.

22. But with all these worries, we must not come to the wrong conclusion to resist digitalisation. Be it digitalisation or globalisation, they require us as individuals and businesses to adjust and adapt. To not do so, to resist change, inevitably means that we will be left further behind.

23. This is why I am very grateful to SBF for organising the Future Economy Conference & Exhibition for our business community, and virtually this year even amidst the pandemic.  It demonstrates that we can be forward-looking and digital-ready, and we can keep going even amidst a pandemic, so that we can distinguish ourselves from the competition.

24. If we are to not lose out on the opportunities in the digital economy, it means we must make various tough decisions to re-organise ourselves for speed and agility, and also to update our mental models. This applies to the government, our businesses, and our people. The faster we adapt, the faster we recover. There’s no place for treading water, and waiting for normalcy to return. Others will overtake us, and the opportunities will pass us by. 

25. But we can be assured. We are not doing this alone. 

26. The Government will provide help for businesses to cope with today’s challenges, especially those sectors more deeply impacted by COVID-19. And we will also create the enabling conditions to support businesses to transform and transit to a better future. 

27. Through the SMEs Go Digital programme, we have stepped up our support to help companies digitalise at different stages in their growth journeys. We have provided higher support levels through the enhanced Productivity Solutions Grant (PSG) and Enterprise Development Grant (EDG). And we have also expanded the scope of generic solutions on the PSG to help businesses implement business continuity measures, such as online collaboration, virtual meeting and telephony tools. Under the SMEs Go Digital programme, more than 15,000 SMEs have applied for and received support from the PSG.

28. With travel restrictions still in place, we launched the Grow Digital initiative in June to help SMEs willing and ready to seize business opportunities in overseas markets via digital platforms. So far, more than 1,400 businesses are transacting on these e-commerce platforms.

29. The Digital Resilience Bonus was also introduced during the Fortitude Budget as an additional support to uplift the digital capabilities of a broad base of businesses, starting with Food Services and Retail sectors, which have generally been more impacted by the pandemic.

30. ESG and IMDA are also working closely with partners in these industries to help businesses understand how they can tap on government support to register and use digital solutions, like PayNow Corporate, the Nationwide E-invoicing Network, and even data analytics.

31. I am very encouraged to see the collaboration between SBF and IMDA to drive digital transformation through other important and impactful initiatives. 

32. But at the same time, in a more fragmented world, we will continue to strengthen our digital connectivity, by enhancing our digital infrastructure; working with like-minded companies and countries to forge international partnerships to build a global network that is digitally connected; and we will create more open digital trade architecture and safeguards through Digital Economy Agreements (DEAs). So that our businesses can be plugged into the networks of the future and expand way beyond our shores.

Empowering People 

33. As we seek new opportunities, our journey must also be one of digital inclusion.

34. To ensure everyone has a place in Singapore’s digital future, we have established the SG Digital Office to drive the Government’s efforts to push for digital adoption amongst everyone in the country. We have to mobilise a whole-of-nation movement by ramping up existing efforts to equip every Singaporean with digital tools and skills. In the immediate term, we have deployed 1,000 Digital Ambassadors to help stallholders and even seniors go digital. 

35. And we are scaling up our training and reskilling efforts, so that we leave no one behind. 

36. The ICT sector has the highest number of opportunities across the economy under the SGUnited Jobs & Skills Package. More than 18,000 ICT jobs and skills opportunities are available for Singaporeans across the digital economy. We have also ramped up placements, traineeships, and skills upgrading under the SGUnited Jobs & Skills Package, as well as the Tech Skills Accelerator (TeSA) and Cybersecurity Development Programmes. These aim to help everyone, regardless of our starting points and backgrounds, to gain access to ICT opportunities.  

37. We will also increase the capacity of reskilling programmes like TeSA, which in the past four years has placed 6,600 Singaporeans in tech jobs. Over the next two to three years, IMDA will work to place and train an additional 5,500 Singaporeans in good tech jobs, in functions like digital marketing, software engineering, cybersecurity, and data analytics. 

38. I can understand the concerns about tech replacing our jobs or the difficulty of picking up digital skills. But, the purpose of digital transformation is not to displace or inconvenience humans. It is to unlock human potential, and accelerate new and better ways of working.

39. I have seen companies run webinars, find new ways to educate their workers during this period, so that they gain confidence and familiarity in a virtual environment that they may be new to. And they are helping everyone to develop new capabilities, from simple digital literacy to more complex competencies in data science and coding even, either by using the current down time to send them for training or supporting them to do so while still on-the-job.

40. As our people gain new skills, the digital challenge will become less daunting. And we will become more productive, be able to take on higher value-added job roles, gain greater job satisfaction, and ultimately, form the digital backbone that every company needs to power their business transformation. So, our businesses and workers must step up and take greater responsibility of our own continual development and transformation. Only when our workers are empowered to move up the value chain, can companies up their game. We encourage businesses and our workers to work closely together to enable this transformation effort to happen. 

41. Digital may disrupt – at first. But as we strengthen our core capabilities, we will expand our capacity for growth, refresh our economy, and build new opportunities for generations to come. So let us work together, make the bold moves now, so that we are ready for the next, and what lies beyond. 

42. And if history has taught us one thing, it is that this small little red dot of ours can be a positive example of constant transformation, helping everybody along, and constantly seizing new opportunities where we demonstrate and distinguish ourselves by being forward-looking and being nimble rather than hoping to return to the previous past. 

43. On that note, I wish everyone a fruitful day ahead and may we work together to journey on to seize the new digital opportunities that are in front of us and over the horizon. If we do this well, I am confident that both our workers and businesses will benefit, and we will be able to truly distinguish ourselves amidst the competition. That Instead of being fearful that we will be left behind, we will instead pull further apart from the competition through this crisis. Thank you very much. 

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