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Another good run ahead; Or a path littered with obstacles?

In a BT poll of CEOs, just half are confident that the current generation can do better than the previous one

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As Singapore turns 51, business leaders here are under no illusions about the challenges that lie ahead in the next half of her century.


AS Singapore turns 51, business leaders here are under no illusions about the challenges that lie ahead in the next half of her century. But the Republic can still grow as a nation, if it is prepared to change mindsets, be open to new ideas, and make necessary adjustments, say 51 business leaders polled in The Business Times' "Singapore beyond 50" survey on their views and aspirations for the country's future.

When asked if Singapore's economy would grow rapidly again beyond 2020, 65.4 per cent of respondents say that it depends on whether Singapore succeeds in restructuring while 21.2 per cent say that it depends on whether the external economy picks up. Some 7.4 per cent are downbeat - they think not.

A more hopeful respondent, the head of a human resources (HR) consulting firm, calls for a new growth engine for the economy. "Until several decades ago, we were a developing economy. Today, many of our industries have matured. Innovation and entrepreneurship should be encouraged."

Another respondent, the spokesman of a HR solutions provider, points to an increase in young entrepreneurs who have greater access to resources, are more well-travelled, and who dare to "try, fail and then try again". She says: "There is a lot of potential if they are supported."

The chief of a professional services firm is confident that the new generation of Singaporeans can remodel the country in a "more socially liberal direction" - without damaging its economic success. This is even as he trusts that the days of Singapore's strong growth are long past.

Respondents, when asked if Singapore's current generation can surpass the achievements of the past generation's, appear conflicted. Half of them express confidence that the current generation can better itself from the one before, but the other half feel that it is becoming harder to do so.

A finance professor, who is also the director of a research centre, says that the "best days of easy growth" are behind Singapore. He cites contemporary challenges around the bend, among them "the more difficult quality-of-growth" type of growth.

The vice-president of an energy advisory firm adds that Singapore's success story has led to "a certain greediness and complacency" among the rich and created a big gap between the rich and the poor.

He says: "For a growing number of people, the bar of success is now hanging too high - they might not even try to jump."

A lack of agility will pose a hurdle too, says a cybersecurity firm director. "As a smaller country, it was structurally easier to adjust and revamp our economic strategy. As a more developed country, it will be more challenging to be nimble to take an economic pivot to grow the country."

That Singaporeans are becoming "soft" is one more challenge. The founder of a fish farm says: "We are producing weaker and lazier Singaporeans."

The chairman of an engineering company adds that the younger generations born in better times are less resilient, and less prepared to struggle and work hard.

A law firm deputy chairman is more sympathetic, lamenting that the rise in cost of assets has outstripped the rise in salaries. "The next generation can make a decent living, but many may end up spending most of their incomes on mortgage payments".

Amid the challenges cited, a top executive at an infrastructure conglomerate notes that it is "unfair" to compare the current generation with the previous generation, as both differ in terms of nature and events. "Today, things like the digital wave and tech disruption will change the ballgame and order of traditional management."

Creativity is not generation-specific, adds the chief of a charitable trust. "Younger people coming up will be successful but in a different way."

By the same token, Singapore should not measure herself against historical costs, the head of a non-profit business association says. "Instead, we should measure ourselves against what is relevant for us at any given time. Singapore must change and evolve to stay relevant to the rest of the world."

The task is proving immense. A recruitment firm founder says that "drastic" changes in the global economic, social and political landscape give no guarantees to what the future holds. However, he is assured of the calibre of current Singapore leaders - a result of "succession planning by past visionary leaders" - and their guidance.

Aside from political stability, the nation's other attributes are its corruption-free system, racial and religious harmony, and economic success and meritocracy, according to respondents who were asked to list the most important features that define Singapore.

If growth is slowing, it is nothing unique and in fact a narrative among developed nations, notes the chief of a sales performance company in the survey. With a larger global population, the competition is greater than before, he adds. "Change in the new normal, and we cannot take for granted that all change will be positive."

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