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Leaders generally assured about Singapore's continued relevance

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While the bulk of business leaders see disruption as a major phenomenon in their sector, they remain confident about Singapore's ability to stay relevant to the world economy, according to findings from The Business Times-Standard Chartered Leaders' Survey 2016.


WHILE the bulk of business leaders see disruption as a major phenomenon in their sector, they remain confident about Singapore's ability to stay relevant to the world economy, according to findings from The Business Times-Standard Chartered Leaders' Survey 2016.

Even so, leaders think Singapore's continued success is contingent on crucial changes in mindsets - both at the societal- and enterprise-level.

Conducted over April 26 to May 14, the 10-question online survey aimed to take the pulse of the thinking, attitudes, and views of Singapore's corporate leaders, given the important role they will play in leading companies of the future. A total of 112 responses were garnered, representing views across all sectors in the economy - including large and small firms, as well as local and multinational players.

The overwhelming majority (83 per cent) see disruption as a major phenomenon, with respondents flagging wholesale & retail trade, finance & insurance, and manufacturing as the top three disrupted sectors.

In spite of this, over three-quarters say they are confident that Singapore will be able to remain relevant to the world economy, with 25 per cent saying they are "absolutely confident," and 52.7 per cent identifying with "pretty confident".

Several leaders highlighted Singapore's lack of choice in the matter - characterising the way forward as a "thrive or die" scenario.

Said the CEO of a technology firm: "Singapore's combination of a strategic geographical location and extremely positive business-focused government policies will ensure the country will adapt and develop along with global opportunities. No other country in the region is as focused as Singapore is in remaining relevant - it is our competitive advantage."

Others cited Singapore's forward-looking leadership, pro-business environment, and strategic location as key factors behind its continued success. However, the country's rising cost base and perceived populist policies were also flagged as areas of concern, since these could erode Singapore's competitiveness in the future. Indeed, the remaining respondents were "undecided" (11.6 per cent) or "only slightly confident" (9.8 per cent) about Singapore's continued relevance, with just one respondent choosing the "not at all confident" view.

Noted one of the pessimistic CEOs, who leads a company in the education sector: "The value proposition for Singapore going forward is not clear in a world where the physical location of a country is becoming less relevant. Its other advantages such as an educated workforce are being whittled away. It has become far too expensive a place to live and work in."

When asked to choose the most crucial element in Singapore's journey towards an innovation-driven economy, the top pick - comprising 35.7 per cent of responses - was societal-level mindset change (for example, parents being more open to multiple pathways to success).

Enterprise-level mindset change followed closely behind, with 30.4 per cent of respondents singling it out as the most important factor. These leaders believe companies must embrace new ideas and rely less on government help, if Singapore is to transform into a value-creating economy.

Even so, leaders were split on how future-ready their companies are at the leadership level. While 45.5 per cent say they are "pretty future-ready," a good 29.5 per cent of leaders believe they are "only slightly future-ready".

"Not at all future-ready" and "undecided" garnered 5.4 per cent and 11.6 per cent of responses respectively, while "absolutely future-ready" firms had the smallest share at 8 per cent.

In fact, when asked what most stands in the way of their company's ability to innovate and be future-ready, 35.7 per cent of leaders said they are too busy firefighting issues of today, and flagged short-term pressures as the biggest obstacle.

David Mann, chief economist, Asia, Standard Chartered Bank, expressed concern about the high proportion of firms that remain consumed by short-term pressures. He emphasised the need for companies to think about the future and its accompanying challenges - way before these arrive.

Firefighting aside, a sizeable fraction (27.7 per cent) put the blame on a corporate culture that is not open to new ideas, while 20.5 per cent cited the quality of leadership as the most significant impediment.

Just over half (53.6 per cent) of those polled believe Singapore would benefit from a more diverse political landscape, with 50 per cent of respondents saying this would bring fresh ideas, and 3.6 per cent stating that opposition parties have so far proven that they are useful.

However, close to 40 per cent of respondents disagreed; 16.1 per cent said opposition parties have so far failed to prove that they are useful, while 22.3 per cent said a more diverse political landscape would have a detrimental impact on investor confidence.

The remaining 8 per cent said they didn't know if the country would gain from a more diverse political landscape.

Several business leaders also remarked that civil servants should delve deeper and understand sector-specific issues better, during the policymaking process.

Said the head of a management consultancy: "While most ministers are keen on hearing views, they are not being fed the right information as those below them do not attempt to understand the landscape fully."

This business leader acknowledged, however, that the government has increased its outreach efforts recently.

A wholesale & retail trade CEO also warned against complacency. "To make the leap to the next phase of growth, the present government cannot afford to fall into the trap of being a populist team to gain votes and compromise on the quality of strong leadership, and the right political will to see long-term benefits and growth of the country."

Still, leaders seem - for the most part - heartened by the direction in which Singapore is heading. And as the country enters a period of difficult economic restructuring, 46.4 per cent of respondents say they would like to see the government put even more resources towards retraining and upskilling initiatives.