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COMMENTARY

Kick the crutch - it's time for businesses to ask for less

Wednesday, April 6, 2016 - 05:50

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IF the soundtrack of last year's Budget debate was "to the left, to the left", this year, parliamentarians are singing a different tune: "Give them less, give them less."

The "them" in question, of course, is Singapore businesses. Over the course of the two-day debate thus far, members of the House - both from the ruling party and the opposition - have voiced their concern over businesses' over-reliance on government support.

It's heartening to see lawmakers pointing out the dangers of such a crutch mentality. But do those at the heart of the issue - businesses, trade associations and chambers (TACs) - admit to the problem? Are they willing to arrest their ever-growing calls for the government to do more?

On Tuesday, Members of Parliament (MPs), for their part, did a stellar job of flagging the issue - whether by asking if Singaporeans are hungry enough for success (Fatimah Lateef, Marine Parade GRC), or if companies are essentially on state-sponsored welfare (Pritam Singh, Aljunied GRC).

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They echoed sentiments raised on day one of the Budget debate, when speakers like Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC) and Ong Teng Koon (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) stressed the importance of letting companies feel some pain.

Said Dr Lim: "I don't know if we are doing good each time when we anticipate imminent economic turbulence, everyone (looks) to the government to provide shelter. Businesses are always hopeful and confident that the government will introduce measures to help them tide over the crisis. And indeed, the Budget always delivers."

"In the last crisis, the government introduced and enhanced many policies to retrain workers and help employers. But there are situations (where) if we over shelter we may end up with an over-reliance on government, and businesses may be like the plants growing in a sheltered green house - they will not have the resilience to withstand a storm or winter."

Specific suggestions were also made to ensure that help goes only to companies that can deliver results. For example, while Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera believes there is far more room for SME government support, he would like aid to be more calibrated based on each company's aspirations, and for help to be conditional on hitting revenue, investment, or even job-creation goals.

But the one person who really cut through the fat was Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin, who highlighted the way we often severely underestimate how much a strategy's effectiveness hinges on cultural alignment. "Any top-down strategy that is at odds with ground-up culture is, at best, hamstringed, and at worst, utterly doomed," said Ms Kuik. While she wasn't speaking of industry groups specifically, her remarks are useful in framing the conversation about TACs.

As much as the government would like to partner TACs more closely to drive industry transformation, the success of this new approach depends on TACs themselves, and their ability to go beyond the usual pleas for government aid.

TACs may feel that this sort of advocacy makes them useful (or, put another way, justifies their existence and membership fees). But the truth is that such endless supplication harms everyone in the long run - with resources inefficiently channelled to unprofitable companies, at the expense of more deserving causes. In such an environment, any hope for industry-led innovation might as well be written off.

To prevent this from happening, TACs ought to conduct an honest review of their roles and responsibilities in the new economy.

After all, as Ms Kuik so rightly pointed out: "At the heart of every frustrating roadblock we'll face (is) actually just a cluster of cultural human habits - deeply rooted patterns of behaviour, emotion, and narrative that can prove surprisingly resistant to change even in the face of overwhelming logical evidence."

It's time for businesses and TACs to get over the old rhetoric of "ask for more, get some more". Only then can Singapore's new "spirit of enterprise", as envisioned by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, flourish.

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