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INSIDE VIEW

When Singapore has to keep on keeping on

Saturday, February 11, 2017 - 05:50

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1 What do you think was the most remarkable thing that happened this week?

We are just past our third week of the Trump presidency today, but boy, can time be relative when it wants to be. In 21 days, we have seen several months' worth of surreal news that the darkest bowels of Hollywood and Washington DC could not have made up, for all the Emoluments Clauses in the world.

So it comes as a relief then that this week, the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) has given Singapore a report to mull over. The CFE was established in 2016, and tasked with steering the future of the country's economy. On Thursday, it released its recommendations, which were grouped into seven strategies. These addressed areas such digital and enterprise capabilities, international connections, as well as innovation and growth.

2 Why is this a big deal?

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It is the context of the CFE report that lends the recommendations significance, more than anything else. We live in fraught times. Last month, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists adjusted the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to imminent doom, at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. The clock is a symbolic countdown to the end of the world - or "midnight".

This is the closest we have been to blowing ourselves to kingdom come since 1953. The Bulletin's Science and Security Board noted "a rise in strident nationalism worldwide", Donald Trump's remarks on nuclear arms and climate issues, and a darkening global security landscape. Fun times.

The CFE report is mindful, too, of the bleak backdrop it's been dealt. It notes that global growth has been subdued, productivity growth worldwide has been sluggish and that the world has seen a "dark shift in mood" away from globalisation. In the report, there are suggestions for new efforts, such as a "global innovation alliance" and a dedicated programme office to support enterprises in making the most of data.

At the same time, many of the recommendations are in the vein of "keep on keeping on" while improving with each iteration. Develop more internationalisation programmes. Introduce more specialised spaces that improve land productivity. Expand our pipeline of entrepreneurial talent.

This is partially because some recommendations are already being implemented. But it is clear that navigating an increasingly unclear future requires incremental adjustments to the course, not wild swings of the rudder.

An OCBC Bank report notes: "The CFE thrusts are not intrinsically different or totally groundbreaking from earlier government strategic plans, but reinforce the growing need to stay connected even amidst an emerging shift by some of our key trading partners towards protectionism and insular growth."

3 Did you see it coming?

The report had been in the pipeline for a while, so yes. But what is surprising is how much darker a place the world has become since the committee was first formed - just over a year ago.

4 Should anyone be worried?

Not about the report, no. But there is plenty of room to be vexed about the future. Singapore has always been buffeted by external forces it has little control over, but the waves it faces this coming decade appear particularly high and threatening. So, it will be all Singapore can do to stay on course.

5 What happens now?

For starters, the government will respond to the CFE report in the Budget 2017 speech on Feb 20, as well as in the Committee of Supply Debates. But in more abstract terms, the real work needed to keep on keeping on is just beginning.

 

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