Navigating a new, post-pandemic world

Industry players encourage sustainability, upskilling staff and using digital solutions to manage the challenging business environment


  • Christie Chu, head of emerging business and commercial banking cash, global commercial banking, OCBC
  • Soh Leng Wan, assistant CEO, manufacturing & engineering, Enterprise Singapore
  • Lim Keng Hui, assistant CEO, Science and Engineering Research Council, A*Star
  • Jayotika Mohan, head of Asia-Pacific startups and small and medium business sales, Google Cloud
  • Jonathan Yuen, head of commercial litigation, head of employment & benefits, Rajah & Tann
  • Toh Lee Chiang, vice-president for business segment and group enterprise, Singtel
  • Puneet Arora, CEO of Singapore and chairman of Philippines and Thailand, Wavemaker
  • Kwan Chong Wah, CEO and co-founder, Acorn Group
  • Deborah Heng, country manager, Singapore, Mastercard
  • Adrian Tan, partner and lead, ESG Practice, RSM Singapore

Moderator: Venga Subramaniam, The Business Times

Q: Even as the world reopens its borders, geopolitical challenges like the Ukraine conflict and lockdowns in China pose challenges. What do companies need to be aware of when venturing overseas?

Chu: Entering new markets is as demanding and challenging as it is exciting, especially in a post-pandemic world. Unfamiliarity with processes and standards of foreign markets is a real problem, but it can be resolved by tapping resources such as government agencies and private organisations. Banks typically can offer expertise and network of contacts in this area, which small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) should tap into and benefit from. Another possible solution is to collaborate with a suitable local partner, one that is trustworthy with an established track record of experience and success, and which shares your vision and values.

Soh: Companies need to invest time and resources to build a good understanding of not just their own business operations, but also their partners' operations, so as to identify the possible ripple effects when the operating environment changes.

More than before, companies need to put in place business continuity plans and diversify their demand and supply base. These include looking outwards to tap opportunities in new markets. Singapore companies can tap on Enterprise Singapore's (EnterpriseSG) 36 global overseas centres for in-market knowledge and latest developments.

A company that is adaptable and has diversified options will not only remain resilient, but may even stand to capture new revenue streams. One such company is Sunningdale Tech, which expanded into Mexico as part of their longer-term plan to enhance supply chain resilience. Through this early move, Sunningdale diversified its network of suppliers and captured new customer bases in both North and South Americas.

Tan: Every company looking to venture overseas needs to have a risk management framework and regularly conducts risk assessments to ensure business success. These assessments must include an analysis of geopolitical risks and how they may adversely impact one's supply chain management; and current revenue, profitability and cash-flow management. Companies need to be resilient and agile by building contingency plans to deal with significant risks that may arise from ongoing geopolitical conflicts in the region.

Kwan: Whether it is now or in the best of times, businesses venturing overseas must know they cannot plan and anticipate everything. There will always be volatility and unpredictability. Whether you can overcome them and thrive, would depend on who you have on the ground to solve that problem.

Therefore, what is business critical is whether you have a super street-smart local or, better still, a team of them. Hire locals early, train them well, align them to your corporate ethos, set clear objectives and most important of all: reward them well. When that is in place, 'a hundred battles, a hundred victories'.

Q: What is the importance of sustainability and why does it need to be part of a company's long-term strategy?

Lim: Sustainability can be turned into a competitive advantage and create strategic impact. Building up robust environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) programmes can help attract investments and collaborations from both public and private institutions, which are increasingly keen on partnering businesses with strong ESG practices to jointly build long-term value. Sustainability practices seek to reduce the use of energy, waste, and resources such as materials and water, thus leading to cost savings. By allocating capital and resources to adopt such practices, use energy-efficient equipment or invest in research and development (R&D), companies can enhance investment returns and keep their green efforts sustainable.

Adopting new and sustainable business approaches can also help to: reduce business costs by improving resource efficiency; enhance brand reputation, which helps companies secure future earnings through stakeholder loyalty and advocacy; and empower companies to be future-ready for sustainability-oriented regulations and industry trends.

A*Star, JTC and TUV SUD launched the Green Compass initiative in 2021 to develop a sustainability framework that offers a set of tools and training to guide businesses towards more sustainable models. Through this initiative, companies can assess how environmentally sustainable they are, conduct gap analysis, prioritise areas for improvements, and develop a road map to achieve their sustainability goals.

Mohan: Sustainability is important to Google and Google Cloud for a number of reasons.

Firstly, combating climate change is a foundational value for Google. As we all know, climate change is no longer a distant threat. We are seeing the impact of climate change around the world with extreme weather events. We need urgent solutions to address the challenge.

Secondly, business leaders are increasingly involved and engaged around the topic of sustainability. This has become a strategic imperative, not just as a corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme - and this is set at the board level. Business leaders acknowledge the need for urgent change and to ensure that their business practices are sustainability-focused to retain their customers, partners, and employees.

Thirdly, sustainability must be part of organisations' long-term growth strategy. We've found that 79 per cent of consumers are changing purchase preferences due to environmental impact, and 89 per cent of developers would move to a more sustainable data centre option if they were presented with the choice. As organisations build out their teams, we've found that this is an opportunity for cultural transformation and to attract talent who are increasingly concerned about sustainability and sustainable practices.

With these 3 factors in mind, local organisations can benefit from Google being the first major company to become carbon neutral in 2007 and being the first major company to match our annual electricity use with 100 per cent renewable energy every year since 2017. As a result, the infrastructure and services that Google Cloud provides to enterprises, including those in Singapore, already have a carbon footprint of net zero. On average, a Google data centre also uses 50 per cent less energy than a typical data centre and delivers 7 times more computing power than we did in 2016.

As we enter our third decade of climate action, Google aims to operate entirely on 24/7 carbon-free energy by 2030 at all of our data centres, cloud regions and campuses worldwide. This goes beyond the net-zero model of "emit and compensate" and targeting "absolute zero" instead, in which we don't emit carbon from our operations in the first place. This is critical for Google and our Google Cloud customers.

Yuen: Sustainability is important as it guides and reminds us of how we should conduct our business today to ensure profitable growth is aligned with, and not at the expense of, our environment and future generations. As a part of our long-term strategy, it signals our commitment and direction that will shape the way we think, act and advise our clients and help us play a deliberate and proactive role in creating a climate-resilient, inclusive and adaptable world.

Arora: Developing forward-thinking sustainability initiatives will create long-term value that lasts across our employees, clients, vendors and the industry. In today's context, this direct correlation has only gotten stronger. An inclusive integration with multi-level governance will be critical for companies to remain relevant in the business landscape and be sustainable.

As transparency becomes more prevalent, the strategy of the business and sustainability efforts must be aligned as driving sustainability will have its own unique set of challenges. With increased expectations on CSR, one can no longer rely only on professional good intentions and must have the authority to implement initiatives to hit ambitious sustainability goals.

Sustainability must be anchored as a strategic priority in corporate cultures. When this becomes a part of a company's DNA, only then can the business yield value for the future across all of its stakeholders and the industry.

Q: With the increased usage of digital platforms in the modern business environment, how important is it to invest in cybersecurity?

Toh: Cybersecurity risks have increased as more SMEs move to a digital-first or even digital-only way of working and operations, and the frequency of cyberattacks are intensifying. One of the reasons why they may be targeted by cybercriminals is because they are seen as a way of getting to larger companies in the supply chain. The damage from cyberattacks are costly and especially pronounced for smaller companies, who may be unable to recover from the financial and reputational damage.  

Despite the rising risks, many SMEs remain vulnerable to cyberthreats such as phishing attacks, which are becoming more common. We have seen a growing awareness among our SME customers to improve their security posture as they digitalise, but because they often do not know where to start or lack the resources of bigger companies, we provide a suite of cybersecurity solutions including unified threat management service which protects data, network and critical assets as well as security-as-a-service which monitors the performance of security applications on a single platform. As more SMEs adopt software-defined networking, we have also integrated security features into this solution, so that they can expand their operations and go to market faster in a safe manner. This approach has encouraged more SMEs to invest in cybersecurity solutions over the past year.

Heng: The pandemic has accelerated the shift towards a digital world, where our lives become more connected and digital-first, and businesses including SMEs move their storefronts online. As people work, shop and transact online more, the challenge for businesses is to provide simple experiences without compromising on security. Digitalisation has led to more points of vulnerability that cybercriminals, who are becoming more sophisticated over time, are quick to exploit.

With cyberhacks on the rise, the first step for businesses in defending important assets is getting educated about cyberthreats. As businesses become more digital, it is critical that they understand their own cybersecurity risks to gain visibility into the areas where they are most vulnerable. Next, it is getting the right tools to fend off cyberattacks. That is why Mastercard is leveraging its educational resources and leading cybertechnology to protect SMEs around the world, granting them free or subsidised resources to defend against attacks while giving them access to new technology to enhance their business.

At the same time, consumers are increasingly aware and concerned about cybersecurity. Mastercard's 2022 New Payments Index reveals that security remains top of mind among the respondents, with 56 per cent in Asia-Pacific saying that security is their top influence in deciding which payment method to use. This also puts the pressure on businesses to ensure that their payment platforms are secure.

However, as businesses tighten security to counter growing cyberthreats, billions of dollars in genuine transactions are mistakenly declined as fraud, creating negative experiences for both merchants and consumers. The Mastercard Connected Intelligence is an end-to-end data-driven approach which helps our partners identify legitimate users and payment interactions, saving businesses billions of dollars each year. By leveraging rich data sources and machine learning, it links insights across every point of interaction in the customer journey to help merchants and consumers make intelligent security decisions. From the moment a consumer arrives on a merchant site or a financial institution's online banking site or app, to securely and seamlessly completing a transaction - it is crucial to continuously assess risk, reduce the need for unnecessary friction, and optimise the consumer experience.

Mohan: The business benefits of the shift from legacy or on-premise infrastructure to the public cloud are clear: increased productivity, enhanced customer experiences, decreased capital expenditure, and reduced time-to-market for new products and services. Security is another key cloud adoption consideration.

Effective security requires a combination of tools, best practices, and the implementation of these tools and best practices. On average, enterprises deploy 45 cybersecurity related tools on their networks. The reality, however, is that you might decide to procure all the security hardware and software in the world, but if your password is "password1234", you would still be vulnerable. What we've therefore seen is that organisations end up buying the tools, but don't implement the right governance and policies around them - most hacks or breaches happen because of human error.

With this situation in mind, companies - including large and traditional conglomerates in regulated industries - are starting to realise that public clouds operate at sufficient scale to implement higher levels of security that few organisations can fully construct on their own. Google has been operating securely in the cloud for more than 20 years. Google Cloud is therefore offering enterprises the same modern, built-in protections that Google uses to secure its applications and data at a global scale.

Q: In the war for talent, how can companies hire the best people and upskill their existing staff to ensure they have a competent workforce?

Soh: To stay ahead, companies must keep abreast of the latest business and manpower trends to identify talent and skills gaps. This will enable them to devise specific human capital strategies in tandem to ensure access to the required talent pool, as well as forward planning of career and training pathways to develop and retain existing talents.

For instance, companies can engage prospective employees early through career roadshows in schools and develop targeted internship programmes to build a talent pipeline. For existing employees, companies should proactively identify new skill sets and train them to keep up with the transformation of the business.

Leaders too must continue to learn and improve. One such programme is EnterpriseSG's Enterprise Leadership for Transformation programme, which seeks to equip SME leaders with the skills and know-how to take their business to the next level of growth.

Yuen: The best talent can only be acquired if companies commit themselves to hiring fairly and on merit. Employers should not discriminate on characteristics that are not related to their job, such as age, gender, nationality or race. Companies operating in Singapore must comply with the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices and the Fair Consideration Framework, which sets out requirements for all employers to consider the workforce in Singapore fairly for job opportunities. Employers that do not adhere to these directives will not just lose out on talent, but will also face action from the Ministry of Manpower.

Arora: Taking a candidate-centric mindset is the winning strategy in the war for talent. The knowledge and power has transferred from employer to employee, and it's critical to acknowledge that recruitment is as much about the company as it is about the candidate. Being transparent and responsive throughout the hiring process creates a personalised experience which goes a long way. This applies to information around expectations of the role, company culture and progress milestones. Having open discussions will also help to draw out if the company's values are indeed aligned with the candidate's own expectations.

It's not just enough to hire the best people before our competitors; retaining existing talents is strategically more important than ever. The pandemic posed a challenge in employee engagement and has proven how critical it is to upskill and reskill our workforce. Learning is an ongoing process. As employers, we'll need to start by building a learning environment to give employees an avenue to learn and grow both professionally and personally. This will allow us to reap many benefits of talent retention.

Tan: To hire or attract the best talent, companies could build a purpose-focused people culture and strong employer brand. They need to understand why employees stay and why they leave, and formulate a "3R and 1D" strategy (recruit, retain, reward, and develop). Employee value propositions have to be clearly defined and communicated to employees and the market of talents. The "right" talent wants to be associated with the company and knows why they want to be part of the team. Internal employees are the best brand ambassadors of a company. Staff referral works when they want to share valuable opportunities with their friends.

Companies can build a competent workforce by:

  1. Building a learning culture where learning tools are easily accessible to staff, through in-house curated or externally sourced learning and development programmes. This framework would form a part of the career progression plan for staff.
  2. Having every staff own his or her own training log, while the company provides them with the learning environment.
  3. Using technology to track learning journals. Manual records won't help, and the process will not be sustainable in the long run.

Kwan: I believe the best strategy for hiring and retaining the best people is to give them a stake in the business - more so now than before. Much has been said about millennials and Gen Zs and their priority on work-life balance. On this aspiration, I do not think they are intrinsically different from the Gen X before them, nor the earlier baby boomers. The only difference is that millennials and Gen Zs can better afford to wait and choose. This is the generation that breaks no sweat about doing a gap year during college, or doing a sabbatical after 2-3 years of working, or bootstrapping in a startup. Their out-of-job risk is a lot less compared to the baby boomers. Their Gen X parents would be there to provide a safety net. Disclaimer: I am not being judgmental. On the contrary, I am supportive of this career journey.

One way of retaining them is for them to have a sense of ownership - that is, for them to have skin in the game. This raises the stake and, hopefully, their enthusiasm and engagement with the business. Ditto upskilling - if they are engaged, they would be self-motivated to upskill.

Q: What role does digitalisation play in today's business environment, and how can companies make the best use of technology?

Lim: Digitalisation not only helps boost companies' top lines by increasing efficiency with digital technologies but is beneficial in many other ways, such as helping to combat manpower shortages through process automation, improving decision-making through data intelligence, increasing revenue through new products and services, and staying competitive for the future.

For example, digitalisation has helped Abrasive Engineering (AE) - a local manufacturing SME that makes sandblasting and shot-peening machines for the aerospace, marine, automotive and oil and gas industries - increase its annual revenue, expand its factory operations and create more jobs. AE tapped on A*Star's Model Factory to digitalise the shot-peening process of its machines which, by using AI and automation, improves the manufacturing process and digitally records every step of the process for better traceability, enhancing both efficiency and accuracy.

Companies can also benefit from digitalisation by improving business processes that ultimately drive increased efficiency and revenue. For example, national carrier Singapore Airlines and SIA Engineering Company leveraged A*Star's capabilities to work on advanced AI solutions to improve engineering productivity, customer experience and cost-effectiveness of airline operations through predictive analytics and optimisation.

Heng: Digitalisation not only improves business efficiency, but is also essential to staying competitive in a transformed business and economic environment. At the same time, it helps to enhance consumer experiences.

Both consumers and businesses expect to be able to move their money in real time, without any hassle or wait, accelerating the need for digitalisation in payments modernisation. We used to think of reform as a top-down change, introduced by governments and financial institutions, but in today's world, we often see influences and change being driven from the bottom up in multiple markets, with the rising demand for digital payments driving innovation.

Mastercard's 2022 New Payments Index reveals that 88 per cent of respondents in Asia-Pacific have used at least 1 emerging payment method in the last year, and these behaviours are expected to continue in the future, with an overwhelming 93 per cent indicating that they are likely to use a digital payment method in the next year. Consumers are also notably comfortable with biometrics, with more than two-thirds feeling safer using biometrics to verify a purchase than entering a PIN, password or other form of identification. At the same time, while 56 per cent in Asia-Pacific keep security top of mind when choosing their payment method, 37 per cent per cent cited ease of use as a key deciding factor.

This behavioural shift is reinforced by people's desire for choice. All these mean that businesses that can provide multiple ways to shop and pay - using technology that is convenient and secure - will be best positioned to meet the fast-changing needs of consumers, which are shaping the future of commerce for years to come.

Toh: Digitalisation opens up opportunities for businesses to innovate and venture into new markets to grow their customer base and enhance their competitiveness. SMEs tend to be more agile as they have less complicated legacy systems compared to larger companies, allowing them to digitalise their business processes quickly and launch products to market faster. They can also achieve better productivity by digitalising their work processes.

We find that SMEs are keen to embrace digitalisation but with the economic headwinds, some are finding it increasingly challenging due to limited financial resources and low awareness of government initiatives available to support them in their digital transformation journeys. It can also be overwhelming with the amount of information and communications technology solutions out there and the lack of a digitally skilled workforce.

SMEs can tap government funding to invest in digital solutions and receive consultancy services from technology partners like us to accelerate their digital journey safely and easily. In our Let's Get Digital initiative, we often educate SMEs that going digital does not need to be overly complicated or require an overhaul of operations or hefty investments. We have engaged more than 12,000 SMEs in 2021 as part of this initiative which comprises digital clinics, webinars and online courses aimed at helping SMEs begin their digital transformation.

Chu: Beyond the initial rush to digitalise basic capabilities to sustain their operations in the midst of global lockdowns, many businesses have pressed on with their digitalisation efforts, transforming their business models and operations through better design and data analytics.

Based on our analysis, highly digital SMEs - which conduct more than 50 per cent of banking activities digitally - significantly outperformed their less-digital peers in sales by as much as 4 times. They were more comprehensive in their digitalisation efforts, having expanded their reach to new customers and markets through participation in digital trade and marketplaces, and optimised their operations and costs with better data.

Helping SMEs unlock and understand the value of their data to obtain better business outcomes is a key priority in our digitalisation push with them. We were the first in Singapore to integrate business financial management capabilities into our digital business banking platform. These capabilities allow SMEs to easily access a 360-degree view of their sales, expenses and cash-flow trends, enabling them to identify patterns and gain insights for better business planning.



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