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Industry transformation maps 'disconnected from needs of businesses'

Panellists at pre-Budget roundtable also point to ITMs' lack of links to other industries in fast-changing world

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Mr Liang Eng Hwa (left), chairman of the GPC for Finance, Trade & Industry and Dr Gerard Ee, ISCA president, at the event. Fifteen ITMs have been launched, with the remaining eight to be launched by March.

Singapore

NOT all businesses have benefited from the industry transformation maps (ITMs) that have been widely touted as the government's strategy to propel the economy into the future, said panellists at a pre-Budget roundtable on Tuesday.

ITMs were described as disconnected from the needs of industry and SMEs, as well as lacking horizontal links to other industries, they added.

Business and industry leaders gathered ahead of the Singapore Budget 2018 at this year's Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants (ISCA) Pre-Budget Roundtable to discuss key issues based on the theme "Partnering for Business Growth and Job Creation".

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The five guiding topics for the forum were ITMs, digital economies, internationalisation, innovation, and jobs & skills.

The issue of ITMs, first announced in Budget 2016, took up the bulk of the two-hour-long discussion.

One issue raised by Ho Meng Kit, CEO of the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) is the lack of awareness of ITMs by businesses.

This was attributed to the newness of some of the ITMs which were launched only recently.

The ITMs are strategic roadmaps tailored for industries to address specific issues through an integrated approach where trade associations and chambers (TACs), firms, and the government come together, led by an economic agency.

So far, 15 ITMs have been launched, and the remaining eight will be launched by March this year, making it a total of 23 ITMs which will cover 80 per cent of the economy.

During the discussion, Mr Ho pointed to the divide between the ITMs and the private sector.

He said: "There is the sense that whatever is developed in ITMs is disconnected from the reality of industry."

This was partly due to ITMs being driven by a government agency instead of by the private sector, he said. He suggested building better interfaces between public agencies in charge of ITMs and industry to address this.

Mr Ho also voiced his concern that the ITMs may be developed for larger companies in mind.

He said: "In each industry, there's a long tail of SMEs who are not as productive, not as innovative… Your ITMs must be relevant to these poorer performing SMEs. I'm not seeing that."

The lack of involvement of the private sector is another area of concern for panellist Piyush Gupta, speaking in his capacity as chairman of the Association of Banks in Singapore.

He believes that close collaboration and cooperation with TACs which are adequately organised to involve the industry is one key factor for businesses to succeed.

"When you don't have an appropriate TAC or engagement with the private sector, you will see less good outcomes," he said.

However, he questioned the timeliness and relevance of the ITMs. As the pace of change continues, the roadmap or blueprint put in place today will be outdated in the next six months.

"How do you produce the capacity to experiment and the capacity to keep changing? So far, ITMs are not doing that. We need to take ITMs to another level, which is to create industry capacity to experiment and continue to change."

He also noted the need for horizontal linkages between ITMs as the world continues to change and sector boundaries begin to blur.

This phenomenon of "sector convergence" was also frequently brought up by panellists, such as Max Loh, managing partner, Asean & Singapore, of Ernst & Young.

Even as ITMs aim to benefit as many SMEs as possible, not everyone is likely to gain, said Mr Loh.

"I can controversially say, even though it's meant for the broader SMEs at large, we have to be clear in our minds that it's not going to be the same for everybody… It is not going to be 100 per cent, and it is something you will have to live with."

But Liang Eng Hwa, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Finance, Trade & Industry, said in his keynote speech that the ITMs are "the way to go" to further transform the economy.

And while there criticisms that the ITMs are too vague and lack relevance, he emphasised that ITMs are still in an early phase and works in progress.

They may even change course as needed based on feedback from businesses or workers, or as external demand shifts, he said.

Ultimately, economic transformation - be it through ITMs, internationalisation, going digital, or building innovative capabilities - is not for its own sake, he said.

"Economic growth and activities are but a means to an end. The end is simply to create good jobs."

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