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Social inequality, rising China among key trends flagged by DBS chief, conference panellists

Piyush Gupta
DBS chief executive Piyush Gupta delivered the opening remarks at the DBS Asian Insights Conference on July 13, 2018.

THE evolving nature of work is among the major structural changes in the world today, said DBS chief executive Piyush Gupta on Friday morning.

With the so-called gig economy “going to be significant” in future, alongside trends such as ageing populations and growing automation, “you're going to have to think about welfare in a very different way”, he noted.

Mr Gupta was delivering the opening remarks at the DBS Asian Insights Conference, at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre.

“Allocation of resources, social goals and social platforms are going to change radically, and we've got to prepare for that,” he said.

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“We have to think about inequity. Over the last five to seven years, a lot of the biggest drivers of the sins of tribalism, nationalism, protectionism is indeed this whole question of the inequitable distribution of the outcomes of globalisation, the outcomes of technology.”

Mr Gupta asked his audience when the phenomenon of inequality would “come to the tipping point” in areas such as mass migration and social strife.

“What will governments and even the private sector need to do to stay ahead of the game and make sure that the fruits of our labour and outcomes are better balanced and more evenly distributed?”

Panellist Singaporean social scientist Noeleen Heyzer, a former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, said that technology could actually exacerbate inequality “if we do not deal with the fact of the extreme concentration of wealth” in the hands of a few.

“We cannot have a crisis of moral imagination,” she added.

Replying to an audience question about what jobs could be left for “mass employment”, panellist and former civil service chief Peter Ho said that the question of job displacement was, to him, “a bit of a red herring”.

He cited the proportion of young people in the gig economy as evidence of “a big change about how younger people see jobs and about what technology is enabling people to do”.

With emerging technologies also adding new, digital-related roles in the workforce, Mr Ho added: “The question is whether we can retrain people fast enough for new jobs.”

Poon King Wang, director of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, argued that what is needed are tools to better track what jobs are being created and which are being made redundant.

“Jobs are not replaced job by job or even skill by skill,” said Mr Poon, adding that the change is happening “task by task”.

Other global issues that Mr Gupta brought up included the pressures of climate change, as well as the shift of economic power eastward and China's growing role on the world stage, “both in economic and geopolitical terms”.

Mr Ho said: “The obvious and rational response to the rise of China is to see it as an opportunity while recognising the nature of China's rise.”

Mr Ho, senior adviser to the Centre for Strategic Futures, a Singapore government think-tank, added that a perception in the West of China as a “copycat” is “in some ways ideological”. He warned that such a “deep misunderstanding” of competition from China poses the danger of underestimating its potential for innovation, particularly under external pressure - although Mr Ho did not mention by name the ongoing trade and technology tensions with the United States.

Mr Gupta said at the close of his welcome speech: “I have to confess, it is not always clear that you can call the future. But it is clear that you must have a point of view.”