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Harder now to retool Singapore economy

Technological disruption, rapidly-changing global environment make planned outcomes tougher

Even as the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) begins its work, private-sector economists caution against hopes for a big bang outcome that will significantly address Singapore's immediate challenges.


EVEN as the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) begins its work, private-sector economists caution against hopes for a big bang outcome that will significantly address Singapore's immediate challenges.

That's largely because technological disruption and the rapidly-changing global environment make earlier strategies - such as the tactic of picking winning sectors to boost economic growth - tougher to execute.

Other domestic factors weigh heavily as well. Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML) economist Chua Hak Bin told The Business Times: "It's that much harder now to retool the economy. Singapore has already reached such an affluent stage, and there's the sense that there are a lot more constraints now - such as ageing demographics and the inability to tap on talent as freely as before."

Indeed, in updating the 2010 Economic Strategies Committee (ESC) report, the 30-member CFE will have to take into account new global and domestic realities. Chaired by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, the panel has been tasked with developing economic strategies to keep Singapore competitive; it aims to complete its work by the end of 2016.

Until then, the question that looms large is whether or not the CFE report will contain anything "large and decisive enough to make an impact", as one economist put it.

After all, most find it difficult to imagine how the panel can match past watershed moves - including the decision to create a private wealth management industry from scratch, or the introduction of casinos to boost tourism, or the slashing of income and corporate tax rates.

BAML's Dr Chua therefore thinks that the likelihood of a "tinkering at the margins" is high. "I don't think the policy flexibility is as wide as it was previously, despite the 2015 election result (in favour of the ruling People's Action Party). It's no longer just about reviving growth - a lot of social and political constraints have now come into play."

Still, Mizuho economist Vishnu Varathan thinks there is scope for Singapore to reinvent its hub status - especially with Asean's ambition of creating a single market and production base (obstacles to that lofty goal notwithstanding).

Said Mr Varathan: "I think Singapore has actually underrated itself in areas of competency like regional law and intellectual property law. We already have a nice network of finance marrying up with legal and accounting standards that we can leverage on.

"That's where Singapore will have to position itself - as a premier services producer that will enhance the rest of Asean as manufacturing base. In essence, we become the finance department, the legal department, and the front office of this entire (AEC) institution."

Put another way, Mr Varathan said that Singapore's strategy should be: "Even if I can't get my finger in that pie my neighbour is having, I want to be the one providing him with the silverware to eat off that pie."

Meanwhile, CIMB Private Banking economist Song Seng Wun believes the government must also think about how it can restructure itself, so as to support the needs of the future economy.

"Rather than point the finger, the government should maybe take a look back at itself ... For example, everything is so intertwined now, so rather than having the EDB (Economic Development Board), IE (International Enterprise Singapore), and Spring Singapore existing as separate entities with different functions, why not regroup them into one again? Singapore is a small economy; it can be done," said Mr Song.

Still, even as the country looks ahead to seek sustainable growth and opportunities for all, economists stressed the need for Singapore to hold fast to its existing strengths.

"Alongside these new and higher aspirations, we'll need to be careful that our policies don't threaten our existing strengths," said Dr Chua, citing Singapore's port and financial services sectors as strategic leads to retain.

The CFE has said it will address five key themes: future growth industries and markets; corporate capabilities and innovation; jobs and skills; urban development and infrastructure; and connectivity.

  • This is the first of a series of articles on Singapore's economic restructuring. In the following weeks, BT will take a closer look at how each of these key themes will factor into Singapore's future economic development.

READ MORE: BT Infographics: Taking the next step, again

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