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Seizing growth possibilities in era of the 'never normal'

Asean-China economic collaboration will create many new opportunities in an era marked by constant disruption, innovation and reinvention. By Tin Pei Ling

Over the past one and a half years, we have seen dramatic changes to our everyday life - be it our working arrangements, social gatherings, or holiday plans. As countries continue to grapple with the ripple effects of the pandemic, most of us have come to accept that our lives may never return to what they used to be. In adapting to a highly uncertain new environment, volatility has become the new constant.

This period following the outbreak of Covid-19 has been termed by business entrepreneur and author Peter Hinssen as the "never normal" - an era that is marked by constant disruption, innovation and reinvention.

In this era of unprecedented change, countries and businesses are recalibrating their economic strategies to prepare for future risks - and many are realising that they cannot walk this path alone. As vaccine nationalism became a growing concern last year, Singapore played a key role in establishing a global effort to ensure affordable and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for all countries. The Friends of the Covax Facility (FOF), co-chaired by Singapore and Switzerland, comprises 14 countries that are actively supporting vaccine multilateralism to fight the pandemic.

Similarly, Asean leaders have banded together to kick-start economic recovery in the region. The Asean Digital Masterplan 2025 emphasises greater regional cooperation and collective action to strengthen supply chains, facilitate cross-border trade and promote seamless data flows. This is important for regional economic recovery, and to unlock new opportunities for growth and partnerships that would uplift our communities.

But even as regional partnerships are strengthened, one cannot overlook the importance of Asean-China economic collaboration as a key pillar for growth in the "never normal".

Expanding Asean-China economic collaboration

China is a world economic powerhouse with advanced technological capabilities that demonstrated resilience and ability to drive global growth even during a pandemic. As China and South-east Asia share centuries of trade and cultural interactions, it is no wonder China became Asean's top trading partner in 2020, and played a significant role in helping Asean nations in their fight against the virus.

Aside from becoming Asean's first partner to contribute US$1 million (S$1.35 million) to the Asean Covid-19 Response Fund, China allocated US$5 million to the Asean-China Cooperation Fund to support programmes in the public health sector and provide medical supplies and equipment to Asean member states. The country's vaccine diplomacy signals its resolve to support Asean in fighting the pandemic, while laying the groundwork for new economic growth.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is another milestone in boosting cross-border economic integration and creating the world's largest free-trade bloc. Together with the Belt and Road Initiative, the Asean-China digital economy partnership, and other areas for elevated economic cooperation between the two regions, businesses stand to gain many new opportunities in this "never normal" era.

Thriving in this new era and beyond will require fresh mindsets and business models to compete and rise above. So what could help to unlock the opportunities and steer organisations towards "never normal" success?


Graphic: Business China

Data and talent as valuable assets

As the world accelerates in all things digital, organisations are leveraging robotics, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to optimise business processes and generate growth. For instance, according to the McKinsey Global Survey on AI in 2020, companies seeing the most value from their use of AI reported better overall performance and leadership, and are more likely to increase their AI investments in the next three years.

While data is the fundamental building block in the future economy, having the right leaders and talent is crucial in order to be able to collect, process and utilise the data, as well as leverage new technological tools to optimise business outcomes.

In this "never normal", human jobs are becoming more skills-based. Our cognitive abilities to empathise with others, understand trends, concepts and ideas, and apply this knowledge for problem-solving and communication have become critical in harnessing the power of technology. These skills will be ever vital as a volatile world requires constant problem-solving and ideation to seize new opportunities.

Creating an environment for competition and growth

Seismic shifts in consumer behaviour and demand patterns are spurring innovation in the world's already vibrant start-up and entrepreneurial scene. Take, for instance, the rise of "super apps". With people spending more time at home, there is a growing demand for contactless alternatives to retail, services and entertainment. This trend deepened during the pandemic. For example, in China, one of the world's most digital nations pre-Covid-19, online grocery sales rose 15 to 20 percentage points during the peak of the crisis.

While these developments streamline operations, create jobs and bring about new excitements, there are some potential trade-offs to consider. Would it be a "winner takes all" for the big players? Would start-ups scale more quickly or fail faster? Could the solution be for the big companies or platforms to share knowledge, networks and/or provide capital support to uplift smaller ones, to connect the physical to the virtual, to go from local to global, and to promote adjacent industry growth as part of their CSR and ESG strategy? What is needed is a robust digital infrastructure and an enabling ecosystem that can create a win-win situation where the micro and smaller players thrive alongside the market leaders as they develop better products and services, given the increased possibilities and competition.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of adaptability and innovation. This is especially true for the healthcare sector today, where tried-and-true practices are adapted and transformed to cater to new demands. We see these changes in a myriad of medical services and practices - from the accelerated international development of Covid-19 vaccines, swift development of Covid-19 testing methods, the widespread pivot towards telehealth among healthcare providers, to the introduction of a home vaccination scheme in Singapore.

To find opportunities amid adversity, businesses will need to look beyond the norm and think the unthinkable. Take the nascent concept of a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC), which was almost unheard of a decade ago. Today, many central banks around the world are working on delivering their own digital currency, which can facilitate cross-border and cross-currency payments and transform the way economies are run. China, for instance, has piloted e-CNY since 2020. In a future where all payments are electronic, what are the benefits to be reaped? What trade-offs should be considered? Just as large multinational corporations have transcended physical boundaries by tapping overseas markets, smaller enterprises can do so in the virtual realm too - by leveraging digital services to expand their horizons, chart new frontiers and secure "virtually unlimited opportunities".

Thriving together in the "never normal"

The FutureChina Global Forum is Business China's flagship programme that provides a high-level and diverse platform for sharing insights into China's economic and social growth. This picture was taken at the FutureChina Global Forum in 2019. Photo: Business China

Nobody knows when Disease X will emerge. But scientists are now on a quest to develop a universal vaccine that protects against known and unknown coronaviruses. While this could still take years, our shared experience with Covid-19 shows that collective and cooperative regional efforts can help rebuild and redefine existing norms, and enable extraordinary development and innovation to take root.

To weather future headwinds and capture emerging opportunities, we must continue strengthening cross-border ties between Singapore and China - to exchange ideas, engage with others and evolve together with Asean.

New horizons at the FutureChina Global Forum

The changing format of the annual FutureChina Global Forum (FCGF), organised by Business China, over the past few years is a reminder that we are now living in a fast-changing world. Last year, the event was held virtually for the first time since its inauguration in 2010. With the good progress we have made in controlling the pandemic since then, Business China looks forward to welcoming participants back this year.

FCGF 2021, which takes place next Monday and Tuesday, will be a hybrid event, comprising physical and virtual components to provide participants with a new and valuable experience. The forum gathers political leaders, business leaders and industry experts to discuss Asean's trends, developments, and growth opportunities that await us in the "never normal" era.

The writer is the CEO of Business China, a non-profit organisation to cultivate bilingual and bicultural Singapore-China-savvy talents.

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