TL;DR – It’s not business as usual. We all need to do our part
2016 won’t end on a high note.
There are many reasons for that, one of which is the gloomy economic climate in Singapore. The latest numbers that add to the gloom are from International Enterprise (IE) Singapore. On a year-on-year basis, non-oil domestic exports (NODX) plunged 12% in October. That decline extended the 5% contraction in September. And given all that’s happening around the world, we might be heading into a storm.
The dismal trade outlook has set off fears that Singapore seems to be on the precipice of a recession. And of course, the government is also concerned. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Labour Chief, Mr Chan Chun Sing told reporters that the government is monitoring the economy closely.
But Mr Chan was quick to point out that the situation this time round is different from 2008 and 2009, where the slowdown was across the board. This time round, there are sectors which are still doing well. That’s why the government’s approach this time round will be different. Mr Chan explained:
“So what we’re doing from the Government and labour movement perspective is to make sure that we harness our resources and take very specific and targeted measures to help those sectors that are not doing as well, yet at the same time we must also create the conditions for those sectors that are doing well to continue to do well”
Mr Chan was speaking at the sidelines of NTUC’s U Future Leaders Summit. We attended the summit and got a sense that in order for all of us to survive the economic storm, the government, employers and individuals have all got to do our part
1. The Government
In his keynote speech at the summit, Mr Chan explained what he saw as the challenge facing our economy. He recounted a meeting he had with a group of accountants. He asked them whether they thought that they will lose their jobs because of technological advancements. Half of them said that they felt they might lose their jobs, while they other half weren’t worried.
Mr Chan went on to explain that technological advancements do provide challenges. Any jobs that can be done over the internet will see their wages go down to the global minimum. As such, accountants doing simple book keeping work will lose their jobs. Whatever work that can be done or delivered over the internet can and will be competed away, whether we close our doors to foreign manpower or not. But accountants who are able to provide value added services in adjacent sectors will thrive.
The example shows that as much as technological advancements will bring disruptions and destroy jobs, they also create opportunities. Or, as Mr Chan put it:
“Technology is neutral. Circumstances do not define us. How we respond to them is what matters.”
So what is the government doing in response to the disruptions and the impending storm?
The government can take the quick and simple way out. It can just focus on implementing policies that redistribute more wealth from those with high incomes to the rest of Singaporeans. In the short term, it would appear to solve the problem. That may reduce the income gap. But, according to Mr Chan, that is a politically expedient way. A good politician will adopt such an approach. But it doesn’t solve the root of the problem and is not sustainable.
Instead, Mr Chan hopes to be a good political leader and adopt a more sustainable and long term approach. He would prefer the government to be targeted in the redistribution of wealth. The government would then need to complement these redistributive policies with measures that allow people to have social mobility. In other words, the government needs to invest correctly in developing measures to allow people to not have to rely on redistributive measures.
Amongst these measures include $4.5 billion Industry Transformation Map to help businesses in Singapore capitalise on the opportunities created by the technological advancements. The measures also include moves to help people re-skill, up-skill to take advantage of the transformation of businesses in Singapore.
But such an approach, while more sustainable, is more difficult. Why? Because the government cannot do it alone.
2. Employers and businesses
The industry transformation maps can only work if employers and businesses in Singapore are willing to change and innovate. It’s not an easy task. Change is never easy. But there are bright spots, companies which are already well on the path of innovation.
At the seminar, top executives from various companies spoke, including Mr Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS Group, Mr Shane Owenby, VP of Amazon Web Services for Asia Pacific, and Ms Grace Ho, COO of SingPost. They are all well aware of the need to change and innovate. They spoke about how they are taking various steps to encourage their staff to experiment, make mistakes, fail, learn, and do things better and more creatively.
For example, Mr Owenby from Amazon told the seminar that Amazon is always actively working on their next big failure. Staff at Amazon (or known as Amazonians) also know that they wouldn’t be “executed” for failures. Instead, they are often celebrated for their failures. As such, Amazonians make a lot of mistakes. Such a culture allows Amazon to innovate fast.
DBS also has taken multiple steps to encourage their staff to learn new skills, try different skills and innovate. They have taken a different approach for their staff to learn new skills. Instead of just going on courses, they get their staff to involved in hackathons. The participants are given a problem to solve and time to pick up the skills needed to come up with a prototype solution. They found that this “learning by doing” approach has helped their staff better able to innovate. Never thought we’d hear this coming from a local bank operating in the supposedly rigid environment, but Mr Gupta shared that one of their KPIs is do 1,000 experiments!
The top executives also told the seminar that they are putting greater emphasis on hiring staff that are able to help their company innovate. Ms Ho said “At SingPost, we know it cannot be business as usual. So we cannot just hire in the usual way.”
So what sort of people are these top executives looking for?
The common traits include:
- People who have fire in the belly, who have ambition and are willing to take the initiative to think out of the box and question the status quo.
- People who have the mental agility and able to deal with ambiguity
- People who have an appetite for risks and are able to inspire others to follow them.
- People who are technically savvy, particularly with digital technology.
We think what these top executives are saying are strong signals that individuals do need to change their mindset when it comes to their careers.
Indeed, no matter what the government does, or how businesses change, the only way Singapore can truly come out of this economic storm stronger is if Singaporeans also do our part. One common thread across all different speakers at the seminar was that Singaporeans need to change our mindsets regarding our careers.
One speaker, Ms Angeline Poh, the Assistant CEO of the Infocomm and Media Development Authority (IMDA), told the seminar that we need to think of our careers not as ladders where we move only in one direction, but as lattices cutting across different functions and industries. She encouraged Singaporeans to keep thinking of how we can continue to stay relevant even as the technology causes economy and society to change.
Given the diverse backgrounds of the speakers at the seminar, it seemed that the message is clear. It’s not business as usual. Old norms will be broken. We need to be prepared for the change. As individuals, just as the government and businesses, we cannot keep doing things in the same way. We have to do our part to take charge of charting out our own future in the new economic reality.