SBF Hosts Dialogue with Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong on Helping Companies Emerge StrongerTuesday, 29 June 2021 [Singapore] – The Singapore Business Federation (SBF) held an online dialogue this afternoon with Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong to discuss and exchange views on the issues and challenges faced by businesses and how they can recover, grow and thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the future.
Held in conjunction with SBF’s 19th Annual General Meeting, the dialogue involved about 350 business leaders, including SBF Council Members and C-Suite and senior representatives from SBF member companies.
The theme for the ministerial dialogue was “Emerging Stronger in a post COVID-19 economy” and centred on current outlook and challenges, growth opportunities, and how we can emerge stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Current Outlook and Challenges
Companies need to be agile and adaptable to the fluid situation
Participants noted that given the very fluid situation, it is important for companies to have contingency plans so that they can weather through times of difficulties. Companies need to be prepared for a tightening of COVID-19 measures from time to time. Participants expressed their appreciation to the Government for adopting a calibrated approach in the implementation of these measures and for the timely and targeted Government support schemes that has helped many businesses tide through the challenges.
Participants in the F&B and retail sectors also shared the challenges they faced in digitalisation and their concerns about increased competition in the e-commerce space. Minister Wong highlighted that the pandemic has accelerated digitalisation globally and local businesses must transform quickly or risk losing out to competitors overseas. He encouraged businesses to be bold and innovative and support their employees in reskilling so that they can develop resilience, recover, and succeed in a post COVID-19 landscape.
Remaining open and connected to the world
With COVID-19 expected to be endemic, participants noted the need to shift efforts to how to live and work with COVID-19. One key priority for businesses is the reopening of borders and resumption of business travel. Noting the good progress in our vaccination efforts, participants urged the Government to start reopening our borders for travel with no or significantly shortened Stay Home Notice. They also urged the Government to continue actively engage other countries on initiatives like green lanes, travel bubbles and mutual recognition of vaccination certificates to facilitate travel. Participants highlighted the need to safeguard Singapore’s position as an international business hub, for Singapore to remain open and connected, and to give due consideration to the global business interests of many companies here in Singapore.
In response, Minister Wong spoke about living in a new normal of endemic COVID-19, where it is like any other illness like influenza, and we learn to adapt to it. He added that Singapore will get there when we reach a high enough rate of vaccination. Minister added that “countries that open up too quickly or prematurely, without sufficient protection for the seniors, will not only see high infection rates – another wave, another cluster – but potentially higher hospitalisation and even fatalities, which is what we are trying to avoid. Before we get to this new phase of high levels of vaccine coverage and a “new normal”, we are in a transition phase”.
Minister Wong explained more about what this transition phase means. He said, “Firstly, we will still need some restrictions, as we have today, whether it is dining in or going out in groups. These restrictions will remain, but we will ease the restrictions progressively as our vaccination rates go up, over a period of time. Secondly, we will have differentiated treatment for vaccinated persons. It means that we can potentially allow larger-sized events or larger gatherings if everyone is vaccinated. We can also allow vaccinated persons to travel more freely with either shorter quarantine or SHN, or even no SHN at all, depending on the country that they visit. Thirdly, we will progressively open our borders to allow more travel, not just for Singaporeans to go overseas and come back, but also people from around the world to come to Singapore. As a small and open economy, we need to reconnect to the world safely, including to be able to resume the flows of workers for sectors which sorely need them, such as construction and marine.”
Participants also highlighted insufficient manpower as another key area of concern for many businesses. They noted that some businesses have scaled down and some projects have been delayed due to manpower shortages. Minister Wong said that it is important for companies to help their workers upskill and reskill through the training schemes and government job-matching programmes, and urged employers to optimise our Singaporean talent.
Emerging Stronger from the COVID-19 Pandemic
Looking beyond immediate challenges to new growth opportunities
Participants expressed hope of a stronger economic recovery in the second half of 2021. They noted the Government’s plan to grow the manufacturing sector by 50 per cent by 2030 and to position Singapore as an advanced manufacturing hub. SBF’s Industry 4.0 Human Capital Initiative (IHCI) Programme was launched in March 2020 and has successfully helped 67 SMEs and large businesses unlock their Industry 4.0 potential, achieve productivity gains and redesign jobs.
Participants also said that they looked forward to more opportunities in sustainability for businesses, as part of the Singapore Green Plan 2030. Minister Wong said Singapore plans to position itself to attract global companies that are keen to develop new urban sustainability solutions for Asia, and businesses will benefit in areas such as sustainable design as well as research & development in sectors such as electric transportation and green construction. Businesses such as legal, consultancy and financial services providers can also leverage on Singapore’s role as a regional hub to take part and support such green financing infrastructure projects.
The resumption of travel will be a boost for companies looking to venture overseas. Participants said businesses are looking forward to the resumption of business missions into markets of interest and to pick up pace in their internationalisation efforts.
While the pandemic has disrupted business models, displaced businesses, and changed the way we live, work and play, it has also given rise to new opportunities that our companies can seize if we are nimble and able to transform quickly. Participants noted that Singapore’s investments in Research & Development positions us well for this.
Reflecting on the dialogue, Mr Lim Ming Yan, Chairman of SBF, said, “Businesses and workers must recognise that COVID-19 is here to stay. They must put in place more resilient business models and long-term growth plans to remain viable and seize new opportunities. In the immediate term, they will also need to adjust their day-to-day operations, staff deployment and stakeholder relationships. SBF will continue working with the Government and our partners to support and advance the interests of our businesses so that they can transform, grow and thrive in Singapore and globally.”