ARTICLE | March 30, 2022 | 5 min read
Sustaining the ‘red dot’
By Mark Yeow, Workflow contributor
Singapore is no stranger to hard truths, and its future requires the country to remain attentive and level-headed. Below are some of the organisational truths that we’ve uncovered from Singaporean leaders in business, economics, and technology.
“Our companies cannot look at themselves as serving a Singapore market, or an ASEAN market,” says Wee Luen Chia, ServiceNow’s managing director for Asia. “Every individual needs to recognise that we’re serving the world.”
Chia stresses that Singapore has been this way for a while–arguably, the city’s history is built on extending ties to other countries and capitalising on their demand. With digital technologies lowering market barriers, Singaporean businesses that understand the global playing field stand to benefit from that history.
“We used to be constrained by a lack of natural resources and our small size, though that never stopped us growing,” Chia says. “Now, the socioeconomic landscape is even better: a lot of the boundaries [to overseas growth] have been removed by digital adoption, and the world is getting more connected as a result.”
Chia counsels organisational leaders to acknowledge that they’re competing globally, lest they inadvertently cut themselves off from future growth. “You want to embrace exponential, not linear, thinking,” he says. For instance, “not thinking of Singapore as a small country with just 5 million people. You need exponential and non-constrained thinking to stay competitive and relevant.”
Faced with ongoing talent shortages, it’s tempting to simply add more required training to upskill in high-demand areas. Paying for computer programming or data science courses for your entire team (as more than half of Singaporean employers seem to be doing) might make you feel accomplished, but career guru Eric Sim suggests it’s more likely a waste of time and training budget.
“For a Python course where you say, ‘this is very important, we’re paying for it’ and everyone has to attend, you’ll end up with a lot of staff who are trained in Python but don’t have opportunities to use it,” Sim says. “Just because you pay for the courses and give them leave doesn’t mean they’re interested. It’s upskilling on a very superficial level.” Forty percent of Singaporeans feel discontented with how their employers handle learning and development, most often because the courses on offer are limited in variety or irrelevant to career progression. Enterprise leaders need to make learning more engaging.
Sim encourages leaders to help their people be more adaptable by giving them the space and time to pursue their passions, even those that don’t directly serve the company in the near-term.
“Instead of pigeonholing them to a fixed role, can we encourage job rotations?” Sim asks, echoing the sentiment of employees who want their employers to provide more reskilling opportunities.
For those who can’t afford to fund employees’ forays into public speaking or learning a new language, Sim suggests introducing the concept of “training leave”—creating the opportunity to not only learn something new but also refresh themselves. “It helps with mental health,” Sim argues. “They return recharged, bringing that knowledge back.”
That’s not only essential to the wellbeing of Singapore’s workforce—more than half of whom are struggling more with their mental health than in previous years–but also to building organisations that can adapt to shifts in skills demand.
“You’re going to have people who are happier because they can inject more of themselves into their work, but also more adaptable because we have more diverse skillsets within that group,” says Sim. “So whatever the environment throws at us, we’ll have a few people who have the skills needed, who can train the rest.”
According to futurist Charlie Ang, “Over the next 10 years, we’re going to see the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the shift from an information economy to one driven by intelligent technologies like AI, blockchain, and VRs.” At the same time, he says, “you’re also facing geopolitical disorder as emerging and established superpowers clash, as well as the very real impact of the climate emergency.
“We tend to talk about these in a very siloed way, and they’re complex enough on their own to test us, but they’re all converging, colliding, and sending shockwaves through our economies and markets.”
It’s not a pretty picture, but Ang says he challenges leaders to flip their thinking about disruptive events if they want to make the most of the decade ahead. “When I coach companies and leaders, they assume that the more rapid and the higher the magnitude of change, the more likely it is your company will die,” Ang observes. “If we all agree the pace of change will be rapid and transformative, shouldn’t you reorient your planning so that when the disruptions happen your company is the winner?”
Ang calls that an anti-fragile mindset, something he says Singapore has a history of embracing, given the nation’s responses to crises ranging from Singapore’s exit of the Malayan Federation to SARS and various financial shocks. “After every crisis, we’ve risen to new heights,” he says “GDP has gone up, quality of living has gone up. We always take the crisis as opportunity.”
According to leading Singaporean economist Manu Bhaskaran of Centennial Asia, the rules of marketplace competition have fundamentally changed—and regulators around the world are putting noncompliant companies in their sights. That spells uncertainty for heavily regulated sectors like finance and telecommunications and also for evolving areas like fintech. Witness the sudden exit from Singapore this year of cryptocurrency platform Binance, as a result of stringent local regulation.
“We’ve seen this shift in approach in how you regulate big tech,” Bhaskaran says, citing efforts in the US and Europe to litigate against monopolistic behaviour by the world’s largest tech companies. “I think the next step in that will be a very different approach to competition law and policy enforcement where competition policies will be used much more aggressively,” he says.
Despite vastly differing systems of governance, Bhaskaran notes that the US and China are cracking down on anticompetitive behaviour. “It’s happening at both ends of the ideological spectrum,” Bhaskaran says. “The laissez-faire Milton Friedman view that as long as consumers aren’t hurt, you let companies do what they want, I think there’s a real swing away from that view.”
For Singapore’s larger businesses, there’s no better time to tighten processes and aim for a higher bar of governance in operations, particularly for those in fast-growing, winner-takes-all industries like tech. That applies especially to those in frontier areas like crypto or AI where regulation may not yet be robust. “Even if you think the current legal structure allows you to do certain things, don’t assume that you can,” Bhaskaran warns. “The law is going to change, and the philosophical approach of enforcers and the courts in interpreting those laws will also change.”