Forging Sustainable Futures
Ladies and Gentlemen
I am very happy to join you this morning. Today I would like to share a few thoughts with you at the conference. I would also like to extend a very warm welcome to our overseas guests to Singapore.
Implications of Global Trends on Businesses
2 Dear friends, I am sure you are aware that we are living in a fast-changing world. If you look at the past decade, the changes we have experienced are significant. We are seeing ageing populations in developed cities in many parts of the world including Singapore, and experiencing the impact of climate change. There is also the rapid advancement of technology, which can be seen as positive or negative, depending on where you come from, and your perspective on the matter. It can be positive because it opens up new possibilities, solutions and ways of looking at things, but negative in that it causes anxiety. People are worried about disruption, how workers will be affected, and whether we would be able to cope with the rapid changes in technology.
3 Technology, climate change and ageing population are driving forces. Most scientists would agree that we cannot completely stop climate change because we are already past that tipping point. It is now a matter of how you mitigate it, how you keep its impact to reasonable levels, and how you prepare for it. For instance, in Singapore, one of the things we have started to do is to reclaim at a higher level, in anticipation of a potential rise in sea levels. We are preparing early. While it costs more and requires more effort, it is better to prepare now than later. We are putting in place various measures, including the use of technology, and imposing a carbon tax in Singapore for industries that emit higher levels of carbon. These are measures which we hope will collectively make a difference. However, Singapore is a small economy, so mitigating climate change will require global effort.
4 We also see another trend, which is falling fertility rates in developing economies. This trend, coupled with increasing life expectancy means we will have an ageing population. We need to put an emphasis on improving productivity, looking for better ways of doing things, and pursue innovation in the areas of technology and healthcare transformation. If we continue business as usual, it is not going to be sustainable. In Singapore’s case, over the next 15 years, we are going to see a doubling of our aged population aged 65 and above.
5 I mentioned technology earlier. This is something that we are looking at closely in the area of healthcare. It is something that if used well, can turn challenges into opportunities. I penned down something which I read in The Straits Times this morning to share—there is a local SME called Actxa whose CEO is Mr Lim Chun Hong. This company focuses on health and fitness wearables. I first heard about this company in 2015, as part of the Health Promotion Board’s National Steps Challenge. The Challenge equipped persons who signed up with wearables, and in the first phase, there were more than 50,000 people who signed up. The number of steps are tracked, and linked to an app, where your progress can be compared with others. We organised competitions for schools and community groups, so that through healthy competition, we could encourage people to walk more. The app also offered rewards through vouchers and discounts when participants hit certain milestones and goals. It is a way to use technology in a mass-adoption manner, through gamification and data, to make it interesting and engaging for Singaporeans to lead more active and healthier lifestyles. Actxa was able to provide the hardware required for this Challenge at a sufficiently low price point, given the large quantities that were given out. The wearable had to be durable, and reasonably accurate. Actxa was able to fulfil both criteria. I am highlighting this because this was an example where we were solving a health challenge that we were facing in Singapore, and we were able to provide opportunities for our local SMEs to participate and to build their track record. I am glad to read in today’s ST that Actxa had grown its 2017 revenue by more than 300% compared to the year before. Sales volume has tripled since 2016 and the company is now looking at ways to expand beyond Singapore, to enter Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and maybe later, Japan and China. They are also working with Republic Polytechnic and one of our local hospitals, the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital to do some research on diabetes. The company is confident that by the end of the year, they will be able to roll out a wearable device that allows people to check their blood sugar levels without having to prick their finger to do a blood test. Even though it is not a medical device, its value lies in that it is an early-detection device that can be mass-adopted. It is a quick and easy way for people to detect abnormalities in their blood sugar levels and go for a health check-up.
6 I highlighted the Actxa example as it is something which I hope we can see more of in various areas, whether in climate change, ageing, or dealing with technology. How do we turn these challenges into opportunities for our companies to build capabilities, and come up with innovative solutions that not only solve problems, but also create products and services that they can later export overseas. One area is in falls prevention. Falls can change the quality of life of seniors quite drastically, and this is an important area where technology can come in. Through the use of wearables which can measure one’s gait and posture, we can determine if the person is at risk of falling. It is a pre-emptive measure that sends an alert once the wearable assesses that the person is at a higher risk of falling. Healthcare professionals can then intervene appropriately even before the fall takes place. We can pre-empt problems today with the help of technology, which was not possible in the past. This example illustrates that we do have the opportunities and technology to solve problems, but the key is how we can bring them all together, make it happen, and facilitate entrepreneurship and innovation.
7 Technology opens up new possibilities, and can help us do things that we previously thought were not possible. So I am pleased to know of Denova Science, a Nanyang Technological University spin-off company founded in 2012, by three young entrepreneurs, Tan Ming Jie, Daniel Tan and Kelvin Chong. After receiving a proof-of-concept grant from SPRING Singapore for their ideas, they have successfully grown skin models in plates from human skin cells as an alternative to animal testing. They now have two cosmetic giants as clients and are expanding into other Asian markets, including China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.
Trust, Talent and Connectivity
9 Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to touch on three important factors that are useful for us to think about as we discuss how to facilitate a pro-enterprise environment. Specifically, I would like to mention this from the Singapore perspective, as these are issues that we have been thinking about—how we can help companies stay more competitive and compete on the global stage. These three factors that can help to differentiate Singapore from our global competitors are Trust, Talent and Connectivity.
10 Firstly, trust. In particular, Singapore’s trusted branding. I mentioned some examples earlier, whether it is skin cell models, or wearables. We want to make sure that our products are well-designed and of good quality. We want to make sure that data is kept safe, and food products are suitable for consumption, and people are willing to pay a premium for high-end medical devices and products in exchange for that assurance of quality, credibility and reliability. When I was with the Energy Market Authority some years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there are companies willing to place their data centres in Singapore. I was surprised because data centres require two things – land and energy. Data centres are very energy-intensive and consume large amounts of electricity. These two things are not cheap in Singapore, as we are land-scarce, compared to our neighbouring countries and we do not subsidise our electricity or have domestic sources of fuel. So why is it that companies want to set up data centres in Singapore? The companies shared that they would not store basic-level data in Singapore. They would however store their most critical, sensitive and important data in Singapore, especially when they wanted to give their clients the assurance that their data was safe. It is not possible for Singapore to compete with other countries and cities on cheap land and labour, but what we can compete in, is in the area of trust. People are willing to pay a premium and would consider buying from Singapore companies because of this trust factor.
11 This brings me to the second point, which is talent. Talent goes hand in hand with innovation. Mr Philip Yeo, in a recent interview with The Straits Times, said that he did not think it was possible for us to have innovation and a Smart Nation if we do not have enough talent. There are two dimensions to talent. The first is the development of Singaporean talent, which the government has been investing a lot of resources in through our education system, Institutes of Higher Learning, post-graduate studies and research. We have also done this through SkillsFuture, which promotes lifelong learning. When there are new developments in technology, how do we prepare our people to pick up new skills so that they can benefit and take advantage of the new opportunities? This is something that will become increasingly important in a world where changes are happening very quickly, and what you learn in school today may no longer be relevant five or 10 years down the road. So we need to keep up, we need to have continuous skills upgrading and promote lifelong learning. The second dimension relates to Singapore’s status as a cosmopolitan city attracting ideas, investments and people from the region and the world. Many of the start-ups that we see today have a combination of local and overseas founders. For example, local and international students who have been studying in Singapore. They met in university, decided to form a company together, and some of them have succeeded. There are others which are founded entirely by Singaporeans, but they have benefitted from opportunities to work with multinational companies that are based in Singapore, and through collaborations and projects, they prove their capabilities, demonstrate their track record, and we see knowledge transfer taking place. We need to think of talent more broadly—it is about development of our local talent, but also about remaining open and welcoming a calibrated number of immigrants, foreign workers and entrepreneurs to come to Singapore. If our plan is for local companies to advance into the region, it would help if our companies have people from these overseas markets who would be able to help with their local knowledge and networks. This combination of local Singaporean talent and overseas talent gives us the best chances of success in a globalised economy, especially since we are in an environment where we want to push for more innovation and help our companies to internationalise. And this is why I am happy to see this group today, where we have brought together business leaders, youth leaders and entrepreneurs from Commonwealth countries. We hope the diversity would spark off more discussions, and through these discussions, opportunities to work together. This would be win-win for everyone.
12 Lastly, on connectivity, it is important for us to keep Singapore connected. The more we see some of these trends in the developed world, where countries are starting to put up barriers, look inwards, thinking they can protect their domestic markets by imposing trade barriers and tariffs, the more I think we should resist that. For Singapore, and many countries in this part of the world, we benefit when there is open trade, flow of investments, and where ideas and capital can flow freely to benefit all of us. It is neither a win-lose situation, nor a zero-sum game. It is about how we can enlarge the pie for everyone. The more we see of such global trends happening elsewhere, the more I hope countries in this region can resist these trends of protectionism. I think it is important for us to remain open and connected, and continue to welcome a flow of investments, ideas and talent.
Keeping the Entrepreneurial Spirit Alive
13 Let me conclude my speech by commending the good work by Heartware Network and CAYE-Asia to help our youths to expand their links with people of different cultures and explore business opportunities amongst them. I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate See Leng, in her capacity as President for CAYE-Asia, in facilitating the establishment of an Innovation Centre in China by the end of this year. The Innovation Centre will enable local entrepreneurs to continue to explore business opportunities with our Chinese counterparts and foster closer ties with other ASEAN and Commonwealth entrepreneurs.
14 Some ideas take time to bear fruit, and there will be obstacles along the way. Some ideas may seem promising at first, but turn out to be unsuccessful. But that is part and parcel of innovation and entrepreneurship. To succeed in this dynamic landscape and vibrant economy, we must have a culture that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship, supporting people who are willing to try, and even if they fail, to bounce back and to do better next time. This is the kind of culture we need not just in Singapore but in the whole region. We need to take calculated risks, to explore the unknown in order to break new ground.
15 With this, I would like to encourage you to let your ideas flow in the subsequent discussions and look for ways that we can help to sharpen one another’s ideas, work together and collaborate to enlarge the pie for everyone. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to address you. I wish you a fruitful conference. Thank you.