4 things S’poreans don’t care about at the Committee on the Future Economy press conference

But they really should know about it.

By Chan Cheow Pong | February 10, 2017

After slightly more than a year of study and consultations, The Committee On The Future Economy (CFE) released its report on Feb 9.

The high-powered committee presented seven strategies to drive economic growth in the next five to 10 years, focusing on keeping Singapore open and connected to the world, promoting internationalisation , and also ensuring that workers acquire deeper skills.

The government has accepted the proposals and will be providing a full response during the 2017 Budget Speech and Committee of Supply debates.

In his Facebook post, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about adopting “a pragmatic approach”, adding that “hard decisions” were necessary to implement the strategies in the CFE report.

Feeling overwhelmed by the flood of information in the news? Here are four observations on the press conference and the full 132-page CFE report.

1. Heng Swee Keat makes a comeback — still the same nice guy.

It was the first time Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat helmed a press conference since he recovered from a stroke in May 2016.

Once described as a key Cabinet player who shouldered an “incredible load“, 55 year-old Heng looked slightly pale but was otherwise cheerful and sharp during the 90 minute conference.

Facing a packed auditorium of about 80 reporters from international and local media, he took some time to warm up as he looked down at his prepared talking points frequently when delivering the opening remarks. But he gradually grew more comfortable over time, sharing personal anecdotes and views freely with the press.

All in all, besides his sometimes indiscernible soft voice when speaking and responding to questions, he sounded as if he has never been away, given his mastery of issues and also his ability to handle intense questioning from the media.

Still the same genial guy that sounds more like a senior civil servant than a politician.

Good to see him back. Just in time to be back in line for a promotion to Deputy Prime Minister?

2. Other core members of the fourth generation leadership showcase different qualities.

Besides Heng, the press conference also had three other core members of the 4G leadership on the panel: Chan Chun Sing [Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office], Ong Ye Kung [Minister (Higher Education and Skills)] and Lawrence Wong [Minister for National Development].

CFE committee work, like other high-level national exercise led by government, is a good way to test up and coming leaders and help forge good working relationship among them.

Hear them speak, one can get a sense of their personality and styles.

Here are selected quotes from each of them:

Chan Chun Sing (Deputy Chairman and Co-chair of Subcommittee on the Future of Connectivity)

“Someone can come up with a plan and compete on the level of who has the more superior plan, or we can compete on a different plane, as to who has superior sense and response capabilities. Between having a superior plan and having a superior sense and response capabilities in a more uncertain world when there is much higher risk, superior sense and response capabilities are much more valued and this is the reason why in the CFE report, there is a lot of emphasis on building capabilities, capabilities to sense, and capabilities to respond…

In a more volatile environment, a plan is but a basis for change. The ability to change and adapt is by superior sense and response capabilities. “

Spoken with quiet determination holding his fist. Is Minister Chan still General Chan speaking?

Ong Ye Kung (Co-chair of Subcommittee on Future Jobs and Skills)

“(In the digital economy) I still think that there will be many jobs and I do not believe that one day everything will turn cyber and everyone will be out of a job…Now there’s another wing, growth is all around us, which region in the world has the highest growth? It’s Asia. If you are in Asia, where do you want to base your business?

Singapore is one of the top contenders. So internationalisation I think is one of the core of this report. We have to go out there, but not for just for the sake of doing so. We have to bring capabilities out there, it has to come from an enterprising spirit.”

From the Minister who coined the term “runway economy”, Ong tried to sell a new vision of an exciting region that beckons for all Singaporeans.

Lawrence Wong (Co-chair of Subcommittee on the Future City)

“I think if we move simplistically towards more disruption and more change means that the government should just roll back everything and regulate less — I’m not sure that it will achieve better outcomes. But we do need smarter regulations. So it’s not about less but smarter, more effective regulations, regulations that are pro-business,pro-enterprise but at the same time balance the needs, the very legitimate needs of stakeholders, including Singaporeans.”

The clarity of thought and purpose of a true policy wonk. Uber, Airbnb, you hear that?

3. Same approach but different outcomes, hopefully.

For Singaporeans who are used to the government forming big committees to address challenges, the CFE committee’s work feels somewhat like an extension or a replication of a traditional approach.

While it is good to have continuity in change, there is still heavy expectations on the ground for the government-led committee to come up with the next “big idea” that will define the next lap of economic development.

Old wine in new bottle or new wine in old bottle? Well, it probably isn’t that important.

As what the committee co-chair, Trade and Industry (Industry) Minister S. Iswaran says:

“It is not just about the novelty of the ideas we come up with, but our ability to execute and achieve the outcomes we set out to achieve. And that is really going to be a key part of the work as we go forward.”

4. This report is different from the past, really

Unlike the previous report by the Economic Strategies Committee in 2010, productivity targets are not mentioned in the latest report.

The only figures quoted inside the 132-page CFE report is the projection that Singapore should be able to grow by 2-3% per year on average over the next decade. This piece of information had already been revealed by PM earlier last month.

Heng spoke about how the CFE recognised that their response has to be different from the past, given the “unprecedented level,nature and pace of change” that is taking place. Hence the report contained no detailed roadmaps but instead set out directions and broad strategies.

“(The CFE’s strategies thus revolve around developing) the agility and adaptability to cope with change and to seize new opportunities. This will prepare our businesses to create and seize opportunities from open and connected Singapore, create new ways for us to work together to transform and overcome challenges, and keep us relevant.”

Get used to it, the government does not have all the answers, that could be one of the main message from the CFE report.

Source: CFE Website
Source: CFE Website

This might sound oddly liberating for Singaporeans, who may finally heed the call to fulfil the objectives of the CFE: Pioneers of The Next Generation.

Related articles:

Committee on the Future Economy Report: Heng Swee Keat presents a budget before budget

Top photo from Chan Cheow Pong

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About Chan Cheow Pong

It took Cheow Pong two decades to recover from the trauma of memorising General Paper essays before he was ready to be an English writer. In between affliction and recovery, he thoroughly enjoyed his time writing in Chinese and doing Chinese translations.

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