To deal with scarcity of resources, S'pore always tries to 'grow the pie': Tan See Leng

He spoke at a symposium with the theme "Confronting Scarcity".

Hannah Martens | January 26, 2024, 04:57 PM



In the face of scarcity, Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng said that there is a need for Singapore to grow through innovation, productivity, and connectedness to the global economy.

At the 8th St. Gallen Symposium Singapore Forum on Jan. 25, Tan, who is also Second Minister in the Ministry of Trade and Industry, addressed the symposium's theme, "Confronting Scarcity", and touched on the scarcity of manpower and energy in Singapore.

He emphasised that instead of fearing scarcity and being "insular and protectionist", we should embrace, accept, understand and "really take on confronting scarcity".

Tan was also part of a panel discussion, in which he and other panellists exchanged views on the topic of scarcity and answered questions from the audience.

Responding to a question about what the panellists could do with less of, Tan brought up the repetitive nature of certain work meetings, drawing laughter and applause.

Growing the pie

In his keynote speech, Tan said scarcity is the central problem of economics. "How to bridge the gap of ever-increasing demands, wants and in the midst of a limited supply of resources", Tan said.

He noted resource constraints that Singapore faces on multiple fronts, such as intensifying global competition for capital and talent, and carbon constraints due to Singapore's commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

In addition, there are fiscal constraints from the anticipated increase in social needs, social spending, and changes changes amidst the global taxation regime. Singapore also faces constraints due to limited land and infrastructure.

These resource constraints are exacerbated by geopolitical tension that has placed global supply chains under pressure.

This limits many countries' ability to meet, access and address the demand for resources, especially smaller countries and economies like Singapore that rely on trade for resources, Tan said.

Singapore's focus has been to innovate and find new drivers of economic growth, optimise existing resources, and seamlessly integrate into the global economy, under an approach that aims to "grow the pie" instead of redistributing resources, he explained.

He added that there is a need to build resilience by diversifying supply chains, promoting high-end advanced manufacturing and local production to achieve a high measure of self-sufficiency.

Manpower scarcity

In confronting manpower scarcity, Tan pointed out that Singapore's "single, greatest and only" resource is its people. However, like other developed countries, Singapore faces challenges posed by its ageing population and shrinking local workforce.

It will also become harder for Singapore to sustain economic growth based on workforce growth alone, Tan said, adding:

"The only sustainable approach is to pursue high-value, technology driven and productivity-led growth. To optimise our manpower resources to support such growth, we must focus on raising the quality of our workers and improving their allocation, the distribution to more productive areas of the economy."

Tan outlined some of the key initiatives that support Singapore's pursuit of this objective, including:

  • Providing the local workforce opportunities for upskilling and reskilling, particularly to take on jobs in growth sectors.
  • Training the workforce to "stay not just abreast, but hopefully ahead of transformations", such as generative AI.
  • Strengthening Singapore's position as a global talent hub, attracting productive and successful companies to anchor themselves in Singapore, which will create more jobs for local workers.

Energy scarcity

Tan also spoke about energy scarcity as another key challenge Singapore faces.

Singapore relies on imported natural gas to produce 95 per cent of its electricity needs, but the country is significantly disadvantaged in alternative, renewable, and clean energy, given the lack of land for solar panels, the lack of rivers and big waves to generate hydroelectric power, and the lack of wind for wind power.

He said:

"How will we as a country tackle energy scarcity, while keeping to our net-zero commitments, keeping our cost in check, and keeping the lights and air-conditioning on? Our strategy must be to expand possibilities through innovation, diversification and cooperation."

Tan added that Singapore will diversify its energy sources by exploring emerging low-carbon energy alternatives, investing in innovative, low-carbon solutions, and establishing networks and partnerships.

Tan said cross-border electricity trade is one example of how Singapore seeks regional and global integration to overcome resource constraints.

He reiterated that Singapore, a small country, "must remain connected to the world" and said Singapore is a "firm supporter" of a rules-based multilateral trading system, adding that trade is "integral" to Singapore's survival and success.

Tan concluded that Singapore's constraints point to the need to "grow the pie" through innovation, productivity-led growth and connectedness to the global economy.

"We have to embrace and adopt this mindset instead of being insular and protectionist, and move from the fear of confronting scarcity, towards understanding, accepting and even embracing scarcity."

@mothershipsg The manpower minister said that the constraints faced today point to the need to grow through innovation, productivity and connectedness to the global economy. #tiktoksg #sgnews ♬ original sound - Mothership

Scarcity of ethics

During the panel discussion, moderator Tommy Koh, a senior manager working on socioeconomic policy at the Prime Minister's Office, asked the panellists what form of scarcity would be Singapore's downfall.

The president of Singapore Management University, Lily Kong, said it would be the scarcity of ethics.

She noted that many of the challenges we face today are because of a scarcity of ethics, which has led to things like deep fakes, greenwashing and overconsumption.

"The lack of ethics is leading to huge push for consumption, companies that push for consumption at the risk of destroying the environment," she added.

She brought up the example of fast fashion, where retailers push for consumption with low prices, ever-changing clothing, and aggressive marketing of their products to young shoppers on social media with "complete disregard for environment impact".

Using Tan's analogy of growing the pie to confront scarcity, Kong offered another viewpoint:

"In response to what the minister was saying about growing the pie, that's certainly a way in which we need to deal with it. We need to grow the pie so that we all have something of the pie. But the other way to think about it, since we're using the metaphor of the pie, is to consume less."

She added:

"I do want to plant in our own minds that for everything that we're consuming today, is that completely necessary, and can we do less of that?

Can have fewer meetings

Koh also asked the panel what was one thing they could do less of.

"It is something that I wish I can do less, is I can have actually have less meetings. Less running from one meeting to the next," Tan said.

@mothershipsg Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng was speaking at the 53rd St. Gallen Symposium on Jan. 25. #tiktoksg #sgnews ♬ original sound - Mothership

Tan later added that the underlying issue which needs to be addressed is whether the content is material.

"We keep repeating, voluminous[ly], over and over again, the same material. And sometimes, in that repetitive effort, we hope to see some new breakthrough but that never happens...

I think we should take a step back, try to simplify whatever we do and really focus on the ones that really matter."

Another panellist, Teo Lay Lim, the CEO of SPH Media, shared that there is an abundance of content and "too much content for us to consume", but said that time is scarce.

She also talked about how news is told in 90-second TikTok clips rather than people reading the news for two or three minutes.

"And so... stop too much social media and Netlflix-ing and consume the real stuff that is worthwhile reading and consuming."

Top photos via Daras Singh & Tan See Leng/Facebook