The US-China trade war, the rise in global nationalism, and climate change — these were some of the issues weighing on the minds of the more than 150 junior college, polytechnic and university students and staff gathered at University Town on 30 August for the annual Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum. The topic selected for the NUS Students’ Political Association’s flagship event was “2020s Singapore: Transition Amidst Disruption”.
In a frank and candid discussion, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Trade and Industry and Minister-in-Charge of the Public Service, addressed and allayed some of the students’ fears and concerns about their future. He encouraged them to think critically and creatively about how they can carve out a niche in their chosen careers and thrive in a rapidly changing world.
Drawing on his own experiences studying in the UK and the US, and his two years in Indonesia under the Singapore Armed Forces, Mr Chan advocated that all students should seek opportunities to leave their comfort zone and take advantage of options to live and work abroad in order to cultivate valuable traits like adaptability and the willingness to learn new things.
“One of the considerations that we all must have in the next lap is whether Singaporeans here know anything beyond the Singapore market. Just remember, nobody will set up business in Singapore to only serve the Singapore market. If we don’t know the regional market and if we get a job now and are not prepared to travel or live overseas for a period of time, chances are that by the time we reach middle management, we will lose out because when people are selecting leaders, they will look for people with regional, if not, global market experience,” he said.
Mr Chan drew parallels between the state of the world today and in the 1920s, when conflicts in trade, globalisation and integration, and technological disruption led to a rise in protectionism and nationalism among countries. Amid similar reactions in some parts of the world today, he shared that Singapore’s strategy is to remain plugged in to its partners across the globe. It does this by serving as an important connector in an increasingly fragmented world, and by maintaining its reputation as a safe harbour for talent and intellectual property.
“For Singapore to transcend our geographical size and geographical location…nothing has changed since 1965, when we became independent. And that is, we must find a way to connect to the rest of the world as our hinterland,” he said.
Mr Chan explained that while Singapore’s air, land and sea connectivity has served the country well over the past 54 years, it is our connectivity in terms of data, finance, technology, regulations and talent that draws investors — and consequently, jobs — to our shores these days.
“Today, to compete for investments and create the next generation of jobs, it is no longer just based on land cost and the number of people that we have. Today, more than 80 per cent of the weightage of an investment decision is based on the intangibles. The intangibles of knowledge, intellectual property protection, legal services, financial services, and connectivity. That will be the next generation of competitive advantage for Singapore, to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world,” he added.
Turning to the environment, the Minister explained that climate change is already making an impact on Singapore today due to the Paris Agreement, a United Nations plan requiring all countries to make a pledge to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. As a small country, this is an important issue for Singapore as we must keep in mind the carbon budget we have when considering the kinds of businesses Singapore can woo to set up here and provide jobs, said Mr Chan.
“If tomorrow, a company wants to set up a plant in Singapore, to create the jobs for your generation, we’ll have to consider if we still have any wriggle space in the carbon budget to attract the next investment,” he elaborated.
Mr Chan also revealed that nearly a third of Singapore’s energy consumption is spent on cooling. Noting the passion for environmental conservation among youths today, he challenged the attendees to reduce their carbon footprint by also significantly cutting down on their use of air conditioning.
The Minister ended the Forum by urging the students to step up to leadership positions. “We are looking for political leaders who are prepared to commit their life to the country. We are looking for people who are upfront, transparent with their people, accountable not only to this generation but the next…I hope that in your generation, some of you who have succeeded will remember that you succeeded not just because of how clever and hardworking you were. You also succeeded because of the system that has enabled you to do so. Hopefully with that, you will keep the dream of Singapore alive by making sure that yet another generation of Singaporeans will be able to succeed just like you,” he said.