Govt to help firms change business models for Covid-19 world: Chan Chun Sing

WITH no return to a pre-Covid world and no quick transition to a post-Covid one, Singapore "must learn to live and make a living in the Covid world", said Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing on Saturday.

He made these points in a media interview on Saturday as he laid out the government's strategy, which includes helping firms hire ahead of demand for the eventual recovery, and investing in new areas.

First, Singapore must make a swift, safe, and sustainable resumption of activity after the circuit breaker period ends on June 1, avoiding a start-stop resumption that would cause greater economic uncertainty and disruption.

On this front, the government will have to support two types of firms: those whose business models remain relevant but may need near-term support, and those which will need to reinvent their business models altogether.

The latter will include businesses in the social entertainment sector, as well as mass sporting and cultural events, which may have to move away from their previous focus on live events and rely on digital media to reach a wider audience. "It will be a different kind of experience altogether," said Mr Chan.

Asked about the fate of this year's Formula One Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix, Mr Chan said that the Singapore Grand Prix is talking to the global Formula One organisation to see what can be done, and studying what is and is not feasible under contractual arrangements. An announcement on this will be made in the coming week, but nothing definitive can be said now, he added: "These are ongoing discussions."

Second, Singapore must continue to attract investments that can create good jobs. In the first four months of 2020, the Singapore Economic Development Board has secured S$13 billion in investment commitments for the next few years, already exceeding its full-year target. These investments come from sectors such as electronics and infocomm, which will generate a few thousand jobs for workers.

Third, the government is exploring schemes to help companies hire required workers ahead of a future pick-up in demand. In today's uncertain situation, companies are unable to forecast future demand and may hesitate to hire. But the required manpower and skills should ideally be in place before demand picks up.

The government will thus work with trade associations and chambers, as well as firms, to explore schemes to help them hire in advance. Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran will share more details on Sunday, particularly in relation to the information and communications technology sector.

Fourth, apprenticeships will be encouraged, for both fresh graduates and workers making mid-career transitions. This could be done on a sectoral basis, said Mr Chan, citing the example of the logistics sector where firms collaborate to give apprentices experience in several different companies.

Fifth, there will be further support for training. In the past, firms and workers often lacked time for training, as it could disrupt business processes. The current downtime provides "a good opportunity to make sure we don't waste a crisis", as companies and workers facing lower demand can now take the time to ramp up training and internal reorganisation. Digital skills are a major focus, not just for individual workers but also getting organisations to go digital.

Sixth, Singapore is not just playing defensively, but "actively trying to invest ahead to create new opportunities," said Mr Chan. As mentioned in the Fortitude Budget on May 26, National Innovation Challenges will be launched, addressing immediate priorities and challenges of re-opening and recovery, as well as medium- to long-term solutions for sectors to do well in the new normal. More details will be provided next week by MCI and the Infocomm Media Development Authority.

For example, JTC will launch an Open Innovation Call for the built environment sector in mid-June, focusing on digitalisation and automation to improve productivity, as well as sustainable construction. Successfully-developed solutions will be adopted in JTC properties, with JTC having set aside S$4 million to initiate these projects.

This year's Trade and Connectivity Challenge 2020 will look at areas such as the Internet of Things and big data. Corporates participating in this year's edition are expected to award a paid contract for selected start-ups who progress to the pilot phase. Winning startups will receive up to S$70,000 in prize money, and eligible startups will receive grant support for co-innovation projects with the corporates.

Seventh, the Ministry of Manpower will work towards timely matching of labour to jobs. Asked about the possibility of decreasing Singapore's reliance on foreign labour, Mr Chan noted the long-standing aim of reducing dependence on low-wage workers and raising productivity, while attracting talented foreign workers to complement the local workforce.

There is always the question of what proportion of the local labour force will be prepared to do jobs in certain sectors, he added. In other countries where a larger share of local workers are in construction, there are trade-offs such as higher costs or slower construction time.

As for another question about living in a Covid-19 world - how a general election might be held during the pandemic - Mr Chan replied that the Elections Department (ELD) is working through various scenarios. If an announcement about Covid-related requirements is made too early, it might then be "overtaken by events", causing political parties and candidates to have to change their plans, he said. If made too late, it would not leave them with enough time.

Depending on when the elections are called, the ELD must ensure that election-related measures are in sync with the prevailing situation of whatever post-circuit breaker phase Singapore is in, he said.