Monday, February 13, 2017

Explaining the CFE (or making excuses?)

The Report of the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) was ruthlessly critiqued for being "more of the same", not bold enough, lacking in originality, and uninspiring. As a strategy or road map, it leaves the reader wondering, so what should I do?

Well, you can't have a 109-page report with the contribution of over 1200 people after a year of consultation be seen as directionless.

So the government assembled some experts to explain to you why this report is good!

First, they will explain that this CFE report while more amorphous than previous committees (ERC & ESC), it is because these recommendations are the right recommendations for Singapore at this stage of development and in this economic climate and environment. At this point we need broad strategies instead of concrete road maps. Or so they say.

The Big Read: Amid uncertain times, CFE focuses on strategy instead of roadmap


Tan Weizhen AND Valerie Koh

February 11, 2017

SINGAPORE — The Committee on the Future Economy’s report — released on Thursday (Feb 9) — marks the third time in less than two decades where Singapore had assembled some of its brightest economic and business minds to come up with the way forward.

Each time, the Republic had to face a very different set of circumstances and challenges, noted Singapore Management University President Arnoud De Meyer, who sat on the Economic Review Committee (ERC) which was set up in 2001.

He recalled that back at the start of the millennium, Singapore’s economy was rather lopsided and it was relatively easy to come up with new growth drivers, such as medical tourism, the Integrated Resorts and the global schoolhouse initiative.

Today, however, Singapore has a mature and diverse economy which “does not have that many examples that it can look toward for inspiration”, Prof De Meyer said. “Thus I expect it to be more difficult to come up with a new silver bullet,” he added.

Several observers have pointed out the lack of meticulous details in the CFE’s report, unlike its predecessors’ work. But several experts felt that this was a sign of the times: It is no longer possible to prescribe a series of actions to boost the economy over the longer term, given how quickly the world changes. To do so would be akin to picking out winners and staking the country’s future on them. However, this is increasingly tricky to do in the current global climate and at this stage of Singapore’s economic development. “Over time, the Government has become more aware of the difficulty of choosing winners... The government is shifting emphasis to being an enabler,” said Distinguished Professor Ivan Png of the National University of Singapore Business School.

Instead, what is needed is a blueprint to change the “culture” of the economy, as Prof De Meyer put it, and instill resilience as well as adaptability in individuals and companies - intangibles that will be hard to measure but important in a volatile world.

Still, former Member of Parliament (MP) Inderjit Singh, who was involved in the ERC as well as its successor the Economic Strategies Committee (ESC), noted that there were high expectations of the CFE’s recommendations. “I would say that the report did not have any earth-shattering recommendations and many of the initiatives were a continuation or repeat of what the government has been focused on in the past,” he said.

["Continuation or repeat of... the past"? In other words, more of the same. No new ideas. Short on innovation. But the govt wants us to be more innovative!]


It was during the 1985 recession - the first that Singapore faced since independence in 1965 - that the government formed its maiden committee to chart new areas of growth. But it was another 16 years before the next one was convened.

The ERC was formed in Dec 2001, just months after the world was shocked by the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and terrorist groups were discovered in Southeast Asia, including Singapore. The region was also still reeling from the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

The ERC identified five key priorities: Expand external ties, stay competitive and flexible as an economy, encourage entrepreneurship in a knowledge economy, promote both manufacturing and services, and develop human capital.

Specific proposals included a two year freeze on further restoration of Central Provident Fund contribution rate, setting up a national Continuing Education Training (CET) body and a Centre for Adult Learning. A working group on tourism proposed legalising casinos but this suggestion was not taken up in the ERC’s final report - although the Government subsequently decided, after an intense debate, to build the Integrated Resorts.

The ERC’s successor, the ESC, was established in May 2009, with the world still suffering from the global financial crisis that stemmed from a subprime mortgage crisis in the United States.

The ESC laid out three priorities: Boost skills in every job, deepen corporate capabilities to seize opportunities in Asia, and make Singapore a distinctive global city and an endearing home. To achieve these, the committee put forward several strategies including growing the economy through skills and innovation, becoming a global-Asia hub, and making innovation pervasive.

Productivity was a key area which the committee wanted to address: Apart from suggesting the setting up a National Productivity Fund and a high-level national council overseeing productivity as well as continuing education training, the ESC also set a target of 2 to 3 per cent productivity growth over the next decade - up from 1 per cent in the preceding 10 years.

The ESC also proposed crafting a masterplan to develop a new waterfront city at Tanjong Pagar, and studying the feasibility of a consolidated port at Tuas.

While many of the ERC and ESC recommendations have been implemented by the Government, experts said the progress is mixed. They acknowledged that efforts to boost entrepreneurship and innovation are bearing fruit but it will take more time to see the full results. Efforts to improve workers’ employability had also resulted in displaced individuals finding work during the previous downturns.

In terms of providing greater support to small and medium enterprises (SMEs), experts were divided: Some felt that much has been done in this area, while others were less satisfied with the efforts so far - particularly with support for SMEs to raise productivity. In fact, some experts cited the productivity drive as the “biggest failure”, in Mr Singh’s words.

Mr Singh, who is the chief executive of consumer-electronics firm Solstar International, added: “It is a tough job but I think the Government is not organised correctly to support SMEs, where the biggest productivity issues are. The Government spent a lot of money but the KPIs (key 
performance indicators) were focused on input factors and not outcome.”

Agreeing, CIMB economist Song Seng Wun said: “We should be using labour in a more productive manner. Services obviously is the main challenge, as 60 per cent of the economy is made up of services provided by the smaller SMEs. But their performance is very uneven.”

UOB economist Suan Teck Kin said that looking at the overall productivity figure – an average of 0.4 per cent from 2011 to the third quarter of last year – misses the point that some sectors performed better than others. For instance, in the same period, the manufacturing sector’s productivity rose 1.9 per cent on average while the finance and insurance sector and the wholesale and retail sector saw productivity go up by 3.5 per cent and 2.2 per cent respectively - well above the ESC’s targets. The main laggards were accommodation and food (-0.9 per cent), and business services (-1.1 per cent).

Mr Singh felt that Singapore has not seen “real progress” in Singapore’s bid to restructure the economy, by incentivising companies to move up the value chain. The problem is in the implementation, he said. For example, the strategy of letting smaller SMEs exit, and freeing up workers for higher value-add companies did not work because of skills mismatch, he pointed out.

Mr Singh said: “The Government also tried to select winners ... the market should have determined this as the government has not had a great track record in picking winners. More broad-based support would have been better.”

He added: “The end result is that we have failed to create new global companies in Singapore.”


On the latest efforts to review the Singapore economy, the experts noted that there was a distinct lack of concrete measures. Mr Singh said he had hoped for “fresh and significant” ideas, citing the idea of legalising casinos that was mooted by the ERC tourism working group. Adding that the CFE did not offer big new ideas, Mr Singh said: “It does make the recommendations look less tangible compared to the past committees that had better understandable plans.”

Several of the CFE’s recommendations have already been rolled out - most notably, the Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) which were announced in the Budget last year. Citing the ITM as an example, Mr Song pointed out that due to the sluggish growth in recent years, policy changes have already been set in motion. The CFE painted the policy direction in broad strokes, instead of making specific recommendations, he said.

At the press conference on Thursday, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was the co-chairman for CFE, was asked to cite the key new ideas from the committee’s report. In response, he noted that “the question of how Singapore stays relevant to the world is a question for ever”. “I don’t think there’s anything new in that question. We just have to keep ourselves focused and know how do we stay relevant to the world. In that regard, similar questions were asked even in previous reviews,” he said.

[The question is, are there any new answers? ]

He added: “There isn’t a detailed roadmap to say, ‘follow this and you’ll reach there’ but rather, we have to find our way, we have to experiment.” Given the rapid changes taking place globally, the key is for the country to remain very adaptable, he stressed.

Prof De Meyer praised the CFE strategies which “provide a sensible set of ideas and actions for the immediate future”. As I expected, there were no silver bullets or big new initiatives like we saw in some of the earlier review committees,” he said. “What we need is a transformation of a mature and complex economy, and thus it is an absolute priority to work on these less tangible aspects of our economy, or what I often call the ‘culture’ of our economy.”

But he disgreed that there was a lack of concrete ideas. He cited the digitisation of Singapore’s companies, the emphasis on data analytics, harnessing data as an asset, and the enhancement of Singapore’s physical landscape as examples of “very interesting and very concrete” proposals. “If we can implement these recommendations, the Singapore of 2025 will look very different from what it is today,” he said.

Several experts pointed towards a growing uncertainty in the world economy, as a factor why the CFE focused on the bigger picture.

Mr Satya R, KPMG partner and head (management consulting), felt that the recommendations were meant to form a broad strategy to guide policymaking, “while keeping it flexible to respond to new threats and opportunities in a volatile world”.

OCBC economist Selena Ling stressed that under such circumstances, gazing into crystal balls have become decidedly tougher, with disruptive technology changing economies rapidly. Identifying the right broad strategy was more important, and the Government would find itself taking on the role of an enabler, in partnership with the private sector and associations, said Ms Ling. “In internationalisation, they’re not going to say which countries to go specifically. But it’s (about) recognising the limits of domestic economy and that a lot depends on the external market because of the ageing population and the shrinking workforce,” she said.

Indeed, the change in perspective arose from evolving product cycles, consumer behavior and the global environment, compared to five years ago, said CFE member Saktiandi Supaat, an executive vice president in Maybank Group who is also an MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.

In the new economy, “as long as you are nimble enough, hungry enough to be on top of any new development, then you’ll be fine”, Mr Song said.

Prof De Meyer noted that the Republic has in fact become a role model over the years for many other countries, and the expectation is now for the country to “invent the future”.

That is where entrepreneurship and innovation come in, he said. “The world is a lot more uncertain than in 1985 or 2001, and thus we need to be flexible and agile. There are fewer role models that we can learn from.”

“We just have to have the ambition and the passion to become better at what we already do,” said Prof De Meyer.

It has not gone unnoticed that several buzz phrases kept appearing in the economic committees’ reports over the span of 21 years - such as innovation, entrepreneurship, skills, and deepening international links.

But the experts stressed that this is not because Singapore has failed to make progress in these areas. The reality is that the country needs to continually take things to the next stage, they said.

In particular, Prof Meyer felt that there has been a lot of progress in the area of entrepreneurship. “I observe many more entrepreneurs than, for example, 10 years ago. But now we need to grow these entrepreneurial initiatives into S$100 million companies. We have done a lot of successful research, now we need to turn these results into commercial successes. So the nature of these concepts of innovation and entrepreneurship has changed. We have to get into a higher gear.”

PwC Singapore partner Winston S Nesfield noted that excelling in innovation and entrepreneurship will “never be as straightforward as other hard metrics such as foreign direct investment”. Achieving these objectives require building different processes and behaviours, in order to produce sustainable outcomes, he said. “This is hard stuff and requires real change at political, cultural and individual levels of society. This is why these issues are recurring. Singapore must match its well-regarded political leadership success with deep and real change at the cultural and individual level,” he added.

And despite all the hand-wringing over the productivity drive, the experts said they were not surprised that the Achilles heel of the Singapore economy did not make it prominently into the CFE report. Productivity improvements will be a natural outcome of the committee’s strategies, if they are successfully implemented, they said. “If we work at innovation, skills, if we get these things right, then productivity will follow. It is tackling the source of these issues that can raise productivity,” Mr Suan said.

Then they will explain that this latest report is a true "strategy". All the previous reports were "programmes" or 5-year+ plans. 

What the CFE report left unsaid 
is critical to future success
Singaporeans should look at the Report of the Committee on the Future Economy as a clarion call to shake off their propensity to leave things to the Government. 


Adrian W J Kuah
Hawyee Auyong

February 11, 2017

The dust has barely settled with the release of the Report of the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), and already commentators are out in droves scrutinising the minutia of the strategies.

No doubt the debates will continue, especially during Budget 2017 time. But let us appreciate that the CFE report is simply that: A report. It remains to be seen how the recommendations are interpreted, elaborated and implemented.

Still, there are some elements of the report worth highlighting.

The first is the report itself, and the very notion of the “plan”. The CFE report is simply the latest in a series of grand national economic plans produced by high-powered committees.

Such exercises in strategy-making are based on three main assumptions: The primacy of the Government in charting Singapore’s future directions (albeit with broad consultation with different stakeholders), the efficiency of top-down, centralised planning and, not least of all, the very ability to plan ahead in near-excruciating detail.

On the latter point, the absence of the meticulous details that characterised previous reports and that we have come to expect showcases the increasing limitations of the “plan”. In a paradoxical way, the CFE report is very much a strategy for these uncertain times.

Indeed, what we have is a crude, broad-brushstrokes strategy that is in fact an appropriate fit with such uncertainties and disruptions.

The report is instructive in that it reveals that previously we had a “programme”, as opposed to a strategy. For example, where 2010’s Economic Strategies Committee spelled out concrete proposals on enhancing productivity, the CFE report is mainly an exhortation to remain open to the global economy and to be agile in the face of disruptions.

A programme establishes a series of actions that are decided ahead of time, and which must unfold in a pre-determined sequence in order to accomplish an objective.

Obviously, a programme functions in an environment that is relatively stable and predictable. Far from denigrating it as painfully vacuous, the crude strategy articulated in the report is one that provides broad guidance on how to adapt to new information and chance events as they arise. To expect it to do more is to ignore the complex challenges of the future economy.

In a sense, it would have been disconcerting if, at this level of development, Singaporeans are still looking to “the plan” to descend ex-machina to provide guidance for the economy’s next steps.

[So not only does it NOT have tangible plans and meticulous details, it is RIGHT that it does not have such. And you're babies for wanting to be told what to do.]

While the CFE exercise inadvertently reveals the limits to what the state can do to address complex challenges, we should also hear it as a clarion call to Singaporeans to shake off their propensity to leave things to the Government. Indeed, the inevitable gaps in the report are like the silences between notes in a musical score: They are an integral part of the music, and are opportunities for different players to improvise and embellish.

The second noteworthy element of the report is what is conspicuous by its absence: Complexity.

For all of its appreciation of complexity science, the Government’s approach to the CFE was far from being a holistic one.

Partly, this is due to the economic imperative that has long undergirded Singapore’s philosophy: To talk of the future of Singapore is essentially to talk of the future of Singapore’s economy.

If, as complexity science suggests, everything is connected to everything else, then the way ahead for Singapore cannot be simply defined in economic terms and tackled through primarily economic instruments.

After all, participants in the economy do not simply pop into existence, but emerge as products of different life-shaping experiences in schools, families and the broader community.

For example, it remains to be seen how qualities such as nimbleness, the ability to collaborate and innovativeness — qualities lauded by the CFE report — are to develop from an education system that incentivises and privileges qualities that are the antitheses of the former.

Furthermore, while the report enjoined Singaporeans to remain open to disruption and to continuously adapt through developing new skills, it painted a lopsided picture of 

While disruptions — automation, new paradigms such as the sharing economy and so forth — are competence-destroying, they are also institutions-destroying: They call into question existing socio-cultural and political arrangements and systems. We forget that our regulatory frameworks, social compacts, value systems and education ethos were appropriate to a particular historical period.

As the economist Thorstein Veblen pointed out in his 1915 essay, the rise of Germany as an industrial power was partly enabled by Britain’s failure to tear down and remake its prevailing institutions and deeply-entrenched ways of doing things in order to accommodate new technologies.

Finally, one of the most important factors for Singapore’s future success is in fact national solidarity, or how well her people can create for one another an island of stability and prosperity in an increasingly uncertain world. The report alluded to this in an almost throwaway line in the letter to the Prime Minister, saying, “Our ability to work with and trust one another will be our distinct competitive advantage …”

Indeed, social capital and social support may very well be the distinct competitive advantage in an era when these are under pressure in many places. Whereas in the past, Singapore goes as the economy goes; today and tomorrow, it may be that the economy goes as Singapore(ans) go.

This trust cannot be assumed, and if issues of income inequality, redistribution and social safety nets are not meaningfully addressed, that trust and social cohesion may well unravel amid a politics of resentment and disenfranchisement.

While we should recognise that the CFE report was intended to focus mainly on economic issues, one still hopes that the point on building up social trust and social capital is elaborated on. And soon.


Adrian W J Kuah is senior research fellow and Hawyee Auyong is research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. They both work on the Future Ready Singapore Project.

[The key line: "the economy goes as Singaporeans go". I understand this to mean that there is no silver bullet. Every Singaporean is a "bullet". Some will miss. Some will hit. Success is determined by how many hits. However, if the CFE recognises that there is no silver bullet, they are still stuck with their first assumption: The primacy of the Government in charting Singapore’s future directions. If the economy goes as Singaporeans go, then what is the message to Singaporeans? What are their concerns?]

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