Optimism for Asia's post-Covid recovery abounds at Singapore conference

Speakers and attendees alike at this year's Singapore Institute of Directors Conference exuded an air of confidence in Asia's ability to emerge from Covid lockdowns in a strong position, writes Foundation's senior advisor (Business) Ethan Jones.
Ethan Jones, Asia New Zealand Foundation Senior Adviser (Business)

Ethan attended the conference thanks to the generosity of the Institute of Directors New Zealand

Institutes of directors’ annual conferences are a great way to gauge the sentiment and major trends of a county's business community as well as gain insight into the latest international trends impacting the business world.

The first thing that struck me about the Singapore Institute of Directors (SID) Conference was the level of optimism among both the speakers and participants about Asia’s economic recovery. This confidence was manifested in the name of the conference, and the burgeoning reopening of borders.

There has been a noticeable shift around the world recently as countries and economies seek to reopen amid a growing consensus that COVID-19 should not be viewed as a pandemic to be stopped but another endemic virus to live with.

People sitting on a train wearing masks

Ethan: "Singapore has already started to open up and is actively engaging with the world."

Singapore has already started to open up and is actively engaging with the world. Emphasising this were two of the conference's key speakers Dilhan Pillay, CEO of Tamesek International, and Aaron Maniam, Deputy Secretary at the Ministry for Communications and Innovation, who both beamed in from other parts of the world where they were out meeting counterparts.

Listening in from Auckland in the middle of our fifth lockdown, I was feeling all the 8,400 kilometres that separates us from Singapore and wondered how many more months before we too can start to feel the light at the end of the tunnel and prepare to re-engage with the world.

The conference’s opening guest of honour, Singapore’s Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong, reminded us that if this pandemic is to be beaten, it will be beaten as a collective. He said our success or failure to emerge from the pandemic would ultimately be a global one: “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”

I took this as a timely reminder that New Zealand’s position in the world has been won through being an engaged member of the international community, and in the absence of this engagement we may be forgotten. To highlight this, a trading and investing poll to the 1100+ conference participants showed that, in Singapore at least, both Australia and New Zealand are far from top of mind.

The other main themes of the conference were digitalisation, talent attraction and development, the rise of new capitalism and how to protect the most vulnerable from the vagaries of the market, as well as the rising need for sustainability in ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance).

These are all trends that were in play prior to Covid-19 but have accelerated during the pandemic as the business world actively recreates itself.

Like the increasing shift to sustainability and the realisation that we need to work to protect all parts of our society, digitalisation and talent challenges are not country specific, these challenges are being faced the world over.

In the breakout session on this topic, speakers addressed one of the fundamental challenges of digitalisation: supply is not keeping up with demand when it comes to the talent required to digitally transition industry and government.

A silhouette of a man looking at his phone

The Singapore government is investing in attracting talent from around the world and developing tech skills at home

Like New Zealand, Singapore desires to have more homegrown talent to fill these roles, but they also acknowledge that they cannot just wait for talent to come through the ranks. They’ve identified the need to bolster tech capabilities in their university graduates, find ways to accelerate the digital transition/transformation in smaller organisations that don’t have the capacity for full-time CDOs (chief digital officers), or even CIOs (chief Information officers), and attract global talent to meet critical business needs.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) now includes a year and a half of internships as part of their four-year degrees in areas such as computer science. These internships are not with Multinational Corporations (MNCs), where interns can become a cog in the machine, but rather to start-up organisations. This fuels innovation by providing start-ups access to the best and brightest technology students in the country, while also producing workforce-ready, adaptable and resilient graduates.

Singapore is also actively looking to enhance their digital capabilities through leveraging overseas talent. While remaining committed to attracting talent from around the world, Singapore is also taking advantage of the digital reality by hiring contractors remotely for smaller more discrete project-based work.

In Singapore, the government is leading the country’s digital transformation, through organisations such as GovTech, an organisation specifically focused on digitally transforming the public sector.

The conference highlighted to me Singapore’s emphasis on their people being their most valuable asset. The Government and businesses actively develop their workforces, from those at the shop floor to the senior executives, as they recognise Singapore’s economic prosperity is fundamentally tied to their investment in their people.

Here in New Zealand, we’ve all heard the te reo Māori whakatauki (proverb) “He aha te mea nui o te Ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata” – ‘what is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people’, but I wonder how often do we live by this whakatauki?

When the export of primary products is such a core part of our economic strategy, it is easy to forget it’s not our land alone that creates value, but the people who work this land along with the systems and technologies developed by our people that make New Zealand products so trusted and in-demand in overseas markets.

As we move toward an increasingly technologically advanced world, living this whakatauki and supporting all our people to grow and develop will only become more important.

The Foundation attended the conference thanks to the generosity of the Institute of Directors New Zealand.

About the author

Ethan Jones (Ngāi Takoto, Te Aupōuri) joined the Foundation's business programme as a senior adviser in May 2021 and is based in Auckland. He spent five years living, studying, and working in China, first moving there to continue studying Mandarin after completing his bachelors in Chinese and Modern Languages. Ethan later worked in sales for ABI - a global fortune 500 beer company – helping them develop their portfolio and presence in the Shanghai craft beer sector.