Singapore targets resilience in skills, infrastructure drive

By Liew Ming En and Yogesh Hirdaramani

Prime minister prioritises increased self-reliance, skills development and ability to keep trade flowing in key policy speech.

Singapore’s prime minister has put resilience high on his country’s policy agenda, announcing a fresh emphasis on the government’s goals of improving productivity, food security and transport infrastructure during a major annual policy address yesterday.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong used the National Day Rally, an event held following the country’s independence celebration at which new policies are typically unveiled, to point to the risks of trade protectionism, the need for continuous upskilling of the workforce, and a fresh emphasis on pandemic-prompted flexibility and automation at the country’s main air and sea ports.

“Some countries have raised tariffs against each other, particularly between the US and China, and countries are also relooking at their supply chains to prioritise resilience and self-sufficiency,” Lee said. He noted that some countries were accepting higher costs and opting for an emphasis on just-in-case rather than just-in-time production, which contributed to rising inflation.

He said that in such an environment, Singapore needed to become more productive and competitive in order to raise wages and counter inflation.

“This requires us to press on with economic upgrading and restructuring, redouble our transformation efforts and encourage workers to upgrade their skills at every opportunity,” Lee said.

He said that in addition to inflation, supplies of food and energy were being disrupted. This year alone, Malaysia has banned exports of chicken amid a global feed shortage, Indonesia has temporarily halted palm oil exports, and India has banned wheat exports to keep domestic wheat prices under control.

Lee said that although larger economies had the option of prioritising domestic needs and controlling exports and imports, Singapore, as a small, open economy had negligible scope to take similar steps.

“We are heavily dependent on imports, even of essential goods, but we are not helpless,” Lee said. To mitigate uncertainties in the global trade environment, Singapore has been diversifying its import sources, building up stockpiles of essential supplies such as food and medicine, and investing in agricultural technology to fulfil Its 30 by 30 goal, which aims to see Singapore producing 30 per cent of its nutritional needs by 2030.

Singapore’s resilience strategy will also see upgrades to its main civilian airport, which is due to gain a fifth terminal.

Changi Airport’s upcoming Terminal 5 will serve about 50 million passengers, more than the current capacity of terminals 1 and 3 combined. Plans have also been updated for the new terminal to be more flexible in the face of possible future pandemic disease outbreaks, with the ability to scale operations up and down and isolate passengers from different flights when necessary. When the terminal is completed in the mid-2030s, it will also be more energy efficient.

Singapore’s new mega-seaport in the Tuas district will be the world’s largest fully automated port, and is a statement of intent when it comes to positioning the country as a leading global player in maritime trade, Lee said. The port will be entirely automated, relying on autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence to coordinate operations seamlessly.

Lee used his policy address to underline the fact that the country is also tackling the issue of housing and space constraints. As the air force’s Paya Lebar base begins its relocation in the 2030s, the Urban Redevelopment Authority is exploring projects to transform its runway into a park or a community space around which the Ministry of National Development estimates that it can build around 150,000 new homes.

Although this year’s policy speech was more confident as Singapore continues to grapple with the uncertainties of the Covid pandemic for a third year, the country is continuing to develop policies marked by caution and preparation in the face of new challenges.

Lee, the son of Singapore’s independence leader, Lee Kwan Yew, concluded his speech by announcing a resumption of his party’s succession plans. It remains to be seen how the next generation of the city-state’s leadership will steer it through a challenging global environment that will doubtless require both the measures he outlined to boost resilience and others in order to stay one step ahead of events.