While global free trade is increasingly threatened by populist rhetoric and protectionism, the Covid-19 pandemic has reiterated the need for businesses and individuals to be digitally-ready. 

In turn, the government is looking to foster inclusive growth and innovation, urging businesses big and small to shift operations online, says S Iswaran, Minister for Communications and Information on September 16.

“With lockdowns and safe distancing measures being implemented in many countries, the ways in which we live, work and play have also been altered permanently. Many more are embracing e-commerce, accelerating the digital migration of businesses. Telecommuting, elearning and online seminars — such as this one — have also become the norm.”

Iswaran gave the keynote address at the second DBS Digital Day, where he outlined three goals in order for Singapore to emerge stronger after Covid-19.

Firstly, Singapore needs to connect globally. “While the pandemic has prompted some countries to look inwards, we believe that a more effective way to build resilience is through openness and greater diversification. The global alliance of nations must commit to keeping markets open and trade flowing,” says the minister. 

To this end, businesses can look forward to preferential access with lower tariffs and non-tariff barriers to economies, through Singapore’s network of 25 Free Trade Agreements. “Our Digital Economy Agreements, with countries such as New Zealand, Chile and Australia, help to establish common frameworks, interoperable standards and rules for digital trade, that would allow businesses to connect seamlessly with their overseas partners. Talks are also underway with the Republic of Korea,” he says.

Secondly, businesses must innovate and go digital. Iswaran points to the businesses that have been compelled to shift online to overcome the immediate challenge of the pandemic. “But, going digital also has long term economic benefits – it allows businesses to connect to global markets for supplies or solutions, and expand their customer base internationally.”

“Businesses should therefore seize this opportunity to reorganise their resources, revamp their models, and redesign customer engagement. Doing so would not only enable them to adapt in the short term, but also opens up new possibilities in the longer term.”

To foster a culture of innovation here, the National Innovation Challenges series builds on existing efforts by the Infocomm Media Development Authority, Enterprise Singapore and the National Research Foundation to encourage new products, services and business models. An open innovation call for the logistics, modern services and maritime sectors in July has received $40 million in funding support. 

Iswaran adds that 5G will form the backbone of Singapore’s future digital economy, and plans are on track to offer nationwide 5G coverage by 2025. 

Lastly, inclusive growth will help bridge the digital divide in Singapore, says the minister. “To accelerate digital adoption in our community, the Singapore Government set up the SG Digital Office in June.”

“We are paying special attention to the elderly and vulnerable amongst us, mobilising 1,000 Digital Ambassadors to help stallholders adopt e-payment solutions and teach seniors digital skills,” he says.

Hosted virtually by DBS’ Institutional Banking Group, Iswaran also joined a panel discussion with representatives from Amazon Web Services, JD and QuantumBlack, where he underscored the importance of collaboration among all sectors. 

“I want to emphasise the importance of a collaborative approach in doing this. For example, banks like DBS are important partners… When companies start business, they need banking accounts, they need telecommunication services, they need connectivity; so you are almost their first partners,” he says.

“Your role, together with the government and the technology solution providers, is in making it easy for companies to take that first step and move forward. I think this is a key part of the process, because we are talking about companies at different stages of evolution and their digital journey.”

“I cannot overemphasise the importance of partnerships between the public sector, the private sector and also within the private sector across domains. Some domains are moving faster, like logistics, financial services… [while] others are a bit further behind. Learning from each other is going to be a key part of this.”