SINGAPORE (Aug 3): In a fast-changing and unpredictable world, Singapore companies and workers must always be ready to embrace change, lifelong learning and a never-say-die spirit in order to survive and thrive.

This was the message put across by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in his keymote speech at the Economic Society of Singapore (ESS) Annual Dinner at the Mandarin Orchard Singapore Grand Mandarin Ballroom on Wednesday night.

Heng says the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) has already identified ageing population, slowdown of productivity growth and impact of technology, as well as the rise in emerging economies as some of the long-term trends that could have a profound impact on a small, open economy like Singapore’s.

When the CFE considered these trends and discussed possible responses, there were some who sought to bet on new growth industries, new technologies and new markets to go into, the minister revealed.

“But what we need is a certain shift in orientation – a readiness for change, and a willingness to try, learn, and try again,” says Heng.

Embodying this spirit was the CEO of a successful food company whom Heng said he met last year.

When told years ago by an official that his company was in a sunset industry, the CEO went all out to prove the critic wrong.

“We worked hard. We worked together. There’s no sunset industry, only sunset thinking!” the CEO told Heng.

This led Heng to conclude that whether a firm or an industry will succeed is not pre-ordained but depended on “our mindset and how we build competitive advantage”.

“We must encourage our individuals, firms and industries to build deep capabilities, so that they can achieve sustainable competitive advantage to adapt and thrive in their fields,” says the minister.

On innovation, Heng says although rapid growth of many innovative startups have captured public attention, large companies are also in need of innovative capacity.

Apart from developing new products and services, many companies have now set up corporate venture funds and incubators to invest in promising startups.

One such example is the Innosparks in Launchpad @ one-north, a corporate venture capital unit and open innovation lab launched by ST Engineering.

In time, Heng says companies can make use of the Global Innovation Alliance (GIA) to extend their innovation networks overseas.

As much as the government can provide people with the tools to innovate, Heng says Singaporeans will also have to work to shift their mentality from “learning, then doing” to “lifelong learning and doing”.

“Instead of just learning before starting work, we should embrace a lifelong cycle of learning and doing. Throughout our careers, we learn the skills that we need for our jobs, hone them by using them at work, and then, as the economy evolves, learn a new set of skills and in turn put those to use. It is a virtuous cycle of learning and doing,” says Heng.

One example is Singapore Institute of Technology’s (SIT) Integrated Work-Study Programme (IWSP) gives students a chance to experience the real-world through eight to 12 months of on-the-job training with partner companies.

This resulted in 84% of the first batch of Accountancy students receiving priority job offers from the partner companies with the rest finding jobs within three months after graduating.

This way, it is not just the students who will benefit, but the employers too, as they will have sufficient time to assess the potential employees and have a head-start training them, says Heng.