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Singapore needs an economy driven by new ideas: Ong Ye Kung

SINGAPORE — Using an analogy of the world as an airport, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said yesterday that the Singapore economy has to be more than only a “control tower” where corporate headquarters are sited and where strategic planning is done.

Singapore needs an economy driven by new ideas: Ong Ye Kung

Mr Ong Ye Kung, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), at Raffles City Convention Centre, on Jan 18, 2016. Photo: Koh Mui Fong/TODAY

SINGAPORE — Using an analogy of the world as an airport, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said yesterday that the Singapore economy has to be more than only a “control tower” where corporate headquarters are sited and where strategic planning is done.

It should also become a “runway” where ideas are conceived, business plans are developed, and products and services eventually launched.

The shift needs to be fuelled by different skills, risk appetites and new ideas, said Mr Ong, who also gave a preview of what the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) — tasked to chart the way forward for the economy — will recommend.

Mr Ong was speaking to an audience of students and corporate executives at The Straits Times Future Economy Forum held at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). “Singapore is a good control tower. But ... we also have to be the runway. The runway of an airport is where all the logistics, the air crew, the pilot, the service crew, baggage handlers, the security, everything comes together and then the plane can take off — with passengers, of course,” he said.

He added: “If you are monitoring and controlling, you tend to be meticulous, you tend to be confident.”

But a runway economy requires skills that are practical and applied in nature. People need to be more gung ho and prepared to take risks and fail, as well as learn quickly and start again, Mr Ong said.

Singapore’s S$19 billion plan to invest in research, innovation and enterprise in the next five years will be key in coming up with new ideas, he added.

Several things the CFE is studying include the pushing out of publicly funded intellectual property (IP) to create impact, creating “regulatory sandboxes” for businesses to test innovative products and business models — such as what the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore is doing for drones — and using government procurement to spur innovation.

Mr Ong said that a few days ago, he had a chat with Australian National University (ANU) vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt, who was ready to place less emphasis on academic publication and citation, and give recognition to market impact made by his university’s research. “We have to do a lot more of that,” said Mr Ong.

Some research can be made totally free and available, while some could be licensed to many players — such as a psychometric test that helps companies to identify suitable hires. Other types of research could be exclusively licensed to one partner or fully assigned to the private sector, he said.

A university would earn royalties for the IP it licenses out. In the American context, if the IP is assigned to a company that is successful and later sold or publicly listed, the university typically gets significant donations. Today in Stanford, donations every year exceed royalties by 13:1, he said.

Mr Ong added that the SkillsFuture initiative to promote lifelong learning will be key to the future economy, as workers young and old adapt to emerging jobs and sectors.

Panellists at a discussion after Mr Ong’s speech offered their take on the jobs and skills mismatch that is plaguing the labour market.

Dr John Powers, a research fellow at the SUTD’s Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, said Singapore’s status as a financial services centre may have led to a “glamorisation of certain types of employment over others”.

Singapore has invested heavily in Stem (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education, but there seems to be a trend of Stem-trained graduates aspiring to jobs in non-Stem fields, he said. Neo Chai Chin

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