DPM Heng Swee Keat at THINK Singapore

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 2 June 2022

Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at THINK Singapore on 2 June 2022.


Ladies and Gentlemen, 

I am happy to be here with you this morning at the IBM THINK Singapore conference. 

Navigating Change and Uncertainty 

IBM has a remarkable history. There are not many companies in the world that can survive for more than 100 years, let alone thrive. The majority of companies today barely survive one generation. The average lifespan of an S&P company is now under 20 years, compared to 60 years in the 1950s. So IBM’s longevity is extraordinary. Facing the relentless cycles of disruptions in the tech sector, IBM has gone through some ups and downs. But it has been resolute in building on its core strengths to stay relevant. 

In the years ahead, there will be powerful structural trends and disruptions that we will have to contend with. Some of these trends have been accelerated by COVID-19 – the digital wave, the focus on sustainability, and an increasing emphasis on resilience. Technological disruptions will reshape industries and the world – industry 4.0, hybrid cloud, AI, and many others which Paul mentioned earlier. At the same time, there will be a large cone of uncertainty. It is impossible to predict the future and see all the disruptive changes that will come our way. 

Given these changes and uncertainty, what would it take for IBM to survive and thrive for another 100 years? Indeed, the question applies to not just IBM, but to any organisation – and even countries. So today, building on IBM’s journey, let me share some reflections on what might be some attributes that will allow all of us to navigate and lead the change ahead. 

Attributes to Thrive in a Changing World 

To thrive in a changing world, the first attribute is ambidexterity. 

The reality is that no company or government can predict the future with certainty. This is the nature of change – while the broad contours can be gleaned, inevitably, there will be much that surprises us. And every so often, a major curve ball or crisis will hit us. In my own career, I have seen a number of these curve balls – including the Asian Financial Crisis, the Global Financial Crisis, and now COVID-19. 

To ride through these disruptions, it is critical for organisations to build the capacity to be ambidextrous. On the one hand, to be nimble and responsive in tackling present challenges, and adjusting course where necessary. This is how we survive the immediate challenges. On the other hand, to also keep an eye on the longer-term shifts and prepare for them. 

IBM’s experience is instructive. IBM started out as a hardware company – making tabulating machines, time equipment, typewriters, and mainframes. IBM’s core business was in the mainframe business and went on to build the first widely-used personal computer. But ironically, it was disrupted by the PC in the 1980s resulting in the biggest earnings collapse in US corporate history at that time. IBM eventually turned the corner successfully, and reinvented itself as a provider of software solutions and services. Without the ambidextrous ability to not just focus on the present but also to transform for the future, IBM might not be here today.  

In Singapore too, we see many companies here reinventing themselves and pushing boundaries. Take for example Eu Yan Sang, a more than 140 year-old traditional Chinese medicine company. It has embraced digitalisation – it now has a strong online presence, and its network of physicians use digital platforms to communicate with patients. MNCs here are also launching new corporate ventures. Take German engineering company Bosch. In partnership with EDB, it launched a new venture, AquaEasy, which helps the region’s shrimp farmers increase yield and implement sustainable aquaculture practices through the use of sensors and AI. Building on these lessons, the Singapore government has been working together with companies and industries, to support their transformation efforts through our Industry Transformation Maps. Because technology and innovation will disrupt businesses in significant ways, we need to continue to rethink our strategies, reengineer processes, redesign jobs, and retrain and reskill our workers. We are now refreshing the ITMs, building on the work in the last few years.

This brings me to the second attribute - a commitment to innovation.

It is not a secret that innovation is critical for new breakthroughs. This is why in almost every advanced economy, there is an agency that looks at innovation or R&D, and almost every large company will have an R&D department. But though it is not a secret, it is easier said than done. In some countries, fiscal constraints have resulted in declining public investments in R&D. For companies, quarterly pressures may also make it difficult to invest long term in R&D. So instead of being ambidextrous, many end up focusing narrowly on the present.  

But successful companies understand that innovation is not optional. It is not just a buzzword for your investor prospectus, but a real source of enduring competitive advantage. IBM has a proud history of innovation – you have led US companies for almost 30 years in a row in the  number of patents received annually. IBM’s work has resulted in many inventions - from magnetic tape drives, to the floppy disk, to the IBM PC, and even Lasik surgery. And IBM continues to invest heavily in R&D each year.

In Singapore, we seek to be a Global-Asia node of technology, innovation and enterprise. We are investing S$25 billion over the next 5 years in our national R&D plan. This is a big commitment, but $25 billion is not large compared to what many other countries or even some large companies are spending. Besides supporting our universities and research institutes, we hope that the Government’s investment in R&D can catalyse and support the private sector in their innovation journey. So I am glad to see many dynamic companies here, many of which are SMEs, investing in deep tech – such as robotics company HopeTechnik, semiconductor equipment maker AEM, and many others. 

Innovation ultimately depends on more than just dollars and cents. For innovation to really take off, human capital will be critical. Without a broad base of skilled workers, no country or company will be able to maximise the potential of technology and innovation. Today, there is a shortage of skilled STEM workforce in many countries. In Singapore, we are doing all we can to prepare our students and workers to build skills that will allow them to contribute meaningfully. In their schooling years, we are seeking to provide a holistic education for our students with a strong core in STEM. We are providing lifelong learning through SkillsFuture in the working years. 

I am glad that industry is working with us to develop our human capital. Through the TechSkills Accelerator programme or TeSA, tech companies have worked together with IMDA to help more than 110,000 Singaporeans develop digital skills. TeSA has also enabled more than 10,000 Singaporeans to find good jobs in the tech sector. I am glad that IBM is part of TeSA, together with other tech companies such as Google, Grab and Sea Group. In partnership with Skills Future Singapore, IBM has trained over 900 locals in AI and Cybersecurity through its i.am.vitalize certifiable training program. Paul mentioned earlier that IBM has put in place the P-TECH program, to provide ITE and Polytechnic students with the opportunity to gain valuable insights and technical competencies through internships and exposure to industry opportunities. 

The third attribute is to always create value.

What does creating value mean? At the most basic level, it is about focusing on doing things that contribute to advancing human progress, and making the world a better place. One inspiring example is how IBM created the computers and technology that made it possible for the Apollo 11 mission to land the first humans on the moon. Another milestone was Deep Blue’s victory over Garry Kasparov in chess, attracting great interest in the field of AI and paving the way for the progress that we have seen today.  If companies have a clear sense of their mission and value to the world, profits will follow. 
But there is another critical dimension to creating value. Increasingly, creating value is not about a single company or research institute coming up with their own inventions and innovations. Value is best unlocked through partnerships and collaborations. As the world becomes more complex and interconnected and as knowledge explodes, no single party has all the expertise to make it happen. In this regard, I am glad that IBM is collaborating with our local ecosystem. For example, last year IBM launched its Industry 4.0 Studio in partnership with Samsung and M1 to develop and test innovative solutions for enterprises across APAC. In addition, IBM is partnering NUS on quantum computing, with researchers on the Quantum Engineering Programme, or QEP, having access to the IBM Q network. I recently announced two new initiatives under the QEP – the National Quantum Computing Hub and National Quantum Fabless Foundry. This will further build up our quantum engineering capabilities and human capital, and we welcome industry partners to collaborate with us on these efforts. 

THINK Conference 

This brings me to my final point. The THINK conference is a timely platform to bring together thought leaders to exchange ideas and forge new partnerships. I am glad that the conference has returned after the hiatus in the last two years due to the pandemic. You have an exciting agenda ahead – covering trends like hybrid cloud, AI, sustainability, and others. As the title of your conference aptly puts it, we will have to THINK hard about how to navigate our collective challenges and opportunities ahead. I encourage all of you, IBM and all the company leaders here, to THINK more together, to collaborate with each other, and with all other stakeholders in our ecosystem, including our universities and research institutes. This way, we can harness the potential of technology to meet our common challenges, seize new opportunities, and improve lives for people. 

I wish you a most fruitful conference. 

Thank you.