Singapore puts budget focus on transformation, innovation

After tilting last year's budget towards 'emergency support' in light of the global pandemic, Singapore's government will spend SG$24 billion ($18.1 billion) over the next three years to help local businesses innovate and build capabilities needed to take them through the next phase of transformation.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Singapore is setting aside SG$24 billion ($18.1 billion) over the next three years to help local businesses innovate and build capabilities needed to take them through the next phase of transformation. The financial boost will go towards various initiatives such as the Emerging Technology Programme, which will see the government co-fund the cost of trials and adoption of emerging technologies including 5G, artificial intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity. 

This was necessary to ensure the country remained competitive and ready to tap future opportunities, said Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, during his parliamentary speech Tuesday detailing Singapore's budget for fiscal 2021. He noted that last year's series of budgets had tilted towards "emergency support" in light of the global pandemic, but there was a need to focus this year's investment towards accelerating "structural adaptation". 

He pointed to the changing competitive landscape, fuelled by the speed of technological advances and reconfiguration of global supply chains, as a key driver for all stakeholders to move and respond swiftly to tap the various opportunities. 

Heng said: "We must move from just counter-cyclical fiscal and monetary stabilisation policies, to structural economic policies to equip our businesses and workers with deep and future-ready capabilities."

In this aspect, the government would look to cultivate a business community "with a strong spirit of innovation" and that was "deeply connected" with Asia and the world. A range of capital also would be provided to support businesses in their transformation and ability to scale, he said.

This would include the Corporate Venture Launchpad, which would offer co-funding for companies to build new ventures through pre-qualified venture studios. Slated for pilot this year, the new platform would be relevant for larger enterprises keen to nurture a startup mindset within their organisation, the minister explained. 

The BCG Digital Ventures, for example, is a venture studio that has partnered with local food and agricultural company Olam to develop Jiva, a farmer services platform designed to help farmers increase their crop yield and connect directly to potential buyers.  

Plans are also underway to enhance the Open Innovation Platform with new features to link up companies and government agencies with relevant technology providers to resolve their business challenges. A cloud-based digital bench, for instance, would help facilitate virtual prototyping and testing, Heng said. 

The Open Innovation Platform also offers co-funding support for prototyping and deployment, he added. The Building and Construction Authority, for example, was matched with three technology providers -- TraceSafe, TagBox, and Nervotec -- to develop tools to enable the safe reopening of worksites. These include real-time systems that have enabled construction site owners to conduct COVID-19 contact tracing and health monitoring of their employees.

Enhancements would alsobe made for the Global Innovation Alliance, which was introduced in 2017 to facilitate cross-border partnerships between Singapore and global innovation hubs. Since its launch, more than 650 students and 780 Singapore businesses had participated in innovation launchpads overseas, of which 40% were in Southeast Asia, according to Heng.

He said investments would continue to go towards increased partnership and infrastructure building across the Asean region, noting that strong connectivity was essential to enable Singapore's businesses to plug into global and regional supply chains and industry clusters. 

Asean nations collectively were the world's fifth largest economy, generating a GDP $3.2 trillion in 2019, and became China's largest trading partner last year, Heng said. With significant growth potential in the region, he said Singapore would continue to work with Asean members to enhance digital connectivity and cybersecurity, as well as further drive initiatives such as the Asean Smart Cities Network.

These included efforts to build up a cluster of industries around medtech, food manufacturing, and electronics that have seen growing demand across Asean. He said the Southeast Asia Manufacturing Alliance was recently launched to support such efforts, with the aim being to promote a network of industrial parks to manufacturers who are looking to invest in Singapore and the region.

To further encourage Singapore companies, including large and small and medium-sized businesses, to invest in new technologies to boost their competitiveness, the government said it would also co-fund their adoption of digital tools and emerging technologies. 

Elaborating on the Emerging Technology Programme, Heng said the initiative would buffer the costs of trials and deployment of technologies such as 5G, AI, and "trust" technologies, and support the commercialisation of innovation. 

A new Digital Leaders Programme would also support companies with the hiring process of their core digital teams and in developing and deploying digital transformation strategies, he said. 

The minister added that the government would partner with equity firms to offer growth capital for local businesses to transform and scale. Here, SG$500 million would be co-invested with state-run investment firm Temasek Holdings in a Local Enterprises Funding Platform, which would be managed commercially. In addition, Temasek would match the government's investment, making SG$1 billion available in total, he said. 

Underscoring the need to groom innovation leaders and businesses, especially in deep technology areas, the Singapore government will also establish a new innovation and enterprise fellowship programme. The programme will support 500 fellowships over the next five years, Heng said. 

Led by the National Research Foundation (NRF), this initiative aims to address requirements in areas such as cybersecurity, AI, and health tech and the NRF will work with various partners including accelerators, venture capital firms, and deep tech startups to build the programme up. 

Going big on green

With climate change "real and urgent", funds have also been set aside to drive Singapore's green initiatives. The country last week launched its Green Plan 2030, a decade-long plan to drive efforts in building a "green, liveable, and sustainable" home for future generations. 

Technology, Heng said, played a key role here and would open new possibilities, having already helped Singapore address water and land constraints.

Amongst its goals are plans to roll out 60,000 electric vehicle charging points at public carparks and private premises by 2030 as well as a SG$30 million investment over the next five years for electric vehicle-related initiatives. 

The government has also identified up to SG$19 billion worth of public sector green projects, including the Tuas Nexus initiative, which will be financed with green bonds. The project integrates waste and water treatment facilities as well as optimises energy and resource recovery in the solid waste and used water treatment processes, according to Heng. 


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