How Singapore can stay relevant after 50th

Over the past fifty years, Singapore's economic miracle has taken it from a fishing village to a regional financial power center, building a stable of large government-linked companies (GLCs).

For the next 50, the country is trying to shift its model to encouraging entrepreneurship. But it isn't clear how well that will serve the city-state.

"There clearly is a role for entrepreneurship in Singapore," Ho Kwon Ping, the executive chairman of luxury resort chain Banyan Tree, said at the DBS Asian Insights Conference on Friday. "If we over-romanticize entrepreneurship and think that by breeding a whole bunch of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates we can actually fire up the economy and forget about GLCs and forget about multinational companies, I think that would be foolishly romantic."

Munshi Ahmed | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Those large companies certainly have heft in the city-state's economy. Currently, foreign countries and the GLCs combined account for 70 percent of SGX's market capitalization, according to Morgan Stanley data.

But Singapore's leaders have been working to shift its model away from centralized control toward encouraging new businesses, including providing venture capital to start-ups.

Meanwhile, some of the centralized picks have stumbled, hurt in part by increased globalization of industries, competition and technological disruption. In the city-state's stock market, shipping, ship-builder and commodity plays once made up a large portion of the market capitalization, but now many of those stocks have slipped; some of them have been cut from the benchmark Straits Times Index.

That's been, in part, behind Singapore's push to increase productivity.

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"We are in a knowledge -based economy in a globalized world," said Ngiam Tong Dow, an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and a former chairman of the Economic Development Board.

"Every Singaporean whether an engineer, an accountant, a surveyor, what have you, you, you have to be the equal of, if not better than,your counterpart in India, China, the Philippines, Korea and even [the Middle East] ... The only way for us to survive is to raise our productivity."

But Banyan Tree's Ho doesn't think Singapore needs to entirely give up central guidance to boost its competitiveness.

"We can continue to stay ahead of game, but it requires clearly a very targeted approach, which is not central planning by any means, but neither is it letting the market place take its course. It's a mix between the two," Ho said.

That may be why Ho doesn't think Singapore's entrepreneur value chain will necessarily lie with seeking homegrown big-name individuals.

"If we expect that we will have entrepreneurs of a global scale - and I certainly hope we will - we have to recognize that we do not have an immediate access to a global market," he said. "If you put a Steve Jobs in Singapore, it will be harder for him than if he were in Silicon Valley."

Ho sees more value in entrepreneurs who have worked for multinationals for many years and then leave that company to become a supplier to their former employers.

"There is a form of entrepreneurship that feeds into the food chain of the Singapore economy very well," Ho said.