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Navigating uncertainty via agri-technology

by ROYSTON SIM

In the near term, Singapore's economy will have to weather multiple uncertainties - trade tensions between the United States and China, Brexit and various regional elections this year.

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing yesterday also pointed to more significant medium-term challenges, including shifts in global trade patterns brought about by technology and geopolitics.

But there are reasons for optimism despite the uncertain global environment, he told the House during the debate on the Ministry of Trade and Industry's budget, as he set out strategies for the country's next stage of growth.

These include expanding Singapore's network of free trade agreements to diversify its markets and supply chains.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is one such trade pact in the works.

Giving an update on the 16-nation deal being negotiated by Asean member-nations and six Asia-Pacific countries, Mr Chan said commerce ministers have agreed on a work plan with intermediate targets, "to make sure that we get to the finishing line by the end of this year".

Another strategy, he said, was to "deepen and diversify our linkages to create more opportunities overseas for our companies".

The call for businesses to venture abroad is one that the Government has made for some time now, so companies can tap the growth potential in the region.

 

Strawberries being grown in Sustenir Agriculture's R&D laboratory at one-north business park. The company was cited by Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon as an example of agri-food companies expanding into foreign markets.
Strawberries being grown in Sustenir Agriculture's R&D laboratory at one-north business park. The company was cited by Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon as an example of agri-food companies expanding into foreign markets. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

 

On this front, he said there is a need to build a pipeline of local talent equipped with the skills and knowledge to help companies branch out overseas.

He noted that more than 50 per cent of Singapore enterprises find it difficult to internationalise, because they lack the right talent.

The Global Ready Talent Programme, which gives funding for overseas internships and management associate programmes, is meant to address this shortfall.

The encouraging news is that the number of projects related to internationalisation that Enterprise Singapore supported last year rose to 570, a 25 per cent rise from 2017.

While Singapore's economy faces uncertainties, it has previously managed to overcome them by seeking out new opportunities.

Going overseas is one way to do so, but domestically, the food and agri-technology sector is where the exciting possibilities are.

Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon said the ministry is developing the food and agri-technology sector as a new growth area.

The sector is a $5 trillion global industry that is growing rapidly, and Singapore is well positioned to capture a slice of it, he added.

Key to this drive is a new 18ha Agri-Food Innovation Park in Sungei Kadut, which Dr Koh announced yesterday.

"Our vision is for Singapore to be a leading urban agriculture and aquaculture technology hub with a food production model that can be exported to the region," he said.

Besides helping to strengthen Singapore's economy, a thriving agri-tech sector will serve one other key purpose - to improve the country's food security.

Singapore has been diversifying its food imports, so it is less dependent on any single source. It is also growing its agri-food sector to protect its food supply.

Dr Koh had noted in January that while small, the urban agriculture and aquaculture sectors are increasingly making the country's food supply more resilient.

Local farms currently produce 10 per cent of food fish, 13 per cent of vegetables and 27 per cent of eggs consumed in Singapore. This is set to grow as technology advances.

Consolidating high-tech farms and research in the new Agri-Food Innovation Park should bring about more innovation and, in turn, increase the amount of food produced here.

Another prong of developing the agri-tech sector is helping agri-food companies expand into foreign markets.

Dr Koh cited Sustenir Agriculture, which specialises in producing non-native plants like strawberries.

The company has worked with Enterprise Singapore to develop regional marketing capabilities, and is expanding to Hong Kong.

Said Dr Koh: "Our position as an agri-tech hub will strengthen Singapore's economy, create good jobs for Singaporeans, and buttress Singapore's food security."

Singapore's attempt to strengthen its trade ties with the world will help in this endeavour. But to succeed in its agri-tech ambitions, talent is key. So it is heartening that polytechnics are offering courses in this field.

It was less than a generation ago that Singapore cleared out many of its animal and vegetable farms in its quest for development. Who would have believed that less than 50 years later, farming would make a comeback?

But in a more uncertain future, it is perhaps apt that there will be a role for farmers too.

As Singapore shifts gears on agri-tech, it is also timely that there is strong pressure for change on the education front.

During the debate on the Education Ministry's budget last evening, five MPs called for streaming to be abolished in secondary schools. Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) and Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC) shared anecdotes of how streaming demoralised students they taught.

Said Dr Intan: "One of my students told me in exasperation, 'Cher (Teacher), we cannot do maths. We're Normal Tech'. That broke my heart. Not because they really could not do mathematics, but because they believed they could not."

The House will no doubt want to hear the Education Minister's response to how changes to the system could energise these students about the possibilities the future offers them - from being businessmen plugged into the region to successful agri-tech entrepreneurs.