(This is the video recording and some short excerpts of the webinar)

The inaugural ESS Webinar, centred on the theme of COVID-19 New Normal, was well-attended on 29th June 2020. Due to the unpredictable and unprecedented nature of the pandemic, many questions were asked and discussed with our expert panellists from industry and academia. For a small nation such as Singapore to navigate ahead, being nimble is prime.

The webinar was chaired by Mr. Manu Bhaskaran, Director of the Centennial Group International and Vice-president of ESS, with panellists:

  1. Bin Ru TAN (OneConnect Financial Technology),
  2. Xin Wei NGIAM (Grab),
  3. Yinglan TAN (Insignia Ventures Partners) and
  4. Jonathan TAN (NTU).

Not all was doom and gloom – these were the words that the webinar opened with. Bin Ru commented that Fintech and the digital banking industry grew in the first half of 2020. She shared with the audience that Ping An Group, the parent company of OneConnect, saw a year-on-year growth of 30% and doubling of its share price during COVID-19.

As the pandemic happened too fast, some smaller companies, namely the Micro Small Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), were caught off-guard and had little time to react. She believes the key to adjusting to the New Normal is to go digital, and urged MSMEs to act fast in their transition.

This sentiment was echoed by Xin Wei who also shared that not all consumption has fallen in Singapore. Instead, they rose in areas that smaller brick-and-mortar merchants are unable to serve. Citing Grab’s data, consumer demand during the Circuit Breaker period has changed faster than merchant supply. This is because smartphone penetration and literacy are already high in Singapore; consumers find it easy to switch to buy through online platforms. These consumers are also willing to pay more to enjoy comfort food or groceries delivered to their doorstep. They do so to compensate for the discomfort of staying put at home, and to stay safe, during the Circuit Breaker.

She added that new services, such as Grab’s Michelin gourmet delivery, an island-wide delivery of finer cuisines at quality prices, and GrabMart, which provides doorstep delivery for groceries and daily necessities, have both seen surges in reception since their launch.

The supply side will thus have to ride this wave and adapt to the New Normal’s demand. While MSMEs seem to have more resistance, she believes collaborative effort between the Gig economy and the government will minimize inertia and hasten transition for supply side entities such as merchants and riders. Getting them online as fast as possible will be win-win for the economy.

When asked by webinar attendees whether MSMEs are the “bottleneck” in the switch to e-commerce, both Bin Ru and Xin Wei agreed that the steep gradient of on-boarding has been difficult, especially for MSMEs who do not usually have deep pockets. Government agencies like Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) should try their best to help not just financially, but impart technical know-how as well.

The third panellist Yinglan then shared how the lesser need for travel, and rise in the culture of remote work-from-home arrangements, have changed urban development and planning.

In reply to one of the attendees’ question on De-densification: the notion that the pandemic raises concern about travelling and working in densely populated offices, Yinglan commented that there may be more interest in self-sustaining hub centres with residences on the higher floors and amenities at the bottom. This might also change our concept of “work-life balance” as the line between the two is blurred.

“We need to keep one eye on a microscope with the other on a telescope” he coined, citing the importance of balance between short-term and long-term development.

Shorter-term changes involve decreased demand in cars and the need for travelling, and more demand in home entertainment such as Netflix. The same goes for home gadgets and electronics as people use online communication software such as Zoom to replace work trips.

Longer term changes in the New Normal include the increasing significance of fraud protection with the rise of online marketplace and transactions, and ultimately re-designing of buildings and town hubs in urban planning.

The pandemic even impacted traditionally more recession-proof industries such as education.

According to Professor Jonathan TAN, home-based learning and e-learning in schools and Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) will take centre stage moving forward. In recent months, attending lectures and webinars like this one has become the new norm.

“People are adaptive like water,” he said. “The pandemic can block us but we will always find a way to flow around.”

He posed three important questions for Singapore to answer in the New Normal:

  1. Efficiency: how we consolidate and find solutions to problems effectively,
  2. Inclusivity: how do we ensure social mobility and ability-matching of our workers to the new jobs/sectors that may be created and
  3. Social capital: how to build trust, commitment and social cohesion in the New Normal of heightened online interactions?

Professor Tan also conjectured that while there is great buzz on the prevalence of online learning and work interactions, physical get-togethers will still have a place in our activities.

When asked whether Undergraduate and Post-graduate programmes’ enrolment would be impacted, he believes online learning will more likely complement, rather than substitute, face-to-face interactions.An example he used to demonstrate this was the signalling effect of commitment when one actually travels to a place to attend education, compared to joining online which is almost costless. Besides, there are other aspects such as culture, scenery, food and experiences that one cannot otherwise experience through web-based learning.

“The joy of receiving education at the place itself cannot be replicated.” He concluded.

The webinar covered many aspects of our lives in the New Normal and offers several perspective on a future in flux will look as the pandemic pans out globally. A key takeaway from the webinar is that as long as we are open to adaptation, together with co-operation of the industry, unions, and the government, Singapore will be able to ride through tumultuous times and thrive in the New Normal. (By Mr Jackson Teh, NTU)