Founded in 2012 by former civil servants, FMG is a fast-growing management consultancy whose practice spans across both the public and private spheres. In this interview, Devadas Krishnadas discusses ASEAN integration, how Singapore is building towards a future economy underpinned by value-creation and entrepreneurship, and the forward-thinking mentality of his company and what it offers its clients.
Singapore is the chairman of ASEAN this year under the motto of ‘resilience in innovation.’ Can you tell us what your expectations for the ASEAN economic bloc are and its potential moving forward?
The ASEAN story of economic potential requires time to become fully activated. The objective of Singapore's chairmanship in 2018 is to try to achieve substantial progress in that direction. One of the reasons for the latency is in part historical due to the wash off from events such as the Asian financial crisis which significantly stalled growth in some major ASEAN economies for several years. Time, reform and stability have helped to bring the 10-member countries more in alignment directionally.
That is the backdrop and it is a fortuitous position for Singapore to be in at this time to take over the chairmanship. The Singapore approach is that of cooperation and coordination. The city-state is pushing a win-win perspective that there is enough growth for all the ASEAN countries to benefit from cooperation.
ASEAN is pursuing further integration. To what extent does the ASEAN guarantee stronger integration and how important it is for the bloc to continue towards the AEC 2025?
The ASEAN way is about consensus. What is important is that collectively, ASEAN countries already agree on a number of bedrock principles. One of which is the openness to trade.
A second principle is a commitment to multi-lateralism. ASEAN has also consistently been a voice for globalization and for the strength of institutions. It supports international frameworks that constructive contributors to regional stability.
The third principle is the maintenance of peace. There is no ASEAN country that is provoking another ASEAN country or provoking any other country. It is a collective commitment to peace and stability. ASEAN adopts a constructive approach to promoting diplomatic engagement rather than resorting to military measures to resolve disputes.
Singapore is upgrading its value proposition from a value-adding to a value-creation economy. What is your analysis of the implementation of the CFE recommendation?
The Committee on the Future Economy and the related Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) are merely the latest manifestations of what has been a long-standing approach to undertaking self-driven change to stay economically relevant.
The application of the ITM recommendations into concrete policies and associated investments is a very strong confidence boost to investors that are already here that this country is future-focused and taking responsibility to restructure itself and partner with industry investors to achieve pioneering breakthroughs in the digital economy space.
Singapore’s DNA is a function not only of strategic leadership on the part of the political office holders but a very capable civil service, who are well-educated, well-trained, highly motivated and driven by meritocratic and technocratic principles who can effectively implement things that has been demonstrated over the course of many decades.
One of the limitations of being a small city-state is for entrepreneurs and SMEs to scale up. How important is it that Singapore spurs an innovation spirit for more entrepreneurship?
The reason for why Singapore continues to see a low rate of entrepreneurship is historical. The focus of government policy in the 1970s to the 1990s was to transform the unskilled into semi-skilled or highly-skilled to work in large enterprises. Consequently, what we had was three decades of similar policy action that now needs to be recalibrated to develop a class of entrepreneurs.
We are headed in the right direction. The combination of a younger population of Singaporeans who are very open to the idea of entrepreneurship, risk-taking, very well-travelled, well-educated and that have the perspective that allows them to cultivate and generate ideas. They also have the support from the Government in terms of infrastructure as well as a growing community of angel investors and venture capitalists who are vital to creating an ecosystem that can operate with the nimbleness and the willingness to take risk.
I expect that in the years to come, we will be looking at some of the success stories coming to greater prominence. We need to allow momentum effects to play out, especially in the ITMs. As a result, we have new organizations such as SG Innovate and forward-looking plans such as the SG Digital. All these further refine and strengthen what has worked towards a focus that is going to lead to tangible results.
One of the sectors that we have already seen effects in Singapore has been the FinTech industry. Now, there are more than 490 FinTech corporations. How much of an example is the FinTech industry on Singapore’s transformation journey? How important is it to incorporate that disruptive technology not in FinTech but in other sectors?
Financial services have always been the most sensitive sector to growth and contraction factors. It is not unusual to expect high rates of growth once certain underlying supporting factors are in place. In Singapore, these include establishing a sandbox regulatory model. This was highly attractive to FinTech entrepreneurs who had therefore the advantage of developing without being overregulated. They were also located in a country whose jurisdiction for regulation and supervision of the financial services are very highly regarded.
The second benefit is an offshoot from incidental geopolitical events such as Brexit which diminished the pull factor of London as a fintech hub. We have pulled some of these prospective projects and investments to Singapore that still want to have global reach. Singapore has a range of free-trade agreements with places such as the United States and European Union which will allow access to these large markets.
The third is a Whole-of-Government level (WoG) commitment to invest and support instead of running away and avoiding disruption. Here in Singapore, there is a clear commitment to support transformation by investing in workforce skills and to help companies adopt technology.
Talking about the Future-Moves Group, there are some similarities in the train of thought between Singapore and the ways it has been transmitted through the consultancy. FMG is adapting to the future, trying to be ahead of the curve. Can you tell us about FMG and how your experience in the public sector here in Singapore has influenced your private sector consultancy work?
The Future-Moves Group is a unique creation because it is focused on advising on public policy and regulatory frameworks as well supporting capability building through data skills optimized for the public sector.
The founders of the company are highly experienced former civil servants who have the creditability to be authoritative. Our previous experience included places such as the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Home Affairs. We were exposed to game-changing phenomena such as the global financial crisis, economic restructuring and security threats. We have the sensitivity to the importance of the need to respond to change, the need to be proactive and the need to be clear-eyed about challenges. This is what we bring to our clients through FMG.
Within FMG, we develop and adopt a methodology called FUSE which is “Foresight-driven Understanding, Strategy and Execution.” The most important criterion within FUSE is to ensure a good linkage between foresight, strategy and execution. There is a strong emphasis on seizing the initiative even under situations of imperfect information. It is better to try to have some control over your future than allow events to wash over. It is essentially an optimistic methodology because it requires the allocation of accountability onto ourselves as opposed to blaming circumstances. Thus, when we deal with our clients and advise them, we work very deliberately to ensure that the perspective is forward-looking with an emphasis on strategies.
Ultimately when you deal with the future, the numbers cannot explain everything. Hence, there is also a strong emphasis in encouraging the role of leadership. It is important to be able to make judgment calls and to have the stamina for strategic patience to see through projects over the long term which is vital when one is undertaking reform, restructuring, or implementing strategies to deal with the fringes of change. The patience to see things through also has to be combined with a willingness to be adaptable because in the course of that long implementation there will have to be adjustments.
How did you export this forward-thinking model internationally to people who may not have the ability to incorporate change?
The most important thing is not to generalize. The United States is one of the most entrepreneurial and creative countries that the world has ever seen. In Europe, if we look at many of the economies, the history of global capitalism goes back nearly 700 years, largely driven by European economies that had the imagination and drive to open up new markets in Southeast Asia, Latin America and South America.
What is most important is that people shake off the expectation of continuity, to lay down the heavy of shield trying to defend against change and be willing to confront a new future even if it is an uncertain one. It will be the responsibility of the young people to make the choices that will determine the future. We need to see new generations of companies, scientists, civil servants and political leaders. Although we are on a trend of populism, this is a stage, I am optimistic that we can get to a point that we get political leaders that do not capitalize on divisiveness but stress the value of diversity.