There's still life after manufacturing in Singapore.

While Singapore is no longer an attractive low-cost production hub, global business leaders on the Economic Development Board's International Advisory Council (IAC) believe it is well placed to become Asia's advanced manufacturing centre.

Chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, the IAC - whose members include past and present CEOs of global firms such as Philips, Siemens, Shell, GlaxoSmithKline, Panasonic, Mahindra and Alibaba - yesterday proposed that Singapore position itself as:

  • Asia's sophisticated digital centre "for the co-creation and lead adoption" of information and communications technologies (ICT); and
  • The strategic location for companies to better access pan-Asian growth markets by boosting market links.

Concluding two days of meetings, the IAC said Singapore has an edge in expanding as an advanced manufacturing hub by:

  • Building on its established manufacturing and research and development base;
  • Being the key engineering site from where companies can control and run their production chains in Asean; and
  • Pioneering next-generation production to tap the opportunities spun off by new business models and "disruptive" technologies.

"Singapore can be a showcase of future manufacturing," said Panasonic's special corporate adviser Fumio Ohtsubo at a press conference yesterday. But he added that Singapore needed to move its manufacturing up the value chain by using more advanced production technologies such as robotics and ICT.

IAC's deputy chairman Koh Boon Hwee, who is also chairman of Credence Capital, said in a statement that manufacturing remains vital to Singapore's economy.

"Timely adoption of advanced manufacturing technologies and other enabling capabilities such as data analytics will ensure this sector continues to contribute strongly to our economy," said Mr Koh, who was not present at the press conference.

GE's vice-chairman John Rice said the future winners of manufacturing are experts in material sciences, but there is now no real beachhead for them. Singapore has a natural advantage here, he says.

"There's no better convener than Singapore," Mr Rice said. "The ability to bring money, education, research, industry and government together around one effort is as good as what I see anywhere in the world. Singapore would be extremely attractive to companies by becoming the location for material sciences research."

Alibaba executive chairman Jack Ma said tomorrow's manufacturing rests on the consumer to business model, not vice versa.

"In the future, companies will compete on how quickly they can adapt to meet the needs of their customers rather than the speed of their processes or the cost of their products," he said. And Singapore is "the best hub" and has what it takes to tap the spin-offs.

EDB chairman Leo Yip said there are "enormous" business opportunities for Singapore to harness. Singapore is an attractive global and regional location for businesses, he added, and it offers test beds for new business models and the capability to harness new technology.

Wrapping up the press conference, Mr Teo said the fundamentals for Singapore's economic success remain intact: an openness to talent, ideas and investments; a hub not only for business but also other activities; a well-connected centre to growth markets in the region; a safe and trusted place to do business; and good education.

These stand Singapore in good stead to seize the opportunities offered by advanced manufacturing and digital-based businesses, he said.