For the first time since 1966, a National Day Rally (NDR) speech was not given last year due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
The NDR is generally considered the most important political speech of the year and provides a platform for the Prime Minister to address the nation and share important policy matters.
It typically outlines the challenges that faced our nation, goals that are being set to transform the country, and the strategies and policies that have been put in place to shape Singapore to what it is today.
Ahead of this year’s speech that will be taking place on August 29, we take a look at NDR speeches over the past five years to recognise some of the local firms and entrepreneurs that have received an honourable mention by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
1. DBS (2019)
DBS Bank was commended for making great efforts to modernise itself and to adopt technology. For instance, it has introduced video teller machines (VTMs) to allow 24/7 self-assisted banking services.
PM Lee also lauded DBS Bank for being named the best bank in the world. It took the top honour in Global Finance’s World’s Best Banks 2020 awards because it was able to adapt to the sharp rise in demand for digital banking services during the pandemic.
DBS was also Global Finance’s pick for ‘Best Bank in the World’ in 2018, and was named ‘Global Bank of the Year’ by Financial Times publication The Banker in the same year. In 2019, DBS was named ‘World’s Best Bank’ by leading financial publication Euromoney.
The 2020 Global Finance title makes it the third consecutive year that DBS has been honoured with a global Best Bank accolade.
“Most importantly, DBS has been working very hard to retrain its employees. It has shown care and concern for its people, even as it transforms itself. In fact, if they did not share care and concern for its people, it could not have become the best bank in the world. This is the right approach, and I encourage other companies to emulate DBS’ example,” he said.
Over the past decade, the bank has invested heavily in all things digital and created an inclusive and efficient banking culture. These investments are paying off at a time of economic uncertainty and increased credit risks, strengthening the bank’s resilience and helping it step up at a time of heightened customer need.
2. Mencast Marine (2019)
It’s not just big companies like DBS that can retrain and upgrade workers; SMEs are doing the same too.
Mencast Marine makes and repairs ship propellers. One of its employees who is in his 60s, has been in the marine industry for over 30 years.
“He used to make ship propellers by hand. First, he crafts a mould out of sand, to create a prototype propeller. He uses this aluminium prototype to make a second mould. Finally, he casts the bronze propeller itself. It is hard work, and requires experience and skill,” said PM Lee.
“Mencast decided to increase productivity by using 3D printers to manufacture the propeller prototypes, but they still valued the experienced eye of their older workers to ensure the quality of the work.”
As such, they are training some of its employees — who are all over 60 years old — to operate the 3D printers.
With the introduction of 3D printers, their work will become safer and easier, and production time will be made faster by a third.
“It’s a win-win-win for the workers, company and the customers too — and that is the way it should be. … I hope more companies will (also) help their older workers remain employable well into their 60s.”
3. Farah Sanwari, founder of Repair Kopitiam (2019)
PM Lee talked about mitigating climate change in his 2019 National Day Rally speech.
He noted that Singapore generates a huge amount of waste and to dispose these waste, they often have to be incinerated. This generates more carbon dioxide, so he outlined the need to find a sustainable solution.
That said, he singled out Farah Sanwari, who is passionate about sustainability.
“Farah co-founded Repair Kopitiam a few years ago to teach others how to repair damaged electronic appliances, furniture, toys and clothing. So these items can gain a new lease of life and you can use them longer, instead of being thrown away prematurely,” said PM Lee.
“We need more young Singaporeans to be like Farah — to be problem solvers, innovators, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs.”
4. Mark Ong, founder of SBTG (2018)
In 2018, the National Geographic magazine published a special issue on Singapore: City of Tomorrow, which celebrates ordinary Singaporeans doing extraordinary things and taking the path less traveled, excelling in their own fields.
One of them is Mark Ong, an artist who designs customised sneakers for celebrities and shoe companies under his own brand name SBTG, pronounced “sabotage”.
He has always loved drawing since he was a child, and his journey to being a sneaker artist started when he won an online competition in 2003.
According to PM Lee, he received an order for 72 pairs of sneakers overnight and sold those first pairs for US$300 each. Today, his earlier works sell for thousands of dollars.
5. Darius Cheng, co-founder of 99.co and Roshni Mahtani, founder of theAsianparent.com (2018)
PM Lee dubs this husband-and-wife duo as “digital entrepreneurs”, who run their own respective online businesses.
Darius co-founded property tech firm 99.co that connects agents, buyers and sellers not only in Singapore, but in Indonesia too.
Meanwhile, Roshni founded a media company that operates theAsianparent.com, a website popular among many Singaporean parents with young children.
He cited this couple as one of the many Singaporeans who are “pursuing dreams, breaking new ground and flying our flag high”, proving that passion can indeed be made possible.
6. Michael Ker, third-generation owner of Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Popiah (2018)
Michael Ker gave up his career as a pharmacist to take over his father’s popiah business and carry on his 83-year-old family legacy.
Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Popiah has been based in Joo Chiat for more than eight decades, having been started by the third-generation owner’s grandfather as a pushcart hawker business.
Even as Kway Guan Huat is known for its traditional methods and traditional tastes, Michael has innovated to sustain the business, including introducing pandan-flavoured popiah skins and roast duck fillings.
According to PM Lee, Michael traveled the world that year to introduce his popiah and promote Singapore food.
He has collaborated with the Singapore Tourism Board and other corporations to showcase the popiah craft at food festivals worldwide, including in New York, Copenhagen and Dubai.
8. NTUC FairPrice (2017)
PM Lee noted that although e-commerce has been on the rise, retail stores will not disappear if traditional stores and businesses adapt and reinvent themselves.
“Use technology to offer customers more efficient, more convenient service,” he urged.
Businesses have actually been responding to this digitisation shift. In fact, supermarkets have had self-service counters for some time now, but he felt that FairPrice has gone a step further.
“They have opened an unmanned, cashless Cheers store at Nanyang Polytechnic. There is no cashier in this convenience store, no staff at all,” said PM Lee.
“There is a back-end system which tracks the inventory and automatically restocks when the stocks run down. It saves manpower and costs for Cheers, offers convenience and savings for customers.”
He understands that Cheers will be launching more of such stores in Singapore.
8. Syafiq Yussoff, founder of Riverwood (2017)
In his 2017 National Day Rally speech, PM Lee cited Syafiq Yussoff as an example of the “success stories of the Malay community in our new economy.”
Syafiq was a school dropout. He did not finish school and after serving National Service, he worked as a personal trainer. He went on to start up logistics company Riverwood in 2010 with only two vans and four employees.
“Syafiq is aware that the competition in the field is great. But he was determined, worked hard and equally went down the field making deliveries like his employees,” said PM Lee.
“By leveraging technology, Syafiq upgraded his operations. Under his leadership, Riverwood thrived. When Amazon Prime Now started operations in Singapore, Riverwood was selected as its logistics partner.”
That year, Riverwood employs 120 workers and has been growing to date.
9. Gillian Tee, co-founder of Homage (2017)
PM Lee recounted his 2016 trip to San Francisco, where he met some Singaporeans working in the IT industry there.
Many of them were young, and had studied in the United States. After graduating, they started their own businesses or worked in big IT firms in the US. He then shared with them his plans to make Singapore a Smart Nation, and asked them to return to help make it happen.
One of them is Gillian Tee, who is the co-founder of eldertech firm Homage, which provides on-demand caregiving services for seniors.
She had been overseas for 15 years and established a successful startup in San Francisco, but returned to Singapore to help take care of her ageing mother.
“Gillian noticed that there were many seniors like her mother in Singapore, who needed to be taken care of, so (she) co-founded a company (called) Homage,” said PM Lee.
“The company made use of IT to match a pool of caregivers with seniors who needed help. Just as taxi or car apps match drivers with passengers, Homage’s website and app match caregivers who are available with seniors who need their services.”
Essentially, the startup uses IT to match demand with supply, and PM Lee hopes that more companies and government agencies will learn from Homage in using IT to improve lives.
10. Grab (2016)
Although ride-hailing firm Grab disrupted the taxi industry, commuters are benefiting from it. It offers better service, is more responsive, and is also faster, he noted.
“You open an app, it matches you with the nearest car. The car comes, you can see it coming on your map, picks you up where you are, takes you where you need to go. You tap on the app again, you rate the driver, the driver rates you and you pay. No need to book a cab by phone, no need to hail a cruising cab along the street.”
PM went on to further explain how it works: “They grab data from users. They analyse the travel patters, they adjust the charging to match supply and demand. So if there are lots of people wanting rides, (there are) not enough cars, fares goes up, (and) more drivers turn up.”
He understands that taxi drivers might feel threatened, and in other parts of the word, some drivers have staged protests and blockades. They want the governments to block the new services to protect their existing ways of doing business, but he asserts that this is not the way to go.
If Singapore impose restrictions to protect the old ways, “we will be left behind and out commuters will lose out and our economy will suffer,” he warned.
“Let the commuters enjoy better service, but help the incumbents and especially help the taxi drivers to adapt to the changes. That is what we are doing.”
He added that as the government adjusts the rules to foster fair competition and level the playing field, companies on both sides will have to adapt.
11. Ascent Solutions (2016)
PM Lee cited logistics firm Ascent Solutions as one small and medium enterprise (SME) that is “doing interesting things in the digital space.”
“In the logistics business, there are two major problems. One, delays in customs clearance because when you go from border to border, somebody wants to look inside your box. And secondly, theft. That means pilferage or maybe the whole container disappears,” he said.
To combat this, Ascent Solutions have come up with a digital solution. They were backed by SPRING and have developed a tracking device and lock called iSpot.
The iSpot is a lock on the container which has a Global Positioning System (GPS) inside. It is secure, tamper-proof and you can be sure that what is inside stays inside and what is outside does not get inside.
This also means that there is no need for the customs officers to inspect the box over and over again. Moreover, the owner can track the box location anytime.
With IE Singapore’s support, Ascent has taken to East Africa and there are more 10,000 iSpots in East Africa.
“From Kenya to Uganda, it used to take 20 days to travel because there are 10 checkpoints to clear along the way. Each time, you wait and may have to grease palms. But now, (there’s) no need to clear customs over and over again because of the tamper-proof lock. In two days, you get there. It is a game-changer.”
12. Luzerne (2016)
Luzerne is a fine example of a traditional business that have transformed itself and successfully expanded overseas.
This local brand is started by Hiap Huat Holdings. It establishes itself as a trading company importing housewares from primarily China, Japan and Czechoslovakia, growing through export development in nerby regional markets.
The company established Luzerne in 2004, which specialises in designing bespoke tableware. This attracts higher-end clients, leading to increased profits.
“Their clients now include the world’s leading restaurants, hotels and celebrity chefs,” said PM Lee.
13. Fragrance Bak Kwa (2016)
Besides overseas expansion, using technology to innovate is also another way to transform a business.
For instance, Fragrance Foodstuff Group is a long-established brand that started in 1969.
“To increase its productivity, it automated part of its production process. Workers used to arrange the marinated meat on bamboo trays, but they now use machines to do so,” said PM Lee.
“But the machines cannot do everything. The bak kwa still needs to be barbecued over charcoal for the best taste.”
Fragrance has also ventured into doing e-commerce and selling their bak kwa online so customers can order if from anywhere in the world, anytime.
“This shows how businesses can use technology to innovate and grow their market,” he summed up.
14. HOPE Technik (2016)
A company that has been around more than 10 years, HOPE Technik is a homegrown engineering firm that has been making a name for itself.
Some of the things that they have developed include Red Rhinos and Hazmat Control Vehicles for Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF). They also make drones and specialised industrial and commercial equipment.
Back in 2012, HOPE Technik actually won a tender by Airbus, beating top engineering firms in the world. Their job was to build a scale model of a spaceplane (a combination of a spaceship and an airplane) for Airbus’ civilian spacecraft programme.
They helped built it, loaded it with sensors, tested it successfully, took it high up in the air, and flew down instrumentally. When spaceplanes eventually become a reality, we can say that a Singaporean firm helped to make this happen, said PM Lee.
Today, HOPE Technik is building autonomous robots used in different settings, including semiconductor plants, logistics warehouses, and hospitals. These robots can navigate themselves, open doors, go around obstacles, and avoid bumping into people.
“HOPE Technik focuses sharply on engineering, which it applies to niche areas. It is able to create opportunities for itself, it is able to find new markets, and it is able to create new jobs for Singaporeans. We must build this sort of new, deep capabilities in every sector, engineering, food manufacturing, logistics, and the government will support companies to do so.”
15. Pranoti Nagarkar and Rishi Israni, co-founders of Zimplistic (2016)
Founded by husband-and-wife team Pranoti Nagarkar and Rishi Israni, Zimplistic is a company that was born out of the original Block 71 startup incubator.
It makes the Rotimatic, the world’s first automatic chapati and roti maker. All you need to do is put in the flour, oil and water; and with a touch of a button, fresh hot chapati and roti will be dispensed one per minute.
This automation helps to remove the laborious, manual work that goes into making chapati.
The Rotimatic was developed by Pranoti, who is a mechanical engineer by training, while Rishi handles the software aspect.
According to PM Lee, the company brought the machine to market with SPRING’s help, which has generated a lot of interest internationally.
Featured Image Credit: SBTG / Bloomberg / Fragrance Bak Kwa / Homage