January 2016

Express your views on the 'SkillsFuture' initiative and the push to retrain Singaporeans and raise productivity on the island.

1st Place - Joshua Matthew Goh

The Need for Skills


The SkillsFuture initiative is a bold initiative but despite its apparent novelty it reflects a long-standing government policy stretching back to the formation of the Workforce Development Agency in 2003 and even further back to our entrepôt roots. Singapore is many things to the world: a trading hub, a port hub, and a commercial hub among others. But it is also a small island nation in a world full of other big nations trying to achieve prosperity. Our position at the higher end of the global prosperity spectrum has been increasing undercut in recent years by developing countries providing basic services at cheaper costs and by our dependence on the larger players in the global economy. Our manufacturing sector has continued to decline, a far cry from its heyday where Singapore was responsible for most of the high-end electronic manufacturing in the region. In 2009, Seagate closed its last Singapore factory and moved it to lower-cost areas in the region, ending the stint of what was once the biggest manufacturer of hard disks in the region.


Singapore’s increasing costs meant that it would always have to worry about being overtaken by developing countries in some sectors especially with the rise of low cost competitors in the region. The current slowdown in China is forecasted to have an adverse effect on manufacturing and other sectors, lending more risks to Singaporean workers who are faced with future irrelevancy in the face of technological advancements. Thus SkillsFuture comes at a time where the government needs to assist its workforce not just for the sake of the families that call Singapore home, but also for the economic future of this island state.


We are not alone in this regard; even the world’s largest economy, the United States of America has a “Skills to Build America's Future” initiative under the Department of Labour. The world today has developed at a fast pace, with the twin factors of technological advancements that could render occupations obsolete within a few decades and booming populations in developing countries. The end product is a world of nations desperate to attract investment and job opportunities amidst fast paced development that has led to people being denied the job that they have trained for.


The aims of SkillsFuture are commendable, its first goal echoes the recurrent theme of providing “Singaporeans with the opportunities to develop their fullest potential throughout life, regardless of their starting points”. Its second goal is more ambitious as it seems to try to go against the prevailing tide of the paper chase that is rampant in Singapore at the moment.


SkillsFuture follows the government’s shift in recent years by extolling the benefits of a greater focus on workers’ skills:


“Skills mastery is more than having the right paper qualifications and being good at what you do currently; it is a mindset of continually striving towards greater excellence through knowledge, application and experience.” - www.skillsfuture.sg/what-is-skillsfuture


The Future of SkillsFuture


There is no doubt that SkillsFuture will go some way into helping current members of the workforce adapt to changing times. Furthermore, it takes a bold stand against obtaining paper qualification for paper qualification’s sake. However, we must ask if these initiatives are simply firefighting and damage control actions or a means for us to reconsider the relevance of skills in the workforce. This is especially pressing given the sad truth that we are no longer the complete captains of our destiny in the workforce; older workers with lesser paper qualifications are ousted by younger workers with more qualifications but the latter still faces stiff competition not only in the office but in the fight to be admitted to a tertiary institution that provides such certification.


Therein lies a problem with SkillsFuture; raising productivity on the island might be the aim of SkillsFuture, but greater productivity does not square to gainful employment. It remains to be seen if SkillsFuture would enable older workers to develop skills relevant to their current jobs that are recognised by their employers or leave them with skills that only help them for life after retrenchment from their current job.


Equipping workers with relevant skills is by far the easier thing to do when compared with changing mindsets in a market that prioritise paper qualifications over experience and SkillsFuture is probably the best way to signal employers to this new thinking. However its impact is unknown and the capitalist market is not known for being sensitive to workers’ needs when faced with profits and bottom lines. Given the range of courses offered under SkillsFuture; from human resource management to basic cooking, it appears that the initiative is aiming for the best but preparing for the worse.


The Future of Skills


This push towards “skill mastery” is reflective of a greater desire of the government to wean Singaporeans off the conventional notions of career success. At a recent forum, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress, Mr Chan Chun Sing laid out his aspirations for Singapore in this area:


“Don’t become a yardstick society in which we aimlessly, blindly chase goals regardless of what we’re good at. That’s the saddest thing we can do for ourselves…The whole society will then lose resilience because it has become monolithic. A resilient society has diverse groups of people and talents to respond to changes as they arise.” 


Accusations that such a “yardstick society” is a product of the current system aside, it has to be admitted that such sentiment is egalitarian and noble. However the markets are not. The Singapore’s education system’s heavy focus on Mathematics and Science stemmed from the need to attract heavy industry investors to post-independence Singapore. While it has been tweaked several times since then; such emphasis remains, much to the consternation of those who believe that education should focus on knowledge first and future employment second. However such sentiment cannot be taken to an extreme, the harsh truth is that Singapore is too small for everyone’s own hopes and dreams. It is a city state that has to both maintain a stable domestic economy whilst remaining extremely reactive to shifts in the global economy that it has derived its prosperity from. And now that shift is going against Singapore’s favor.


As Singapore begins to lose its share in heavy industry to other nations, corporate and research work becomes enticing to the aspiring workforce. However a nation cannot be made entirely of white collared workers. Furthermore the view that favors white over blue collared work has been reinforced in recent years by the influx of foreign workers into the construction and service industry among others. SkillsFuture goes some way to acknowledging the need to eliminate this pointless distinction simply because with Singapore’s influx of university graduates and possible movement of corporate and research work away from Singapore, what appears desirable now may not always be so. As a small island nation dependent on global trade, we will always be at the mercy of the global economic climate. We have enjoyed much prosperity because of good policy decisions made in the past to capitalize on economic trends, however the status quo might change and when that happens, we need to be prepared for the unpleasant consequences. SkillsFuture is not the solution for such an occurrence, only the damage control with its focus on retraining.


The best state of affairs for Singapore moving forward is to educate and plan for changes in the future and ensure that those who enter the workforce are doing so prepared for the turbulent times ahead. How that is done is beyond the scope of this commentary but it is safe to say that while we focus on preparing people for the future with SkillsFuture, we should move such initiatives from their current role as damage control modes to a means to help young Singaporeans make meaningful choices and help regarding their future career.


The best state of affairs for Singapore is that we should no longer need SkillsFuture as a top-down initiative, but as a mindset.