S'pore to stay open, continue developing local workforce through skills training: Lawrence Wong

As industries change dramatically and rapidly, many workers will require more extensive efforts to upgrade their skills to stay relevant.

Ashley Tan | October 18, 2022, 05:58 PM

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Human capital will always remain a key priority for Singapore.

In order to remain a regional hub, the government aims to keep Singapore open and connected to the world, and to equip workers with the necessary and updated skills throughout their careers with a more effective and comprehensive SkillsFuture system.

This was shared by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong at the Singapore Economic Policy Forum on Oct. 18.

Wong opened his speech by addressing the turbulent economic environment the world is in, in the midst of slowing growth and growing inflation.

In order to thrive, Singapore has to adopt a "twin strategy" of staying open to attract top companies and talent, as well as developing the local workforce.

Staying open key to Singapore's success

Acknowledging that Singapore's economy is maturing and its previous high levels of broad-based growth will be hard to sustain, Wong pointed out that Singapore's open economy and status as a regional hub has been a boon.

This characteristic has been key to the country's success.

Moving forward, Singapore can "remain a bastion of stability, openness and innovation" if it continues to refresh and update its economic strategies and utilise "the one resource we have" — its people.

"Our first imperative is to stay open and connected to the world. This is not just essential, but it is existential for Singapore. Because we are a little red dot with no natural resources and no hinterland and staying open is the only way we can survive and thrive."

Unfortunately, the minister noted that populism and economic nationalism has been on the rise.

Locally, there have been populist arguments to reduce the number of foreigners in Singapore, so that we can "reclaim more good jobs for Singaporeans."

Such arguments are "cleverly packaged to sound as reasonable as possible", Wong said.

However, such thinking is "fatally flawed", he reasoned, as policies that are overly-restrictive of foreigners might lead to the departure of global companies based here, causing a loss of jobs for foreigners as well as Singaporeans.

This would also lead to "far worse problems" such as economic contraction, and declining incomes.

"It's Singaporeans who will ultimately pay the price," said Wong.

Developing local

As for developing the local workforce, Wong said the government will redouble its efforts to support every worker.

Firstly, it will continually update manpower policies and rules to manage the flow of work-pass holders, and ensure they are of the "right calibre".

Secondly, the government will make sure employers adopt fair employment practices, and take a strong stance against discrimination at the workplace by investigating errant employers and taking "prompt action", said Wong, pointing out that workplace fairness legislation will soon be enacted, to signal "zero tolerance" of workplace discrimination.

Thirdly, Wong said the government will invest more in skills training, with an emphasis on developing more Singaporean specialists and leaders across all sectors.

"In the end, the global companies have to select and appoint their leaders by merit," Wong said.

Acknowledging that competition for these roles is often intense, he said "we will do everything we can to give Singaporeans that extra advantage by investing heavily in their capabilities and skills."

Improving SkillsFuture

To further equip and empower Singaporeans with the necessary skills, Wong shared that the government will continue to enhance SkillsFuture.

In 2021, over, 660,000 Singaporeans benefited from SkillsFuture-supported programmes.

Nevertheless, short bouts of upskilling from time to time can only go so far in building "deep skills".

As industries change dramatically and rapidly, Wong highlighted that many workers will require more extensive efforts to upgrade their skills to stay relevant, or to pivot into new sectors.

Mid-career workers in their 40s and 50s, in particular, are more at risk of career disruption, and Wong said the government "can do much more" to support them in upgrading themselves.

Wong also said this group is likely to have heavier obligations, such as parent care and childcare, that make it difficult to be away from work for an extended period.

"We must develop a system which can cater to their needs and help them continue to provide the best for their families," Wong said.

This requires a "fundamental upgrading" of Singapore's SkillsFuture ecosystem.

"There are some things which we will have to consider, for example, how much more we can provide through the SkillsFuture Credit at major milestones of one’s life for upgrading, so that Singaporeans can update themselves on the latest industry trends and skills.

"Can we give employees peace of mind, and time off from work to focus on upgrading?" Wong asked rhetorically, saying that some firms here already have exemplary training leave policies, especially global companies who understand the value of human capital.

"But we should see if this can be broadened across the entire economy, while taking into consideration of the needs of businesses," he added.

Wong added that the government will also have to consider how to better support workers who are concerned about their income while undergoing full-time training for periods of up to "a few weeks or even a few months", so they can transition to a new role or industry.

To meet the needs of adult education and training, Wong said Singapore is "distilling the best practices" from around the world and applying them in the local context.

A better SkillsFuture ecosystem will enable all Singaporeans to develop and grow, and will also provide assurance, especially those who are at risk of being displaced.

Wong then summed up the twin strategy, saying:

"All of this put together will be a key part of our refreshed compact with all Singaporeans—that we will stay open as a vibrant hub for the world, at the same time, Singaporeans can be assured that they will never walk alone as they journey through their careers. We will walk this journey together with all Singaporeans."

Realising the value in different types of work

Lastly, Wong highlighted the need to strengthen multiple pathways of progression to help those with different strengths flourish.

He observed that currently, there is "too much of a premium" placed on "head work", roles which require cognitive abilities, instead of technical "hands-on work", or "'heart' work", which are service and community care roles.

This can be seen in the growing divergence between the starting pay for ITE, polytechnic and university graduates. Wong added that the median starting salary for a university graduate is nearly double that of an ITE graduate.

The government is tackling this by uplifting the wages of lower-wage workers through the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), and investing more in the quality of vocational instruction at Institutes of Higher Learning.

Beyond this though, Wong emphasised that more must be done to recognise "hands" and "heart" work.

Wong said the government will do its part to reduce the gaps in wages between those doing different types of work, by investing in people.

He added that businesses have a part to play by recognising the value of diverse jobs, and should redesign their business processes and jobs, and pay workers well.

"The government will support you in this endeavour, as we have been doing for example through the Progressive Wage Credits Scheme," said Wong.

Wong also called for a change in mindsets, saying:

"For many, wages is just one part of this debate. Respect and dignity matter equally, if not more. So we must move away from preconceptions that academic success should be prized above all others.

Instead, we must respect those who labour with their hands and hearts, and confer upon them the same status as other paths.

We must also give them opportunities to advance in their respective fields, and not pigeonhole them into specific tasks, or hold them back unfairly."

Wong said Singapore must be able to promise that regardless of which path a worker takes, hard work and effort will be rewarded with recognition and opportunities to advance.

"Great task of nation-building"

Concluding his speech, Wong recapped the vision of building a Singapore where people can "aspire to exciting careers and jobs", where people will receive the support they need to realise their potential and succeed, and which values the contributions of its citizens, ideas that had "consistently come up" in various Forward Singapore engagements.

There will be changes required to realise this vision, and some "will not be easy to attain," Wong conceded.

Nevertheless, Wong expressed confidence that these changes would be possible if everyone works together, and said:

"This is the great task of nation-building that falls upon our shoulders, and this is the Singapore that I hope to see in my lifetime."

Top photo from Ministry of Communications and Information and Ministry of Manpower / FB