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Commentary: Three literacies to level up Singapore’s disruption game

To adapt to a rapidly changing environment, and realise the country’s Smart Nation vision, Singaporeans need to be cross-culturally, digitally and ethically literate, says Nominated Member of Parliament and SUTD Professor Lim Sun Sun.

Commentary: Three literacies to level up Singapore’s disruption game

Skyline of Singapore's central business district. (File photo: Reuters)

SINGAPORE: Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat has announced a budget that charts strategic paths for the country in the face of formidable headwinds.

In particular, this year’s budget will help Singapore to confront and harness the forces of digital disruption as they interact with demographic shifts, Asia’s growing ascendance in the world economy and subsiding support for globalisation.

Indeed, even as Budget 2019 addresses the critical needs of lower-income households, it also seeks to boost the capabilities of our people and the companies that power our economic transformation. Hence, different schemes for companies such as Innovation Agents, SMEs Go Digital and the Automation Support Package are certainly critical and can give industries a welcome boost.

In his Budget statement, Mr Heng also spoke of the need for our people to have the “skills, knowledge and attitude” to flourish in our fast-changing world that has seen the rapid proliferation of technology.

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To this end, I would like to highlight three critical literacies we must seek to nurture in our people, to help us all better adapt to our rapidly evolving environment. If the Annual Budget starts with A and B, we need to inculcate three core literacies beginning with C, D and E: Cross-cultural literacy, digital literacy and ethical literacy.

The Finance Minister had in fact raised the need to cultivate cross-cultural literacy among our young so as to broaden our regional and international connections. 

Cross-cultural literacy -  the ability to understand and interact across different cultures in a manner that is sensitive to differences, yet respectful of diversity - is arguably more crucial today than ever before.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat delivering the Budget 2019 statement.

To fortify our rich multi-cultural heritage, we must create more spaces and opportunities for meaningful cross-cultural understanding. 

Rather than simply trading in essentialist and simplistic caricatures of different cultures, we need to create forums where people are unafraid to ask tough questions of one another, confront their unconscious biases, and dispel long held misconceptions.

Cross-cultural interactions should be well developed, organised, and supported by facilitators, failing which these encounters may create confusion, trigger misunderstandings, and at worst, reinforce stereotypes and prejudices. Greater cross-cultural literacy can help to forge a more inclusive society where diversity is valued rather than frowned upon.

Efforts to enhance cross-cultural literacy should be introduced not only in schools, but also in community and corporate events so that working adults can benefit as well. 

Ultimately, social ties that are undergirded by greater cross-cultural literacy will be more enduring and resilient, and can serve as a bulwark against threats such as online disinformation campaigns that seek to foment inter-ethnic discord.

Beyond Singapore, our people must also inculcate a deeper understanding of our neighbours. Our region boasts of a rich cultural heritage and tremendous growth potential. And yet, many young Singaporeans view our regional neighbours as nothing more than holiday destinations.

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Many industry leaders I meet increasingly lament that Singaporeans are averse to job postings in the region as they view them as being less glamourous and rewarding than those further afield. Yet our region is home to fast-growing markets where there are many inroads to make significant impact.

To better develop Singapore into a node both within Asia and globally, and ensure that our citizens are well placed to tap such opportunities, our schools from primary through to tertiary levels should make greater efforts to strengthen and deepen our students’ appreciation of the region.

For example, the Singapore University of Technology and Design has taken the bold step of introducing funded overseas immersion trips to ASEAN countries to enhance the learning experience for first-year students.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hands over the ASEAN Chairmanship to Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha at the closing ceremony of the ASEAN Summit. (Photo: Jeremy Long)


Moving on to D for digital literacy. Singapore has done well in terms of providing access to digital devices and services.

Schemes such as the NEU PC Plus and Home Access programmes for low-income households, and Enable IT for persons with disabilities, which provide affordable broadband packages and computers, have helped to make sure that all Singaporeans have basic access to digital technology. Fortunately, we do not face a significant issue of a digital access divide.

However, we must be vigilant about any emerging digital skills divides that may find certain segments of our population less advantaged and less able to benefit from our digitalisation push. 

Notably, the Ministry of Communication and Information’s Digital Readiness Blueprint recommends that all citizens be equipped with a foundational set of digital skills. These pertain to managing information, communicating, transacting and maintaining cyber safety.

Going beyond the Basic Digital Skills Curriculum however, we need to pay particular attention to providing support for specific demographic groups that may require more targeted assistance.

For instance, how do we ensure that emerging adults from across the socio-economic spectrum are prepared for the job market in terms of knowing how to profile their competencies, utilise job portals, seek online career mentoring and access skills upgrading programmes? 

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At the same time, we may wish to offer digital roadmaps for critical issues that everyone has to deal with. For example, how can individuals seek reliable health information online, and how can families obtain sound advice on managing household finances?

In my research on parents with school going children, I have also found that some parents were daunted by the online homework their children were given, and felt deeply insecure about their inability to help their children.

Indeed, our digitally-connected world is constantly expanding in complex ways, with an ever-proliferating range of apps, portals, platforms and content. As far as possible, we must offer signposts to help people navigate their way online, equip them with the instincts to adapt to these changes, and make sense of the deluge of information they encounter. 

A student using a tablet. (File photo: AFP/Frederick Florin) File photo of a student using a tablet computer. (AFP/Frederick Florin)


Finally, E stands for ethical literacy. Because our society is becoming more digitalised, with a growing embrace of the Internet of Things, Big Data, artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation, we must enhance the ethical literacy of our workforce to ensure that these technologies are deployed in the best interests of our society.

Whether the solutions to our wicked problems are technologically or socially engineered, they must accord with our values and align with the ethical principles we collectively subscribe to. 

In this regard, we must vest our workforce with the competencies to recognise ethical issues where and when they present themselves, understand different ethical perspectives, and to apply these perspectives to help resolve ethical conundrums.

Who should be given access to information about whom and for what purpose? How do we draw the line between customer-orientation and surveillance? When should automated decision-making yield to human judgement?

Controversies in Big Tech have shown how inattention to ethical considerations can lead to issues such as Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica debacle, and Uber using its technology to track users’ locations even when they were not using the app. In this regard, the Proposed Model Artificial Intelligence Governance Framework launched in January by the Personal Data Protection Commission is both far-sighted and commendable.

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"Workplace by Facebook" is an enterprise-oriented version of the social network that, instead of distracting workers, lets them connect and collaborate. (REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration) FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of laptop users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

By effectively disseminating this framework across the relevant industry and education sectors, Singapore can strive to develop itself into an enlightened innovation hub which places equal premium on creativity and ethicality.

Indeed, ethical literacy should also be systematically phased into young Singaporeans’ educational journeys, where we could consider refreshing and updating our civics and moral education curriculum to take into account emerging ethical dilemmas in the era of Industry 4.0. 

Budget 2019 will advance Singapore’s Smart Nation drive, but crucially, we should also augment it by inculcating in our people three core literacies - cross-cultural, digital and ethical literacy.

Dr Lim Sun Sun is Professor of Communication and Technology and Head of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, and a Nominated Member of Parliament. 

Source: CNA/sl


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