Every nation has to be ready for rapid tech changes, prepare people for it: Heng Swee Keat

Every nation has to be ready for rapid tech changes, prepare people for it: Heng Swee Keat

Technology, and how it impacts people’s behaviour, is something policymakers will have to increasingly grapple with, says the Deputy Prime Minister.

office workers raffles place singapore file photo 3
Office workers at Raffles Place in Singapore. (File photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

SINGAPORE: A changing global economy, rapid tech advances and preparing people for these changes in the future are three challenges everyone in the world, including Singapore, will have to deal with, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Friday (Sep 6).

Speaking at the HT-MintAsia Leadership Summit, Mr Heng shared his thoughts about the changing structures of global economy and how every market will try to do better and grow their economy so as to improve people’s lives.

He pointed out that more countries appear to be retreating from the global economic system and engaging in more protectionist behaviour, but there is still “very strong value” for a multilateral trading system so that they can tackle issues together.

READ: A "powerful statement" for multilateralism, says PM Lee as 46 countries ink Singapore Convention on Mediation

On the economic level, Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, said the reason why there are so many unicorns, or even decacorns, today is because of the scale of their operations. A decacorn is a company that is valued at more than S$10 billion.

“The economies of scale to be able to develop a product and scale it across the world makes a huge difference, and I hope that the world can embrace this, for us to generate a lot more resources that are still very much needed,” he said.

It is not just about economic growth, too.

The Deputy Prime Minister said many of the global challenges today, such as climate change, need to be tackled at the global level, reiterating the message Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shared in his National Day Rally last month.

TECH TSUNAMI

The second challenge Mr Heng highlighted was the speed of technological advancement and how the convergence of different technologies is changing the shape of industries.

He cited Funan DigitaLife Mall as an example, saying how it was the go-to mall for buying a computer when he was a student. 

“But today, nobody buys computers that way, right? You buy online, you get all kinds of discounts and it gets delivered to you,” he said. 

READ: In pictures - First look at the revamped Funan mall

As such, mall operators such as CapitaLand have had to drastically reinvent what it means to be a mall, with much more invested in the customer experience, the minister said.

“E-commerce is going to change the shape of how buildings are going to be used,” Mr Heng said.

Alibaba’s e-commerce platform Taobao is an example of this shift, with its a “click-and-mortar” physical store at Funan. 

It is the first Taobao Store of its kind in Southeast Asia , allowing shoppers to touch and feel the merchandise before buying, while acting as a gathering place for those who are new to the online shopping platform and are confused by its app's user interface. 

“The store will bring to life our vision of seamless integration between online and offline commerce," said Ms Charlene Zhang, business development lead at Taobao Singapore.

It’s not just about using tech, but how business processes and business models are re-engineered to serve customers better, Mr Heng said. “We have to think about what the implications of these (developments) are on jobs, on business models, on the way that we regulate.”

PREPARING WORKERS FOR THE FUTURE

The last trend Mr Heng spoke of was the need for leaders to help people become better prepared for the future and give them access to more relevant jobs.  

READ: Singapore’s education system faces ‘biggest challenge’ of enabling continued learning, PM Lee says

He said Singapore is already doing so by investing in healthcare and education, for example, and this will become significantly more important if the Government is to retain the social compact with citizens.

Mr Heng recounted how during his time as Education Minister, he brought a group of senior educational leaders to Silicon Valley to learn more about educational tech. 

He said while the educators were enthused about the creativity of the technopreneurs and how the products could relieve people of many routine tasks, they were less so over one aspect.

“We don’t like the assumption that they made that teachers are redundant and can be made redundant,” Mr Heng recalled the educators' feedback. 

However, efforts were made to develop a system that would incorporate technology in the local context and Mr Heng said he was happy to see a whole team of teachers learn how to use ed tech well.

One example was the use of optical character readers to address the “classic” educator’s pain point – marking exam papers. With these readers, multiple choice questions can be graded by computers immediately, he said.

“Now when you think about it, did (tech) create or destroy jobs? No, it changed the nature of jobs,” Mr Heng said.  

“Jobs will change in many, many areas and jobs (that) are redundant ought to be gotten rid of. But our job is then to re-train workers so that they can access new and better jobs,” he added.   

Source: CNA/kk(hs)

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