SINGAPORE: Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong assured Singaporeans that the Government will “redouble” its efforts to develop and support workers while keeping the economy open.
Speaking at the Singapore Economic Policy Forum on Tuesday (Oct 18), Mr Wong spoke about Singapore’s strategy to keep the economy growing and ensure that growth is inclusive, in a more uncertain global economic environment.
Singapore’s “twin strategy” is to stay open and develop local, said Mr Wong, who is also Finance Minister.
“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,” he said.
Mr Wong noted that in recent years, there has been “very ugly” anti-foreigner sentiment surfacing in some quarters, with some arguing that Singapore wants to stay open “in principle”, but should “get rid of more foreigners” to reclaim jobs for Singaporeans.
But that thinking is “fatally flawed” as those jobs will not automatically go to Singaporeans, he said.
“On the contrary, if our policies become overly restrictive, global companies based here will simply find other places to operate in - places with larger markets or larger pools of expertise,” he said.
“We will lose all the jobs that the companies brought here, and these include many good jobs being done by Singaporeans. If this perception of Singapore sets in, decades of hard work to build our hub will be wasted.”
He added: “Our economy will contract … and go down in a tailspin. We will end up with far worse problems, and ultimately it’s Singaporeans who will pay the price.”
For Singapore to continue to thrive, it must continue to attract the best companies and top talent to Singapore, while developing its people, Mr Wong emphasised.
“This is why we have always been very deliberate in bringing in new investments to Singapore – making sure that these investments help to strengthen our capabilities and our people.”
He gave the example of German engineering and manufacturing firm Bosch Rexroth, which has a regional training centre in the Jurong Innovation District to train technicians and engineers in advanced manufacturing.
It also offers industry knowledge and business networks to support other firms, especially SMEs, all of which create “positive spill-over effects” for the Singapore economy and better jobs for Singaporeans, said Mr Wong.
BETTER SKILLSFUTURE SYSTEM
At the same time, he promised that investing in the skills and human capital of Singaporeans has been and will continue to be a key priority for the Government, listing several ways that workers here will be supported.
Singapore will continually update its manpower policies and rules to manage the flow of work-pass holders, and to ensure that they are of the right calibre, Mr Wong said.
It will also make sure that employers adopt fair employment practices, and take a strong stance against discrimination in the workplace.
The country will invest more in skills training, with a focus on developing more Singaporean specialists and leaders across all sectors of the economy, he said.
“Our aim is to invest significantly in all Singaporeans and help them to build up the skills and capabilities they need to succeed throughout their working lives,” said Mr Wong.
A majority of workers will need more extensive training to stay relevant or to pivot into new sectors, especially when industries are undergoing dramatic change and transformation, he added.
The “bottom line” is there is a need to make it possible for workers to invest their time in more meaningful and substantial training, said Mr Wong, especially for mature and mid-career workers in their 40s and 50s who are more at risk of career disruption.
This will require a “fundamental upgrading” of Singapore’s training ecosystem, he added.
“There are some things that we will have to consider, for example, how much more should we provide through the SkillsFuture credit at major milestones of one’s life for upgrading … how we can give employees peace of mind and time off from work to focus solely on upgrading,” he said.
Mr Wong said that the Government has studied many countries but no one has a comprehensive nationwide system of adult education and training.
Singapore is “distilling” the best practices from around the world, and studying how to apply them in the local context, he added.
“Working together, I am confident we can build a better SkillsFuture system that will enable all Singaporeans to develop and grow, and bring out the best in them,” he said.
“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.”
“HANDS-ON” AND “HEART” WORK
Mr Wong also promised to strengthen “multiple pathways of progression” to help people with different strengths and talents flourish.
“Our school system is becoming more diverse and flexible,” he said.
"We have been taking steps over the years to blunt the effects of streaming and allow for more fluidity in our system.”
Streaming will be phased out completely by 2024, to be replaced by full subject-based banding, which lets secondary school students pursue subjects at different levels, based on their interests and aptitude.
Beyond that, broader change is required in the economy, which still places too much of a premium on cognitive abilities or “head” work, he said.
And there is not sufficient value placed on other forms of work, such as technical roles which tend to be more “hands-on” work, or service and community care roles which tend to be more “heart” work.
This can be seen in the growing divergence between the starting pay for ITE, polytechnic and university graduates, said Mr Wong.
To tackle this, Singapore has tightened foreign worker quotas and increased their salary thresholds over the last decade, while raising the wages of lower-wage workers through the Progressive Wage Model.
The Government is also investing more to raise the quality of vocational instruction in Institutes of Higher Learning.
“Beyond these moves, we must do more to recognise the value of ‘hands’ or ‘heart’ work across the economy,” he said.
There is a need to look at ways to re-design jobs and raise productivity in such sectors; upgrade skills, and establish better career progression for workers, and for businesses to pay their workers well.
“All of us as Singaporeans must do our part too, and be willing to pay more, and bear the higher cost of goods and services delivered by our fellow workers in these different sectors and occupations,” he said.
“For many people, wages are just one part of this debate - respect and dignity matter equally, if not more.”
Mr Wong urged Singaporeans to “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.”
This will require a fundamental mindset shift in society – by employers, and by society, he said.
“Some of these shifts will not be easy to attain. But if we work together, I am confident that we can expand the possibilities for fulfilment and success for every generation of Singaporeans,” said Mr Wong.
“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.”