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Singapore needs high-tech workers to support vibrant economy

Singapore needs high-tech workers to support vibrant economy

Singapore believes that it may face a chronic shortage of skills if it does not bring in foreign talent in key sectors such as software programming.

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By Noah L. Wilson 24.09.2018

Singapore believes that it may face a chronic shortage of skills if it does not bring in foreign talent in key sectors such as software programming. Its education system is still undergoing the changes needed to support new ways of working and future demands.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said that the country is ready to drive growth but that a critical mass of workers is necessary to support the economy and make it more attractive to overseas investors while encouraging enterprise. This means that Singapore cannot sit idly by and wait for the next generation of skilled workers to emerge.

Singapore is instead pursuing an open policy to foreign labor for high-end jobs in tech as artificial intelligence (AI), robotic process automation and other cutting-edge advances shape the world of work. In contrast, lower-skilled industries such as construction use a quota system to fill jobs.

Skills shortages are not just a problem for Singapore, however, as enterprises across the globe are currently looking to source talented employees for tech-based roles. “Talent is very short everywhere in the world – AI talent, software programmers," Ong said in a recent interview. "We let them in because we require a critical mass for the sector to take off, while we continue to train Singaporeans for those jobs."

Ong, 48, received a promotion to the Head of the Education Ministry earlier this year and is one of a number of younger ministers who are possible successors to current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Ong is eager to drive a vibrant economy at a time when Singapore is facing up to the challenges of an aging population and a dearth of high-tech workers.

He said on Friday that 25% of the country will be aged 65 or over by 2030, so it is no surprise that Singapore is also attempting to overhaul health care and social security. "A transformation is required," the Education Minister added. "A transformation towards an economy that is more innovation-driven, that is more productivity-driven."

As the US-China trade battle continues to ratchet up in severity, Singapore is looking at new avenues to support its economy, as it is currently very trade-dependent. The wealthy island state is pushing itself as a digital literate “Smart Nation” with a connected financial hub.

The education system will underpin the country’s labor needs during the next decade, and this is an area for which Ong is directly responsible. He wants to implement a new “inquiry-based approach” to teaching so that students learn critical thinking. Ong said: "It used to be ‘knowledge is power.' Now, power is knowing what knowledge to ignore and what to take in and decide for yourself."

Trade is never far from the minds of leading officials in emerging Asia, and Ong revealed that the “whole world suffers” when the US and China face off in a tit-for-tat tariff battle. China is currently Singapore’s largest trade partner, while the US is its fourth-largest, so it is likely to see the effects of any spillover. With the standoff set to run for some time after the breakdown of talks and the specter of further levies, Singapore must tread carefully.

"Today's rise of identity politics, protectionism – it's not the end game, but we are in the middle of a transition," said Ong. "The social media plays a big part in the kind of information people receive and how you feel; it just changes politics; it changes governance in a very deep, fundamental way." He believes that short-term gains in certain industries may cede to longer-term dangers.

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