Do more to level playing field as disruption opens skills gap

Two suggestions: higher subsidies for public transport and government-backed internships to be given out based on merit, not connections.

Equal opportunity and social mobility are things that our Government has strived to promote since Singapore's founding. I found it interesting, therefore, that in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech on Sunday, he singled out disruption from globalisation and technological progress as the "defining" economic challenge of our generation.

In his speech, he acknowledged how segments of society (e.g. taxi drivers and retail staff) have had their livelihoods threatened by new technology and alluded to the need for the Government to help incumbents adapt while levelling the playing field for everyone.

I would argue that disruption has not just widened the income or wealth gap, it has also skewed the odds in favour of the privileged and highly educated at the expense of the blue-collar worker, thereby creating a "skills gap" which many struggle to bridge. In a world where game-changing competition can materialise in an instant (thanks to free trade or a new smartphone app, for example), those who have spent their whole lives in a particular profession may find their livelihoods diminished or having disappeared overnight. It is fanciful to think that the only thing preventing an out-of-work factory assistant from retraining to be an in-demand software engineer is hard work and determination. This is not to say we ought to resist change in a Luddite fashion. But we should nonetheless be cognisant of the fact that economic progress is not positive for everyone, or even the majority, in society.

Recent government initiatives such as SkillsFuture and KidStart - effectively subsidising education for those who need or want it, from pre-schoolers to retirees - are a step in the right direction, but more can be done to help shrink the opportunity gap. We could start with something even more basic than education.

Public transport, for example, is a necessary expenditure for the almost 60 per cent of households without a car. The adults need to get to work and the kids need to get to school, and walking or cycling are rarely feasible options. While the Government already subsidises transportation costs and invests billions in infrastructure, I think policymakers could consider gradually increasing subsidies further so that the real, inflation-adjusted costs to commuters fall over time, to the point where they might eventually become free (or practically free). Such a move may be considered by some to be radical. However, I think there is a strong moral and economic case for it.


Lowering public transport costs would not only make schools and offices more accessible for ordinary Singaporeans, but it would also help them save money, thus boosting disposable incomes, consumption and the overall economy. It would also be good for the environment as more people are weaned off owning cars. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

I would argue that if we want to promote the virtues of education and employment, we should increase accessibility to both - figuratively (by creating more opportunities for learning and work) and literally (by making it cheaper and easier to get to and from schools or offices). Furthermore, as public transportation is a non- discretionary, non-transferable service (as opposed to a luxury good like a gold necklace, which could be resold for cash), it is unlikely to be abused or overconsumed if made free. Given the essential nature of transportation, and the prohibitively high cost of owning a car in Singapore, one can see how ordinary citizens may come to view public transport fares effectively as an unavoidable tax on the masses. Thus, I would suggest that further subsidies would not only be environmentally friendly, by giving people greater incentives to use public transport, they would also act like a tax cut for the general public, boosting disposable incomes, consumption and the overall economy.

Hope and ambition have helped transform Singapore from a colonial backwater to an Asian business hub in 50 years. If we are to survive the next 50 years, it will be crucial to preserve that optimism and drive in our future generations as well, with small tweaks and gestures to make an unfair world a little fairer.

Another idea I would champion, in our effort to create an environment of equal opportunity for our young, is to establish a government-backed scheme to offer merit-based internships to post-secondary students (i.e. those in junior colleges, polytechnics, etc).

There are two key reasons for such a proposal: The first is that internships are not just nice to have on a curriculum vitae (CV), but they also provide inexperienced students with valuable insights into potential professions and help them make better choices about the courses they might pursue in university, which will shape the paths they take later in life; the second is that while internships may benefit the interns (or even society as a whole) greatly, they are often a hassle and an irrecoverable cost for the company. Thus, they are underproduced when left to the free market, and become the preserve of the privileged and well-connected rather than those truly deserving of them.

Throughout my professional life, I have worked at financial institutions large and small, from investment banking to financial advisory. At every firm, I have occasionally been asked to let a young intern (usually 16-17 years old) mirror me for half a day. While some are very keen and genuinely grateful for the opportunity to learn, others have been awful, arrogant or generally disinterested. But, in every case, their backgrounds have been similar - they were either the children of our wealthy clients or friends of senior management. These young interns, with their connections and embellished CVs, will presumably have the best chance of being the lawyers and bankers of tomorrow, and that strikes me as being not just unfair but unhealthy for a meritocracy such as ours.

THE REDISTRIBUTION OF LUCK

I consider myself very "lucky" - to be born in Singapore rather than Somalia, to be a child of the go-go 1980s rather than the war-torn 1940s, and to have had loving parents who invested unreservedly in my education and development from an early age. To be sure, I am not trying to diminish the fact that I have worked hard, taken risks and seized opportunities to achieve my goals, and I certainly did not have the privilege of a "silver spoon upbringing". But to deny the role that chance and serendipity have played in my life turning out the way it has would be nothing short of arrogance.

The issue of luck, however, is one that defines and divides opinion. The debate starts at birth because it is clear that we have no control over where and to whom we are born, and yet these two completely arbitrary factors are arguably key inputs in the equation of life outcomes. It is also clear that, given a choice, most of us would prefer to be the offspring of an American millionaire entrepreneur than an African subsistence farmer. It is by this line of reasoning that those of a leftist disposition justify greater economic transfers to those deemed less fortunate, however that may be defined.

But it is also true that fortune favours the brave and I can personally attest to the saying "The harder I work, the luckier I get". And so, while others may start with more chips, and the odds at the roulette table of life are naturally stacked against you, there is nothing preventing you from stepping up to earn another spin of the wheel. It is imperative, however, that we all get the same odds, because our society (and indeed, our success) is founded on the basis of meritocracy and a strong work ethic. It is a system which doesn't seek to guarantee equal outcomes but equal opportunity, and where those at the top of organisations, be they public or private, are our most capable and qualified. So if we ever believe the game to be rigged, the incentive to keep playing is lost and the system breaks down.

It is for this reason that our leaders have treated, and need to continue treating, the issues of widening income gaps and social mobility so seriously. It is also for this reason that we should continually recalibrate the scales to ensure that every Singaporean has a fair shot at a better and brighter future, all the while avoiding the temptation (and pitfalls) of the welfare state.

Hope and ambition have helped transform Singapore from a colonial backwater to an Asian business hub in 50 years. If we are to survive the next 50 years, it will be crucial to preserve that optimism and drive in our future generations as well, with small tweaks and gestures to make an unfair world a little fairer. Big programmes with long acronyms may make headlines, but sometimes it's the little things that count.

  • The writer is co-founder of 31-East.com, a start-up that aims to tackle waste, corruption and inefficiency in the property sector.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2016, with the headline 'Do more to level playing field as disruption opens skills gap'. Print Edition | Subscribe