Japan has lessons for S'pore on ageing well: Ong Ye Kung

Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung (at right) with Japanese State Minister of Defence Tomohiro Yamamoto at Japan's Ministry of Defence yesterday.
Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung (at right) with Japanese State Minister of Defence Tomohiro Yamamoto at Japan's Ministry of Defence yesterday.PHOTO: MINDEF

TOKYO • Fast-ageing Japan is embracing technology and robotics in ways that Singapore can learn from in its Smart Nation push, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung has said.

Speaking to The Straits Times in Tokyo yesterday, he said Japan is a prime example of how growing old does not necessarily mean the loss of dynamism or drive. He said: "Do you want to stay young or act old?"

Mr Ong, who is also Second Minister for Defence, is on a five-day visit ending today at the invitation of Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono. This week, he met Japanese State Minister of Defence Tomohiro Yamamoto, Japanese Education Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike. He also visited firms such as Kawada Robotics and NEC Space Systems.

Japan's economy has recorded seven straight quarters of expansion in its longest positive streak in two decades, and Mr Ong said this was a sign that the country had pulled itself out of its economic rut.

Its people were "on the go, dynamic, prepared to embrace and leverage on technology".

In this vein, he said the traditional assumption that an ageing population would become slower and unwilling to learn or innovate did not necessarily hold water. Japan's old-age support ratio - the number of citizens aged 20 to 64 for every citizen aged 65 and older - dropped to 4.4 this year and could fall to as low as 2.4 by 2030.

Singapore should also relook the societal definition of "success", he said, saying it could look to Japan's emphasis on skills mastery, which has gone beyond the traditional definition of "little intricate things".

Much like how Japan's artisans put great care in their craft - "right down to each piece of sushi, glassware or kimono" - Singapore, too, can emphasise skills upgrading in professional trades, Mr Ong said.

This would include such roles in medical care, social work, digital animation, journalism, acting, "and even being a politician", he quipped. "Whatever people choose, it must be out of passion, and once this is gone, there is no craftsmanship, no skills mastery."

As part of this shift towards more holistic education, Mr Ong said traditional norms of how employers look at hiring, promotion and appraisals must change.

Singapore and Japan share very close people-to-people ties, with Mr Ong noting that Mr Kono had once lived in Singapore as an employee at Fuji Xerox.

This comfortable relationship also extends to the strategic level, with both nations sharing a common view on a free and open Indo-Pacific, Mr Ong said.

Japan has stepped up to take the lead in regional free trade, he noted, a far cry from 2000 when it was negotiating its first bilateral free trade pact with Singapore. Mr Ong was then a trade negotiator.

"Now they are taking on that persuasion and leadership role," he said, noting Japan's role in taking a revised form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership forward after the United States pulled out.

Japan and Singapore also share similar strategic views, including in an open and inclusive regional architecture, he noted.

"The more we can engage, the more stable and prosperous the region will be," he said.

"Because of this strategic congruence... it has always been comfortable working with Japan on security and defence matters."

Walter Sim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2017, with the headline 'Japan has lessons for S'pore on ageing well: Ong Ye Kung'. Print Edition | Subscribe