Singapore can learn from Japan's use of robotics technology: Vivian Balakrishnan

Japanese electronics giant Hitachi's EMIEW3 customer service and guidance robot during a demonstration in Tokyo on April 8.
Japanese electronics giant Hitachi's EMIEW3 customer service and guidance robot during a demonstration in Tokyo on April 8. PHOTO: AFP

Republic keen to study ways to tackle energy, eldercare and productivity challenges: Vivian

Japan is ahead of the curve in robotics technology, and Singapore can tap this expertise to meet its challenges in productivity, eldercare and energy efficiency, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in Tokyo yesterday.

These are issues that Japan also faces, and Singapore has been watching developments in the North-east Asian nation very closely, he told reporters at the end of his four-day introductory visit to Japan.

One key challenge the two states face, he said, is boosting productivity amid a tight labour market.

There is an "added sense of urgency" because the size of the local workforce has started to shrink in Japan and will be reaching its peak in Singapore, given low birth rates.

In last month's Budget, Singapore earmarked more than $450 million for the National Robotics Programme over the next three years to help firms adopt robotics technology so as to boost productivity, noted Dr Balakrishnan yesterday.

This would also involve training to equip the workforce with skills to work with robotics, which he called a "new and promising" area.

"We're hoping Japanese companies have an opportunity to engage in investment and transfer of technology (which) will be mutually beneficial to our countries," said Dr Balakrishnan, who is also the Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative.

Eldercare is another mutual challenge, and Dr Balakrishnan said it was worth studying how Japan has extensively tapped robotics in nursing and caring for senior citizens.

"Issues such as dignity and convenience require design thinking (in) the interface (and) the way humans relate. You can't change humans, but you can change and redesign the machine interface," he said, adding that this would require further research and development.

A third area was energy efficiency. Dr Balakrishnan, who was formerly Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, said Singapore has worked well with Japan leading up to the recent conclusion of climate change talks.

This had culminated in 175 countries signing an accord last Friday to curb climate change.

Dr Balakrishnan, who represented Singapore at the ceremony, said yesterday: "The impetus to focus on energy efficiency is even more urgent. We're looking at how some of the Japanese technologies for energy efficiency and robotics, which Japan is very advanced in, can also be imported or applied in Singapore."

Beyond Singapore's ties with Japan, the Foreign Minister also touched on China and the South China Sea. He reiterated the Republic's stance that it is not a claimant state in the vital sea and does not take any sides on the merits of competing territorial claims.

He said: "We want a rules-based multilateral world order, we want to have avenues for the peaceful resolution of differences with full respect for diplomatic and legal processes."

Dr Balakrishnan's trip coincided with the 50th anniversary of Singapore-Japan diplomatic ties that were established on April 26, 1966.

Besides robotics, Dr Balakrishnan yesterday also cited trade and air services as two areas for even closer collaboration.

The landmark Japan-Singapore Economic Partnership Agreement is currently under review, he noted, while Singapore has been promoting the further liberalisation of a bilateral air services agreement.

"Our airports - Narita and Haneda in Tokyo and Changi in Singapore - can increase our positions as vital air hubs," he said, through having more flights and fifth freedom rights on both sides.

These rights allow a carrier to fly from its home country to another one before picking up passengers and flying on to a third country.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2016, with the headline 'S'pore can learn from Japan's use of robotics technology'. Print Edition | Subscribe