Winning gold in future economy

By now, most Singaporeans would be familiar with the gruelling hours that Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling put in to attain victory ("Pain behind the glory"; Sunday).

His story is a reflection of author Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule, as outlined in his book Outliers, which states that to achieve the level of mastery of a world-class expert in anything, other than innate talent, one has to put in 10,000 hours of practice.

Let us also consider the point Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong raised in his National Day Rally speech that disruption is the defining challenge for Singapore's economy ("Disruption the 'defining challenge' for economy"; Monday).

Singapore can do more to ride the wave of technological change. Robotics, cloud computing, applications development, automation and data analytics are specialised skill sets that are best cultivated from a young age, so as to clock the 10,000 hours needed to achieve mastery.

With the Smart Nation initiative, we have started to introduce programming in selected secondary schools to expose youth to computing.

But this is barely enough to create the next Bill Gates or to leapfrog Singapore to the frontier of disruptive technology.

We need to create an ecosystem that is supportive of our youngsters, focusing on and developing their skills in their formative years.

Our current system is set up against time. By the time our young adults finish their degree and clock the 10,000 hours, they would probably be at an age where they would need to worry about the financial burden of a first child or a housing loan, and it would take tremendous courage to forsake a stable job and pursue a start-up.

Moving the clock forward, we may have a winning formula for creating future "unicorn" companies.

To support this, we need to loosen the rigidity of our education system to allow for specialised skill-based education.

We also need to generate a competitive environment by holding national or regional competitions - for example, robotics and cyber security (hacking) competitions - to suss out local and foreign talents.

Offering internships in multinational companies or statutory boards will provide real-life challenges and training.

If we can pull this off, we would have a pool of highly skilled, energetic youngsters with a long career runway.

We would then be in a good place to win an "Olympic gold medal" in the future economy.

Ng Tze Yik

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2016, with the headline 'Winning gold in future economy'. Print Edition | Subscribe