Six habits to cope well with disruption

Disruption challenges some fundamental ways of thinking that we need to unlearn. For example, to fail is not to be a failure.

The concept of disruption has shaped the Government's thinking about the future of the economy. This has led to laudable initiatives which will be critical in future years. The most notable are the emphasis on lifelong learning and on the need to have relevant and up-to-date skills. The SkillsFuture programme with its large and growing array of courses is a centrepiece of the strategy to enable workers to continue to maintain their economic relevancy. Also, receiving considerable attention are the notion of being a Smart Nation and the applicability of new skill sets such as coding.

These strategies are both important and exciting. However, they can easily mask more fundamental considerations.


First, the short courses offered through SkillsFuture are not a substitute for a good foundation of education built up over 14 to 20 years of layered learning from kindergarten to tertiary levels.

The future economy will have high barriers of entry in terms of knowledge and skills. Adult learning will be "top-ups" to a strong base of learning which has both breadth and depth.

The short courses offered through SkillsFuture are not a substitute for a good foundation of education built up over 14 to 20 years of layered learning from kindergarten to tertiary levels, says the writer. Adult learning will be "top-ups" to a stron
The short courses offered through SkillsFuture are not a substitute for a good foundation of education built up over 14 to 20 years of layered learning from kindergarten to tertiary levels, says the writer. Adult learning will be "top-ups" to a strong base of learning that has both breadth and depth. ST FILE PHOTO

Young people should not develop the misunderstanding that they can neglect the need for a long period of sustained learning in favour of short bursts of targeted training.

We need to continue to make the heavy investments in educational infrastructure and in teacher training to ensure we maintain the depth and quality of education of every new cohort of Singaporeans.


Second, employment security is largely a thing of the past. All of us will face the challenge of obsolescence in our knowledge and skill sets. Adult learning will be critical to staying relevant.

However, even so we must be prepared for periods of unemployability either due to disruption of our employment sectors or because of the imperative to take extended periods out from employment to retool our knowledge and skill sets.

This phenomenon of repeated cycles of redeployment and re-education will be contextualised in long and lengthening lifespans. We need to be emotionally, psychologically and socially prepared to adapt to this new normal of working and living.


Third, there has been much discussion of the idea of "inclusive growth". The focus has been on ensuring that growth is broad-based and that there is effective and equitable redistribution. Broad-based growth is certainly desirable but it is unclear just how it can be achieved in an economy with high barriers to entry and the increasing availability of technology capable of substitution of cognitive labour.

Equitable redistribution will thus become an ever more important and urgent imperative. Inevitably, it will lead to a growing tax burden. Singaporeans will have to bear a growing load of taxes and do so in the face of unrelenting pressure from the threat of disruption and anxiety over their own and their children's future. This will make them more sensitive to the object and details of the redistribution.

The upshot is that inclusive growth must also be about contribution and not just redistribution. People will be more likely to accept the necessity of assisting others to level up if they can see that all Singaporeans and all communities are pulling their weight. If, however, any particular group is seen to be lagging persistently or perceived as having different priorities, then it will not be surprising if Singaporeans become more resistant to redistribution or demand that more is reserved for those who give more. Therefore, there are social and political consequences to economic alienation which are grave and must be mitigated.

To deal with these three challenges requires not just deep skills but deep attitudes. Attitudes will be as important as skills in ensuring that we remain resilient and socially cohesive. This leads me to another three habits of mind that can help us cope with disruption.


First is the need to be responsive and not passive. The Government can facilitate and enable but it cannot substitute for the hard work, discipline and persistence of the individual. Nor can the Government anticipate or customise the employment journey for each Singaporean. We must be pro-active and take ownership of our own personal economic future.

Singaporeans must be ready to adapt to circumstances, make adjustments in lifestyles and even be prepared to move overseas to seek opportunities.

Instead of beginning every discussion with the question, "What will the Government do?", Singaporeans should declare in sentences what they are prepared to do to help themselves.


Second is the need to be able to recover from disruption. Disruption will be difficult and painful. It will leave us questioning our self-worth and feeling poorly. Families will face financial challenges, even hardships.

We must manage our finances and our liabilities to be able to sustain ourselves during episodes of disruption and be prepared to make investments in ourselves, not just in stocks and properties.

Importantly, we must fully assimilate the notion that failing is not to be a failure. To be a failure is to deny reality and look to place the blame for disruption and the responsibility for remedy with others - the Government, foreigners, technology.


Third is the need for mutual respect. None of us will be insulated from the challenges of technological disruption, though its effects will be uneven. We need to learn to not judge those facing difficult times and learn to respect and help one another to cope.

This calls for changes in social values. Singapore is a competitive place and Singaporeans are harsh judges of performance.

What will matter more in the future is persistence, not performance. Those who can must be willing to assist those in need to cope. Crucially, those in need must be seen to be willing to help themselves recover. Assistance should not only be monetary, but also in kind. Volunteering should become a social cornerstone of Singapore.

It will reflect being more understanding to the struggles of others and recognising that we all desire the same things - peace, stability, social harmony, a chance to better ourselves and a bright future for our children. That is the true meaning of inclusiveness.

• The writer is the chief executive officer of Future-Moves Group, a management consulting firm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2017, with the headline 'Six habits to cope well with disruption'. Print Edition | Subscribe