Few Singaporeans would be oblivious to the crucial need for lifelong learning. It long has been ingrained in the young that what they learn could be less relevant as job markets restructure relentlessly, paced by scientific and technological advances. Indeed, a survivalist approach to education lies at the heart of Singapore's destiny, where the choice is either to stay at the vanguard of global market-driven forces or to fall out of the race as a has-been. That logic has been reiterated indirectly by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam's call to universities to set up a dedicated office to better organise their lifelong learning efforts and help adult learners.
Such steps would represent a valuable effort to keep Singaporeans abreast of a changing labour market. A frightening reminder of the attritional obsolescence built into certain kinds of job was provided by reports that showed how workers in some industries risk being replaced by robots in the future. Alarmingly, almost half of all US jobs could be at risk from computerisation and automation. If this is what the future portends in the world's most advanced economy, other nations, including Singapore, would have to ponder deeply how to make human productivity and skills stay ahead of the curve to keep citizens employable.
The good news is that humans are unlike robots, whose existence is programmed entirely with specific productive tasks in mind. Robots replicate existing patterns of labour at any given time; indeed, they do so more cheaply and reliably than do humans, which is why the market welcomes them. However, imaginative humans achieve what robots never can do: redraw known landscapes of labour in the quest for new social and economic vistas. This is a historical phenomenon. Fire, the wheel, paper and gunpowder were not programmed into being: They were discovered or invented by creative human minds.
Education embodies the restless spirit of wonder that enables humans to transcend their physical environment. Its functional and utilitarian uses are important in themselves: Witness the automatic dependence on advances in medicine, engineering and computer studies that people take for granted today. However, even as robots invade some of the functions associated with the lower levels of such disciplines, it is the ability to learn in unforeseen ways that will ensure that humans possess the skills, not just to outsmart computers and robots but to do so well enough to produce the next generation of them.
Lifelong education ultimately is an argument for survival against whatever the future throws up. While the onus is on every individual to improve himself, Singapore's universities have a public duty to come up with creative and, yet, structured ways of making education continue over a lifetime.