Singapore will need to undergo "a fundamental DNA evolution" of continual upgrading and lifelong learning to deal with the tech revolution.
Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon made this call yesterday, and said this DNA is already seen in the healthcare industry - where various staff learn new skills whenever there is new medical technology.
"Each time a new infusion pump is introduced in the wards, a new surgical instrument is adopted in the operating theatres, the entire team... undergoes training, recertification and refresher courses," said Dr Koh, a colorectal surgeon.
This mindset shift must take place through the whole economy for the Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) to be realised, he said.
These maps are blueprints that set out how various economic sectors should upgrade themselves and their workers for the future.
"Some may wonder why the Government is actively supporting the process of economic transformation and change, instead of protecting existing jobs," he said during the debate on the President's Address.
It is not just workers who worry, he added. Businesses also fret about disruption, students about whether their skills become obsolete, and the elderly about how they can cope in a technology-based society.
"I can empathise with such fears and anxieties. I have also seen this in patients facing an uncertain prognosis," said Dr Koh.
He also sought to provide a different perspective on technological disruptions. Workers are consumers too, and benefit from the conveniences that technologies bring, he said. Automation and digitalisation can also make work lives more productive and flexible, while removing the physical limitations of age.
"Companies understand that if they do not disrupt ourselves, someone else will do so," he said. Employers need to ensure the transformation is "user-friendly" to overcome the fear of technology, he added.
Dr Koh, who was appointed deputy secretary-general of NTUC last month, also pledged to bridge the gap between government agencies and the labour movement in implementing the ITMs.
Many MPs reiterated the call for lifelong learning yesterday, including new Minister of State for National Development and Manpower Zaqy Mohamad.
"We cannot just look at automation and process transformation without helping our workers stay relevant and agile. We must ensure that as companies change, the quality of jobs gets better," said Mr Zaqy, adding that he saw how these changes affected firms worldwide when he was in the private sector.
He was a partner at auditing firm Ernst & Young before becoming an office-holder on May 1.
Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Trade and Industry Tan Wu Meng emphasised the need for the economy to have quality growth. This will help to sustain a more fair and equal society, he said.
"Growth, combined with reinvestment in our people and our communities, is a force against inequality... Singapore must never become a society where there is only old wealth, without new enterprise."