Parliament: Embrace lifelong learning like the healthcare industry, says Dr Koh Poh Koon

Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon said Singapore would need to undergo “a fundamental DNA evolution” of continual upgrading and lifelong learning.

SINGAPORE - Singapore will need to undergo "a fundamental DNA evolution" of continual upgrading and lifelong learning, said Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon, adding that the country is already in a strong position to prepare for the tech revolution.

This DNA, said Dr Koh, a colorectal surgeon, is already seen in the healthcare industry where doctors, nurses, technicians and support staff learn new skills whenever there is new medical technology.

He said: "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, re-certification and refresher courses, and the hospital management actively plans for this and also ensures the personnel are kept up to date."

Such a mindset shift is required for the whole economy for the industry transformation maps (ITMs) to be realised, said Dr Koh on the second day of debates on President's Address on Tuesday (May 15).

ITMs are blueprints that map 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.

It is not just workers who worry. Businesses also fret about business disruption, students about whether their skills become obsolete, and the elderly about how they can cope in a technology-based society, he added.

"I can empathise with such fears and anxieties. I have also seen this in patients facing an uncertain prognosis," said Dr Koh.

Putting things in perspective, he said pointed out that workers are consumers too, and benefit from the conveniences that technologies bring. 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, adding that employers must make sure such transformation must be "user-friendly" to overcome the fear of technology.

He said the Government should listen to workers and business owners to ensure that the ITMs can work, and be prepared to make changes when necessary.

Dr Koh, who was appointed deputy secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress last month, also pledged to bridge the gap between government agencies and the labour movement, particularly in implementing the ITMs.

He said all Singaporeans - students, workers, entrepreneurs, business leaders and even retirees - play a part in participating in the innovation-driven economy.

Said Dr Koh: "If we can hunker down and band together, our enterprises and our people will emerge all the better for it.

"Singapore is not defined by the progress and accolades it has achieved, but our constant striving to do better. Our story has always been about the future that we create through our collective efforts."

Separately, Dr Tan Wu Meng, a former backbencher who was appointed as Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Trade and Industry during the recent Cabinet reshuffle, also emphasised the need for quality growth of the economy.

This will help to sustain a more fair and equal society, he added.

Dr Tan reasoned that a slow economy favours old money - those who own capital and land, as well as those who want a "rentier society" without labour, innovation and value creation.

"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," he said.