International cooperation critical in move towards future of work: Heng Swee Keat

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat speaking with (from left) Malaysian Human Resource Minister M Kulasegaran, Cambodian Labour Secretary of State Heng Sour, Director-General of the International Labour Organisation Guy Ryder and Bruneian Home Affairs Mi
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat speaking with (from left) Malaysian Human Resource Minister M Kulasegaran, Cambodian Labour Secretary of State Heng Sour, Director-General of the International Labour Organisation Guy Ryder and Bruneian Home Affairs Minister Pehin Dato Abu Bakar Apong.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Amid geopolitical and economic uncertainties, it is critical for countries and international organisations to continue to work closely together towards long-term, sustainable development, said Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat on Sunday (April 28).

He called on local and foreign labour ministers and tripartite leaders attending a conference on work this week to grow and develop their citizens, create different learning pathways for different learning needs, and utilise labour more productively so that workers can lead better and meaningful lives.

The world is facing many complex and transnational challenges such as terrorism, climate change and food security, said Mr Heng.

"As we become more interdependent and interconnected, it is even more important for countries and international organisations to work closely together to tackle these challenges within a rules-based, multilateral framework, and to build a more peaceful and prosperous world."

This is among the ways Singapore is preparing for the future of work, he said. The others are to strengthen tripartite partnerships between the Government, unions and employers, and invest in equipping people with the new skills needed for new growth areas.

Mr Heng was speaking to about 100 delegates at the welcome dinner of the Singapore Conference on the Future of Work: Embracing Technology; Inclusive Growth.

The conference, which centres around the Work for a Brighter Future report published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in January, takes place over the next two days (April 29 and 30). It is organised by the ILO, Ministry of Manpower, the National Trades Union Congress and Singapore National Employers Federation.

Mr Heng said that at the conference, Asean labour ministers will be adopting a common Asean statement, committing to pooling resources and preparing workers and businesses for the future of work.

Within Singapore, the tripartite partners are working together in various ways, such as through work groups studying key issues like those faced by senior workers, or partnering academics from institutes of higher learning. For example, the unions partnered the Singapore University of Technology and Design last year to chart new skills pathways amid job polarisation, in which jobs move towards high and low value work, and jobs requiring mid-level skills hollow out.

Mr Heng said his address at the May Day Rally on Wednesday - his first day as Deputy Prime Minister - will elaborate on how the Government will continue to support the unions to develop an adaptable and future-ready workforce.

He also highlighted Singapore's shift towards lifelong learning by investing in people from school age to working life.

These efforts come amid three driving forces that are reshaping the global economy and the future of jobs: technological advancements, decline in support for globalisation, and demographic changes - whether towards an ageing population or a growing younger workforce.

"Looking ahead, we cannot take for granted that there will be good jobs in the future, as there are trends shaping the future of work," said Mr Heng.

New technology in artificial intelligence, block chain, the Internet of Things and biotechnology hold great potential to transform business and social models, create high quality jobs and improve healthcare and education. But they also bring challenges such as rapidly changing jobs and skills, and a growing digital divide.

Meanwhile, globalisation has raised competition between companies trying to attract the best talent, leading to greater wealth accumulation at the upper end and rising tensions between the haves and have-nots, he said.

"As global economic weight shifts around the world, and some towards Asia, and business supply chains reconfigure, a key challenge will be for countries to remain open, transform industries and collaborate with one another to achieve better outcomes for workers," he said.

He said that in countries with an ageing population, a declining workforce coupled with rising life expectancy will have a profound impact on healthcare expenditures and the vibrancy of the economy. On the other hand, countries - including several Asean member states - can benefit from their young populations if they invest well in education and infrastructure, among other things.

Mr Heng concluded by sharing how undergraduates at the Nanyang Technological University raised their concerns at a dialogue with him last month.

Several had said they were worried if machines would soon take over their jobs.

Mr Heng said he had wondered if it is the case "that the Government has been too effective in encouraging upskilling and reskilling... to the extent that it has worried people".

"But I was glad when several students later told me that they are thinking hard about the future, so that they can be better prepared," he said.

"Indeed, by thinking deeply about our future, we can seek to create a better future."