To thrive, Singapore must stay open while developing own talent: DPM Wong

What is key is that Singapore continues to refresh and update its economic strategies, said DPM Lawrence Wong. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Singapore has to always pursue a twin strategy of staying open to top talent while developing its people to continue thriving, said Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on Tuesday.

The country must continue to attract the best companies and talent to do cutting-edge work here and push the frontiers of possibilities, he added.

At the same time, Singapore must do everything it can to develop its people, so they can excel and succeed in their chosen professions and careers, Mr Wong said in a speech at a forum organised by the Economic Society of Singapore at Regent Singapore hotel.

He was outlining how the country can tackle central economic issues such as growing its economy while ensuring the fruits of growth are distributed fairly and inclusively, as part of the Forward Singapore engagement exercise. On Oct 10, he had sketched out broad plans on the social front, including how to uplift lower-income families and better support seniors.

Mr Wong noted that the global economic environment has become more uncertain and volatile, with worsening United States-China relations and the world entering a lower-growth, higher-inflation environment, among other things.

What is key is that Singapore continues to refresh and update its economic strategies, and makes the most of its one resource – people and human capital, he said.

To do so, the Government will invest more in skills training, with a focus on developing more Singaporean specialists and leaders across all sectors of the economy, said Mr Wong.

He cited how efforts to develop the financial services sector have led to more than 3,000 Singaporeans holding roles in banks and financial institutions now, with many of them not just leading the Singapore office but also holding regional positions here and overseas.

“We will do everything we can to give Singaporeans that extra advantage by investing heavily in their capabilities and skills,” he said.

Mr Wong noted that last year, more than 660,000 Singaporeans benefited from SkillsFuture-supported programmes amid continued enhancements to the scheme.

But for workers to continue to compete and remain relevant, they will need to be able to build deep skills and acquire deeper capabilities over time, he said. While short bouts of upskilling may be enough for some workers to remain relevant, for many others, such short courses are not enough, especially when industries are undergoing such dramatic change and transformation.

He said: “We will all need more extensive efforts to upgrade our skills and stay relevant amid changing industry needs, or even to pivot into new sectors where there are more opportunities.”

Apart from skills training, Mr Wong said the Government will also continually update manpower policies and rules to manage the flow of work pass holders and ensure they are of the right calibre, as well as make sure employers adopt fair employment practices.

Openness to foreign talent

Staying open and connected to the world is not just essential for Singapore, but is also an existential matter, he said.

However, populism and economic nationalism are now on the rise in many advanced nations, with political parties seeking to mobilise their base with proposals aimed at appealing to sentiments of fear and frustrations.

“We are not immune to such populist claims in Singapore either,” said Mr Wong. There has been ugly anti-foreigner sentiment surfacing in some quarters in recent years, he noted.

Some may argue that while Singapore wants to stay open in principle, why not get rid of more foreigners so that Singaporeans can reclaim good jobs, he said.

“That thinking is fatally flawed. Getting rid of the foreigners does not mean that the jobs will automatically go to Singaporeans,” said Mr Wong.

DPM Lawrence Wong engaging with the recipients of the Outstanding Economics Teacher Award during the Singapore Economic Policy Forum. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

If policies become overly restrictive, global companies based here will simply find other places to operate in and Singapore will lose the jobs they brought here.

“Our economy will contract, incomes will decline and go into a tailspin. And we will end up with far worse problems and, ultimately, it is Singaporeans who will pay the price,” he said.

Instead, the Government is very deliberate in bringing in new investments to Singapore – and to make sure these investments help to strengthen capabilities and people, and translate into better opportunities and jobs for Singaporeans, he added.

Help for mid-career and displaced workers

On skills upgrading, he said the Government needs to make it possible for workers to invest their time in meaningful training.

It can do better on this front for all workers, but especially for mature and mid-career workers in their 40s and 50s, he added.

Those in this group are more at risk of career disruption and are also likely to have heavier obligations of having to take care of both their parents and children.

The training ecosystem hence requires a fundamental upgrading, said Mr Wong.

The authorities must consider how much more it can provide through SkillsFuture credits at major life milestones for Singaporeans to keep their skills up to date or pivot to emerging fields, he said.

They also have to consider how to give employees peace of mind and time off work to focus solely on upgrading.

Workers with families who undergo training will be naturally concerned about their incomes, so the Government will have to consider how to better support them while they pursue training full time, said Mr Wong.

The training has to be responsive to changing industry needs, given the more dynamic environment, he noted.

“At the same time, we have to provide more information and guidance to workers, so that they can take charge of their careers, they can have a better sense of their longer-term career progression goals and pursue purposeful reskilling and upgrading. And we want them to be assured that the training they undertake will be of high quality, and will lead to skills that are in demand by employers and will also lead to better careers for themselves.”

But this is no easy task, he said, adding that the Government has studied many countries for best practices and how to apply them effectively in Singapore’s context.

The Government is also looking at ways to provide better support for displaced workers, he added.

But he noted that it is important to design and structure this support properly, as a downside of welfare systems in some countries is that displaced people who start working again lose most of their benefits. This results in the safety net inadvertently becoming an incentive to stay unemployed rather than look for a job.

Mr Wong said: “For those who are displaced, our system should nudge them towards active job search and give them an injection of skills if needed, so that they can find good job matches that build on their wealth of skills and experience.”

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