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COMMENTARY

Singapore needs spirit of innovation, creativity to reinvent itself

SINGAPORE'S economy rests on a razor's edge - but technology can offer the solution. By any standard, Singapore stands out as an economic powerhouse. It boasts the fourth highest GDP per capita in the world, maintains consistently low unemployment rates, and serves as a country of choice for foreign investment. However, for the first time in decades, Singapore's future looks bleak.

When Singapore gained independence over 50 years ago, a combination of economic policies, demographics, and its geographic location created the conditions for the country to reinvent itself from a country with little potential to a thriving hub for trade and economic activity. Over the decades, Singapore's economy has evolved to embrace technology, energy and infrastructure, banking and more. Nevertheless, as economic adversaries in the region increasingly compete for their share, Singapore must reinvent itself once again to ensure the next 50 years are as successful as the last 50.

Chief among the threats to Singapore's economy is the labour shortage. The 18-year-olds who made the country what it is today just turned 70. Without a new generation to pick up their parents' mantle, Singapore will be left with a lot of technology and innovation jobs, but very few people to fill them.

This labour shortage could ravage Singapore's economy. Experts believe the labour force will shrink 1.7 percentage points yearly between now and 2026, and by 2.5 percentage points annually in the subsequent decade. If this doesn't seem like a big problem, consider that economists predict that each percentage-point decline in labour supply growth will shave off at least half a percentage point of Singapore's GDP growth. If you do the math, Singapore will take an economic beating by the middle of the century.

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The good news is that there is a solution. Singapore must invest in its current and future labour force, small as it may be, to increase their productivity and make sure they have the right skills for the jobs of tomorrow. This will require training people with high-skilled expertise in cutting-edge technology, data science, and cybersecurity.

This approach has worked for governments and businesses around the world. Recognising the acute shortage of data scientists and developers who are proficient in deep learning, American technology company NVIDIA recently expanded an initiative to train tens of thousands of students, developers and data scientists with critical skills. As part of the initiative, Booz Allen, a management consulting company, is helping train its employees and government personnel, including members of the US Air Force, who will solve problems in healthcare, cybersecurity and defence.

Another organisation, General Assembly, recently began identifying and defining the standards for skills such as data science required in science and technology fields. Disproportionate as it may seem, these standards are the foundation needed for a country with a dwindling labour force to increase worker productivity. It's easy to imagine Singapore's best-in-class education system adopting such standards to focus its labour force towards science and technology.

RIGHT DIRECTION

We're already seeing signs that Singapore is starting to move in the right direction. The government has made modest investments in the SkillsFuture Initiative to equip the current and future labour force with the right skills, and the Smart Nation Initiative to harness digital technology to improve people's lives. In some cases, we're even seeing technology companies fill the labour shortage by building robot teachers and security guards.

These developments are a good start, but much more is needed for Singapore to maintain its economic leadership in the region. Moreover, while "Pepper the robot teacher" can't solve all the country's economic challenges, Singapore needs to invest in this spirit of innovation and creativity to thrive for the next 50 years.

It is imperative for Singapore to aggressively adopt an inclusive workforce strategy to overcome a declining core. Opportunities include embracing diversity, tapping into the pool of highly experienced but inactive workforce, as well as leveraging technology to automate mundane labour and to move its workforce up the value chain.

To drive this transformation, strategic investments should be considered to support lifelong learning, to modernise this workforce, and to ensure continued relevance as well as to further harness its rich pool of experience in collective ingenuity.

In this regard, Booz Allen's Singapore office is heavily invested in enabling a forward-looking and sustainable national human capital strategy as part of our international partnership with Singapore as our international hub. Beyond providing a conduit into deep cybersecurity and digital transformation capabilities in the US, the Singapore office has already embarked on localised intellectual capital development in the areas of people and technology maturity across different industries, creating high value career opportunities in the country as well as developing high-end technology and cybersecurity expertise in the region.

  • The writer is vice-president at Booz Allen Hamilton Singapore and president director, PT BAHI Jakarta Indonesia.