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What Industry 4.0 means to Singapore and why its workers must upskill and lose their sense of entitlement 

The fourth industrial revolution means employees need to master new digital skills to remain relevant, and industry leaders in the Lion City recognise that workers and employers need to change their mindset   

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 April, 2018, 8:30am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 April, 2018, 10:28am

There is no room for complacency in the modern workplace, and Singapore – one of Asia’s most competitive economies – should take note, industry leaders say, as artificial intelligence and automation transform the way companies operate.

The fourth industrial revolution or “Industry 4.0”, as the digital makeover has come to be known, requires workers to master new skills ranging from using complex technology platforms to different ways of working and interacting with colleagues, in order for them to remain employable, they say.

Singaporean politician Patrick Tay Teck Guan told last month that the country needed to redesign its jobs and upskill employees to take on these new roles.

“Everyone has to play a role in this – the worker, the employer, the government and, in the greater scheme of things, society itself,” said Tay, who is tasked with helping Singapore to introduce creative ways to manage career resilience. 

In the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Competitiveness Report, released in September, Singapore slipped in its rankings on innovation and sophistication, two major drivers of economic success in today’s technology-driven world.

To be trained in newer and higher level skills required for this fourth industrial revolution requires a good foundation in STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths]
Don Chen, Human Capital Leadership Institute

Lower rankings in these areas may not be a sign that the city state has gone backwards, but they could indicate that other countries are seizing the initiative to modernise.

Don Chen, vice-president of the independent Human Capital Leadership Institute, says that although Singapore has a low unemployment rate (2.1 per cent in 2017), it is the result of favourable economic conditions. Skills development and retraining are important to prevent long-term pain when short-term economic shifts become permanent structural changes, he says. 

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Learning agility and mindset problems are huge challenges faced by companies and employees in Singapore in trying to maintain such a vibrant economy, Chen adds. 

“To be trained in newer and higher level skills required for this fourth industrial revolution requires a good foundation in STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths],” Chen says. “A good proportion of the workforce is not good in STEM subjects.

“In addition, there is a mindset problem, at both employer and employee level. Employers do not necessarily see the need to invest in human capital development and do not necessarily perceive having well-trained employees as a competitive advantage over their competitors.”

Employees, meanwhile, may not be keen to retrain because they perceive a wide skill gap between where they are and what they are expected to achieve, and because they desire  instant gratification. “Attending a three-day programme on data analytics will not make you a data analyst,” Chen says.

David Pang, chief of staff at Shiseido Travel Retail, says a sense of entitlement among Singaporeans could be a barrier to change. He urges employees to take the reins and show initiative.

“There is a need to shift the entitlement mindset of individuals that training is not just the responsibility of companies … Self-directed learning and the motivation of individual employees are equally important to accelerate the growth of professionals and contribution to performance,” he says. 

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Pang suggests companies train their managers to become role models to change workers’ mindset and behaviour. Companies often overlook talent development due to other priorities, he adds.

“Given that 99 per cent of Singapore’s economy is driven by small and medium enterprises [SMEs], many companies tend to carry a start-up mentality that the priority is business infrastructure rather than investment in human capital. 

“Moreover, many SMEs benefit from training grants provided by government agencies, for example, SkillsFuture Singapore and Spring Singapore. But this has also inevitably created a dependency attitude that unless it is subsidised, training is not a  business investment that needs to be prioritised, creating a vicious cycle that risks human capital development over time,” Pang says.

The government and educational institutions can play various roles in preventing the skills gap from widening among the workforce, some leaders say, by helping to develop a stable pipeline of future talent, as well as throwing their support behind worker retraining. 

Joseph Lee, head of Yokogawa Engineering Asia’s Co-Innovation Centre and general manager of its Singapore development centre, says polytechnics and universities should step up training of graduates in skills that will fuel the modern economy.

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Meanwhile, Yeoh Pit Wee, director of global operations at Rockwell Automation, thinks the government should invest in a smart manufacturing lab in partnership with academia, enabling workers to gain first-hand experience in smart manufacturing technologies.

A growing number of companies in Singapore are adopting automation and artificial intelligence in their operations as Industry 4.0 continues to gather pace, putting increasing pressure on employees to upskill. 

It’s essential for citizens to ditch the entitlement mindset that ‘I should be hired or promoted because I am a Singaporean’
Don Chen, Human Capital Leadership Institute

Insurer Prudential Singapore is one company actively retraining workers as it undergoes testing of a machine-learning solution to greatly reduce the time it takes to process insurance claims.

Magdalene Loh, the company’s head of government relations, says the technology will free up employees to spend time on meaningful customer initiatives rather than on manual work. The company is also helping employees to broaden their skills and improving mobility across roles, she adds.

Ride-hailing app Grab, which last month acquired the Southeast Asian operations of Uber, is one of Singapore’s savviest disrupters and was an early adopter of self-service analytics. 

The technology enables the company to process millions of complex data streams relating to cashless payments that are accessed via web browsers and mobile devices by Grab employees across 40 cities. The business model has allowed Grab to build a nimble and smart workforce, and, by extension, a company perfectly equipped for the digital economy.

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Pang cites the example of Singaporean luxury tea brand TWG Tea as a company that rapidly went global by creating new value and adopting a business model with a big focus on digital technology development. 

“Companies in Singapore need to take this opportunity to understand their higher purpose and approach to value creation; and determine how digital roles and capabilities play a part in success. 

“They will also need to assess their current talent base and maturity before anticipating consumer trends, the impact of competition and investing in the right digital capabilities to respond and create greater value,” he says.

Digital transformation plans are high on the agenda for many other firms in Singapore, but it requires sound planning, Pang says.

“Singapore needs to rethink how we develop our people, and imbue in them a sense of pride, drive and a growth mindset to progress further,” he says. 

“This will require us to make a fundamental investment in soft skills that transcend the evolution of technical skills. For example, strategic thinking, problem solving and collaboration were identified by the World Economic Forum as key skills to build going forward.”

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Chen says Singaporeans would also become more competitive by gaining international experience, and that could help them to shake off their “entitled” mindset. 

“For Singaporeans who wish to thrive in a globally competitive environment, gain global or regional experience if you want to move up the corporate ladder in a multinational corporation [MNC]. You cannot expect to rise to a senior role in an MNC if you have zero overseas experience. 

“Singapore is a small market and most MNCs are making Singapore their regional or Asia-Pacific headquarters. You need to have that pan-Asian mindset if you want to take up a senior role in regional or Asia-Pacific headquarters. A quick check would tell you that foreigners in top roles in MNCs in Singapore have extensive global experience,” Chen says.

“It’s essential for citizens to ditch the entitlement mindset that ‘I should be hired or promoted because I am a Singaporean’,” he adds. 

“Think about how can you add value. What is the value you bring to your role and work on increasing your attractiveness as a candidate. Be willing to invest in your own career and take steps to be a technical expert and be very good in what you do. No one will employ a half-baked professional.”