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Speech by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, at the Official Opening of the Lifelong Learning Institute

17 Sep 2014
Date: 17 September 2014
Venue: Lifelong Learning Institute
Speaker: Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam
1. It is a real pleasure and privilege to be here with all of you this evening at the official launch of the Lifelong Learning Institute.

2. Education and the development of human capital have been at the heart of Singapore’s transformation. We all know that. More and better education for all has led to remarkable social mobility over the last five decades. It has enabled better jobs, higher incomes and improved standards of living for all Singaporeans.

3. The opening of our two CET (Continuing Education and Training) campuses this year, the Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI) here in Paya Lebar and the Devan Nair Institute for Employment and Employability in Jurong, is a major milestone. These two campuses are really a major milestone. They represent how we are taking education and training to a new and higher level. They are doing this in three ways:

a. By creating an on-campus ecosystem for training, careers and lifelong learning. If you take the two campuses together, what they do is to bring together different CET providers – public sector, private sector and union-led – also bring together a career services centre, and a Lifelong Learning Exploration Centre, which I just went through, where people can learn about their strengths and discover their interests. So that’s the first way – this on-campus ecosystem that brings everyone together.

b. The second way is by integrating industry more closely with training. One such example at LLI is the Singapore Institute of Retail Studies (SIRS), a partnership between Nanyang Polytechnic and WDA. SIRS has set up the Retail Innovation Centre for Enterprises (RICE). The first of its kind in Singapore, RICE focuses on training as well as showcasing innovation possibilities in the retail sector, such as how to use technology to overcome manpower constraints – a very real problem that our retail sector faces – and enhance the consumer experience. That’s the second prong of their efforts.

c. By cultivating collaboration and experimentation among CET professionals. The Institute for Adult Learning will set up the iN.LAB at the LLI to support this collaboration in developing effective learning methods. More research, more experimentation, more trial-and-error, so that we can develop more effective learning methods, particularly for working adults.

4. As focal points for CET, the two new campuses complement our universities, polytechnics, and ITE in providing a continuum of diverse learning opportunities for Singaporeans through life. While our tertiary educational institutions are primarily focused on providing a high-quality pre-employment education, they too will play an important role in providing options for continual learning through life.

Building an Advanced Economy and Fair Society

5. We are essentially embarking on a new phase in our development in education, and as a nation. We have built a school and tertiary education system that is amongst the best-regarded internationally. That remains a real strength for the future. But a strong education system has also enabled new and higher aspirations with each new generation, and opens up new possibilities. Each time we achieve a new stage of development in education, aspirations go up and new possibilities emerge. That is a positive. We must make the most of these possibilities.

6. In our next wave of development, we will build a first-rate system of continuing education and training: learning throughout life. It will intertwine educationand the world of work in ways that strengthen and enrich both. It will make the workplace a major site of learning. It will enable every Singaporean to maximise his or her potential, from young and through life. It will build an advanced economy and ensure us of a fair society.

7. Let me elaborate briefly. There are two major reasons that motivate this next phase in our development.

8. First, advances in technology and changes in the global economy. Neither is new. Technological change has been happening for decades and globalisation has been picking up pace for some time. But the impact of technological breakthroughs – especially in IT software, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and in Big Data – is now at an inflexion point.

9. In every advanced country, automation has begun to replace human tasks not only at the lower end of the skills spectrum functions, but across a broader swathe of jobs. A whole range of jobs in manufacturing, as well as professional and service jobs like auditing, legal advice, and even surgical tasks will be reshaped by computerisation and machines. A study by Oxford University, for example, found that almost half of total US employment is at risk of being replaced by computerisation in the next ten to twenty years[1].

10. Technology has hence increased the value of creative and innovative work – jobs that take advantage of technology and find new ways to deliver value. It is also blurring the old distinctions between “thinkers” and “makers” in the world of work, and between “white-collar” and “blue-collar”. The rewards are highest for jobs that involve both thinking and making, or thinking and delivering a service. We see that in every industry - like in the chain of experimentation that leads to the latest smartphone or a new app, bringing in masterful designs or superior technical functionalities.

11. The good jobs of the future will involve both thinking and making, and constant learning – in every field, whether in nursing, in building maintenance, in engineering and factory operations, or in consumer businesses and professional services. Thinking and making, thinking and doing, up and down the line.

12. Globally and across Asia too, developing countries with large populations are catching up, and sometimes they are leapfrogging what we do. The competition is relentless.

13. We cannot change the world, but we can respond to and take advantage of the way the world is changing. We have to take advantage of new technologies and new global consumer demands to ensure we remain a vibrant economy, and give every Singaporean a chance to have quality jobs and fulfilling lives.

14. This must never be a defensive game. We have to find opportunity in these global trends, and create better jobs and an inclusive society.

15. The second motivation for our new directions in education and learning has to do with our own evolution as a nation.

16. We are no longer a developing economy. But we are not yet an advanced economy, with the skills, productivity and median incomes equivalent to those of the leading nations.

17. In our next phase, we will make Singapore an advanced economy, and a society with opportunities for every citizen to develop themselves to the fullest.

18. We must aspire to move beyond competence and doing a regular job, towards mastering skills. We must cherish and respect the mastery of skills – the knowledge, practice and passion that goes into mastering skills, no matter what the job. That has to be our ethos as a society, starting from young, as employers and colleagues at the workplace, in how we respond as consumers, and in the way we regard each other as fellow-citizens. Respect for mastery, whatever the job.

19. But I have to emphasise too that this new phase in our development, or deepening skills, is not just about higher productivity and incomes. It is really at the heart of making ours an inclusive society. We must be a place where everyone has the opportunity to build on their strengths, developing the skills that enable them to maximise their potential, earn their own success and contribute to society. It’s about respecting the innate dignity of every citizen – the sense of fulfilment that comes from playing their full role and being valued for their contributions to society. It is the way we create a truly inclusive society.

Establishing the SkillsFuture Council

20. The ASPIRE Committee has made a bold set of recommendations to strengthen opportunities for polytechnic and ITE students to progress and achieve their aspirations. Government has accepted its recommendations and Parliament has recently endorsed the directions we are taking. But beyond the strengthening of the polytechnics and ITE pathways, ASPIRE brought forward a broader issue.

21. We have to look beyond paper qualifications, and recognise that a whole set of skills matter in how well we perform: applying knowledge in real-world situations that keep changing; developing deeper specialist knowhow through practice; collaborating as a team and taking the heat together; or the ability to endure and look for opportunity in the face of challenge. That’s true about career success in every field and for every segment of our workforce, and whichever the qualifications we come with – whether degrees or diplomas or ITE certificates.

22. Last year, we also embarked on a major review of our CET Masterplan. The refreshed Masterplan is now ready. We will revamp our CET system to enable all Singaporeans, regardless of qualifications, to build and deepen their skills throughout their careers.

23. We will now take bring together ASPIRE’s work and the new CET Masterplan, and take them forward. As PM announced at his recent National Day Rally, we will set up a tripartite council to drive this next phase in developing our people, and ensure that every Singaporean has opportunity to advance in their careers and be recognised for their skills.

24. We will soon launch this new ‘SkillsFuture’ Council. SkillsFuture encapsulates the journey we are embarking on: we want to help everyone develop the skills relevant to the future, and we must build a future based on mastery, in every job.

25. The Council will comprise representatives from Government, employers and unions, individuals whose personal stories embody what we are seeking to achieve, and educational leaders.

SkillsFuture: Taking Ownership

26. Everyone has to take ownership of this SkillsFuture journey. We can only go forward and succeed if we all take responsibility – as individuals, employers, educators and trainers. The Government will be an active enabler in all these efforts.

27. First and foremost, it is about each of us as individuals. We must take ownership of our own learning and development, and control our destinies. The government will help by ensuring a broad menu of educational and training options – from young, and continuing through your career. But we will also develop a rich framework of educational and career guidance, starting with our secondary schools, moving on to our JCs, polytechnics and ITEs – and accompanying us through life.

28. This is critical – we already have a basic system, but we need to ramp up educational and career guidance and we have to start early. Even when you are in secondary school, it is good to have a vague idea of what your aptitudes are, and what you might be interested in. You may change your mind, but it is useful to start thinking about the real world, and particularly when you get to the tertiary level. Not choosing a course just because you qualified based on your ‘A’ Level score or GPA, but because it appeals to you, you feel you will be interested enough in the field to keep learning, to keep progressing and applying yourself with passion.

29. We will put resources into this. MOE and WDA will invest in guidance and coaching. WDA will also develop a national online portal that will help users to chart and review their education, training and career development. It will have different interfaces for different user groups, and will include features such as profiling tools, a career action planner, and up-to-date labour market information. What we really want to do is to integrate the Jobs Bank with this portal, so that it will truly be a one-stop portal for education and career planning.

30. Two more observations on what it takes for all of us to take ownership of this journey. First, developing expertise takes time. It is not done in a month or a year. It takes years. If we hop from one job to another we can gain that increment for the short term, but we are in danger of losing the ability to develop the depth of skills and mastery that only comes with time. Experience counts: dealing with different projects, different orders or specifications, different M&A deals, and even a different environment when you are posted abroad. It doesn’t mean the same employer throughout a career, but try to stay in the field and apply ourselves with passion, because that is how we develop the depth of skills we need in this next phase.

31. Second, it requires a broader culture of lifelong learning. Not just learning for the next examination when you are young, not just learning for the immediate needs of the job. In some countries, you walk into a bookshop or a library, you see older folk coming in and browsing, going out with a book. It may be to pick up a new interest or pursue an old one, but it gives them a sense of fulfilment. When we have that broader culture of learning, at home or in the community, when people are learning not just for the immediate task or needs of the job, but because it gives satisfaction, it brings a whole new tone that supports lifelong learning by individuals, from young to old.

32. Next, employers must take ownership: developing every worker, helping them to plan for their careers and valuing their contributions as they advance in skills.

33. This is probably the greatest challenge ahead in SkillsFuture. It’s about changing employment practices – changing the way in which companies develop and recognise skills and work together in each industry so that we have a credible system, a credible scaffolding of skills and career progression that employees can identify with and employers know is worth something.

34. It is not new to us, but this is an area that really requires development. We do not have the advantage of the Swiss or the Germans who developed this from medieval times, setting up guilds among carpenters, makers of watches and spectacles, and other crafts. They developed a deep tradition of collaboration between firms and educational institutions. We do not have that tradition. Neither do we have the tradition of companies working closely together to develop skills in a whole industry. We have to develop this in the next phase of our development.

35. The Government will work closely with industry and unions to advance future skills and build a future based on advanced skills. First, we will develop forward-looking Sectoral Manpower Strategies. They aim to achieve three key outcomes:

36. First, they will identify the skills and manpower needs of each sector. Not only identifying existing skills gaps or mismatches, but also anticipating the future skills that will be needed given advancements in technology, the way global competition is shaping up, and new business models.

37. Second, very importantly, we have to articulate clear progression pathways for workers to advance based on skills in each sector, so that employees see the rewards in developing their skills. WDA will work closely with industry partners to enhance the existing Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) frameworks, to develop the scaffolding of both specialised and broad skills – vertical and horizontal skills – that underpin career progression in each sector, and with some comparability across sectors.

38. For employers, this skills framework will help them hire and develop their people. Employers will know what skills a candidate had acquired previously, on a comparable and credible basis, so that what was acquired in another firm or even another industry where relevant is taken into account in hiring people and planning for their future development. For employees, it is critical, because it gives them a clear understanding of the skills they will need, and the capabilities they must demonstrate in order to advance in their careers.

39. So this too is critical. We must all play this game – employers, industry associations, unions and with the Government providing full support.

40. We should not develop a huge skills bureaucracy to implement this. This cannot be a top-down process. The markets are too fluid for that; technology is changing too quickly. What are the skills that are really relevant on the job, how these will change over time? Employers and industry panels must drive this process and WDA will provide full support for them.

41. What we have to avoid is a vicious cycle, which we sometimes see today in a tight labour market – where employers do not invest in workers because they are not sure they are going to stay. ‘Why invest if he or she is going to leave me?’ There is this perception amongst many firms. And, the worker feeling that ’they are not serious about investing in me, they are not really developing my capabilities beyond what I can do today, I better leave.’

42. We’ve got to avoid that vicious cycle, and the way to do it is first, recognising as some employers have found – and if you look at countries like Germany, they have certainly found this –companies that invest in their workers and show them a clear career progression pathway are better able to retain their workers.

43. But we have to accept that there will be some mobility, and sometimes you lose your best people. That’s true in every healthy economy, but it’s also why we need a sectoral and national skills framework, and why we must get most employers to invest in their workers. That’s how we raise the water level of skills for all employees, so that all boats are raised including the SMEs. You might not keep all your employees, but when you hire new people, they come with skills because other companies have invested in their employees, and you invest further in them. And as people move from one job to another within the same industry, there is a better chance that they stay on a path that keeps building up their skills.

44. We have to pay particular attention to our SMEs, and WDA and SPRING take this seriously. Most have not had experience with internships, mentoring students, and designing structured training programmes that build on the abilities of the fresh hire. WDA will expand the Workplace Trainer Programme[2], and together with SPRING will help through other programmes that help companies develop capabilities in mentoring and workplace learning and to strengthen HR practices. We will put resources into helping our SMEs on this journey.

45. The Sectoral Manpower Strategies are a big step. They will involve close collaboration between the Government and the industry, but must involve mindset shifts. Employers need to shift from ‘plug-and-play’ thinking, where they expect employees to come ready made with the skills needed on the job and hit the road running. We have to hire people with the aim of developing them, whether on-the-job or an industry training centres or at educational institutions. Keep developing our people, so that the water level of skills rises, and all boats rise.

46. The third key group in SkillFuture is educational and training providers. They have to take ownership too, see it as part of their responsibility to prepare students for life and help them upgrade along the way. We are off to a good start, there has been a lot achieved in the last five years, but we need a much deeper and richer industry of training providers, matchmakers, coaches and mentors. A whole industry that is not just about job referral, but knowing the needs of the firm, knowing the individuals you are working with, tracking them after they join the firm, and work with the firm to develop them. We need a much closer intertwining of educational and training providers, employers and a cadre of coaches and mentors in each industry.

47. Our educational institutions, including our universities, will play important roles in SkillsFuture. And we have to move beyond thinking there are simple divides between education and work, between pre-employment education and post-employment training, or between nurturing broad skills and developing specialist knowledge. These divides are too simple for the world that’s evolving before us. Too simple a divide because of the way technology is changing, jobs are changing and the way education must change if we are to prepare people well for life.

48. The principal role of our educational institutions – our schools, our ITEs, polytechnics and universities – is to prepare students well for life and their future careers, before they start work. But they do so by helping their students anticipate the real world, and help them make the connections between knowledge and how they might apply it in the real world. And that requires new ways of learning. We are already seeing it – more project work, starting in secondary schools, internships and apprenticeships as they grow, which we will build on as we implement ASPIRE.

49. We have to find different ways to help students see the connection between the academic and the practical, so as to prepare them well for the real world. Designed well, the practical is not at the expense of the academic – the intertwining enriches both. The best educational institutions, like MIT, are precisely about helping students make that connection between the intellectual and the practical, and hence developing their potential in life.

50. Further, our educational institutions will also be important anchors in the post-employment training, or CET. They will set quality benchmarks for CET delivery. They have expertise and standards of their own to maintain, and their faculty will want to ensure that they are up-to-date with developments in their own fields.

51. The New York University School of Professional Studies for example, aims its programmes at working adults. It has differentiated admissions criteria for people with different qualifications and experiences at work, offering a whole range of courses – shorter courses, certificate programmes – that are all designed to fit busy lives. They know the challenges working adults face, and so the courses are designed to fit busy lives.

52. But there is also a whole new vista opening up in the way in which tertiary institutions are providing for continuous learning – anywhere and at any stage of life. You know the names, like Courser. This is a major opportunity, because of IT and new thinking in many leading universities including some of ours. It does not involve everyone getting a full degree. Some may go for bite-sized modules, some deeper area of knowledge they need at work, or something they want to study purely out of interest. It is an important new vista, and we will encourage our tertiary institutions to make the most of that opportunity, having working adults participate in virtual learning, and sometimes in a real setting.

53. Private educational institutions (PEIs) too will play a valuable role as we grow our CET landscape. But some re-thinking and re-orientation is going to be required. The PEIs have to make sure that the programmes they offer are robust, industry-relevant, and beneficial to the people who take their courses. Last year, we had about half of the total private degree enrolment taking business degree programmes. An oversupply of degrees in any one field is never ideal. The market has begun to differentiate between degrees that carry their full worth in knowledge and skills, and those that are essentially paper qualifications.

54. A re-orientation in the PEI industry will help it make a positive contribution in our evolving educational landscape. They can add diversity to learning opportunities, and they can help working adults in particular, to obtain deeper skills in niche areas or go for degree programmes later in life. What we have to avoid is the degree mills for people fresh out of school that we’ve seen in many countries. That route will do our young a disservice.

55. We must therefore all take ownership of this journey, towards maximising the potential of every Singaporean and developing advanced skills in every sector. Individuals, employers, educational and training providers. The Government will be a key enabler in all these efforts, by providing resource support and helping to coordinate and tighten the linkages between all players. We will invest in professional education and career counsellors in our schools and tertiary institutions, support industry associations, unions and employers, and provide extra support for our SMEs to embark on this journey so that everyone benefits.

Achieving a Meritocracy through Life

56. There is a real strength in our culture that remains relevant to the future. We keep looking for better in our children and grandchildren. It was the spirit of our pioneers and it is still very much there, in the family and in the community.

57. I recently met some of the oldest pioneers in my constituency, so that I could thank them for what they had done for Singapore and present them with their Pioneer Generation packages. Many came with their families, because they all took pride in this. One elderly lady had just one thing to say to me. She pointed at each of her grandsons standing behind her: “He is at NUS, he is at NTU…” That had deep meaning. She had succeeded in life.

58. That spirit must remain with us – wanting to help the next generation to do better. But we know that the way in which we achieve our aspirations will have to evolve. It cannot just be about paper qualifications, whether a degree or diploma. We know from the problems in Korea, Taiwan, the so-called “ant tribes” of graduates in China, and in virtually every advanced economy, that an over-supply of degree education does young people no good. A large proportion of degree-holders in the advanced countries are now doing jobs that do not require a university education, and many are in fact earning at the lower end of the pay spectrum for those jobs. There is great disappointment.

59. We should encourage our young to pursue their interests, and go for real substance, whatever the qualification. And not think the qualifications we obtain in our youthful years are the final point. That’s just another step in a lifelong journey. What we really have to evolve towards is a meritocracy through life. Not a meritocracy based only on what you have achieved at 18 or 24, but a meritocracy through life, where you are assessed on your performance at every stage of your life, regardless of where you graduated from or what you started with. That is a true and richer meritocracy, and we must aim to develop that. And we can, because we have the culture of aspirations, we have the resources and we are going to work together to achieve this.


60. This is a journey, and it is going to take time. As I mentioned earlier, we do not have the broad-based tradition amongst our employers of collaborating to develop industry skills frameworks, and investing in every worker even though you might lose some of them. We have to develop that tradition. Neither can we change our social culture overnight.

61. But we can get to where we want, achieve an advanced economy and assure us of a fair society, if move on each front at the same time. Evolve our education system, especially at the tertiary level; move on employment practices, develop industry-wide skills and career progression frameworks, and help parents and young people recognise how the world of work is changing. As the head of Google’s People Operation puts it “GPAs are worthless as a criterion for hiring… The world only cares about – and pays off on – what you can do with what you know[3]. That’s not California Dreaming and The Mamas & The Papas, but the new reality for all of us to recognise.

62. We have the advantage that we are not starting from a position of weakness. Our education system provides a solid foundation for both academic and applied learning – one of the best regarded internationally. We must build on our strengths, take further steps in our transformation, move with vigour in this next phase of development towards a SkillsFuture, an advanced economy and fair society:

a. Where every Singaporean can discover and achieve his or her full potential;

b. Where every worker can take pride in building mastery, and is valued for their contributions;

c. Where every job is respected and rewarded, regardless of the sector you work in or the uniform you wear.

Thank you.



[1] (icon_pdf, 1,113KB)

[2] This is an in-house training programme, which is specifically designed for workplace supervisors, line-leaders and managers who occasionally perform the role of a trainer at the workplace/on-the-job.