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Speech by Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat at the Welcome Dinner of the Singapore Conference on the Future of Work, 28 April 2019, at Skysuites@Equinox, Swissotel The Stamford

28 Apr 2019
Mr Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organisation

Dato Lim Jock Hoi, Secretary-General of ASEAN

ASEAN Labour Ministers 

Ms Mary Liew, President of the Singapore National Trades Union Congress

Dr Robert Yap, President of the Singapore National Employers Federation

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen 

International Labour Organisation Future of Work Centenary Initiative

1. Good evening and a very warm welcome, especially to our friends from ASEAN and overseas, who flew in to join us for the Conference on the Future of Work, in partnership with our tripartite partners and the International Labour Organisation (‘ILO’). It is interesting to note that today is also the World Day for Safety and Health at Work.

2. 2019 marks the centenary of the ILO. 

a. Over these years, the ILO has been successful in bringing together governments, employers and workers to promote international labour standards, strengthen tripartism and promote social dialogue on labour issues. 

b. The Future of Work Initiative is the centrepiece of the ILO’s centennial activities.  In January, the ILO published the ‘Work for a Brighter Future’ report.

i. The report examines the driving forces changing the world of work, presents recommendations to address challenges arising from these changes, and calls for collective action to better prepare countries for the future of work.  

c. Singapore is honoured to host Ministers, tripartite leaders and representatives from around the region to engage in meaningful discussions on the Report.

3. To achieve a better future of work for our workers, we cannot afford to have a ‘business-as-usual’ mindset. 

a. The Report notes that today, there are 190 million people in the world who are unemployed.  Even for the employed, 300 million workers are living in extreme poverty[1].

b. Looking ahead, we cannot take for granted that there will be good jobs in the future, as there are trends reshaping the future of work. 

c. Let me share three key driving forces that are reshaping the global economy and the future of jobs. 

International Trends 

Technological Advancements 

4. The first is the rapid pace of technological advancements.

a. Last week, I was in San Francisco and discussed with many business leaders and innovators on how technology is enabling new business models. I was struck by the speed and scale of innovation. 

i. We are in the midst of Industry 4.0, with the emergence and confluence of new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, the Internet-of-Things and biotechnology.  

b. These hold great potential to transform business and social models, create high-quality jobs, and improve the lives of people in areas such as healthcare and education[2].

i. But they also bring about other challenges such as a rapid pace of change on the nature of jobs, tasks and skills, and a growing digital divide.

Decline in Support for Globalisation

5. The second driving force is the decline in support for globalisation, especially in advanced economies.

a. Being open to global trade and investments has enabled many countries, including Singapore and many of us in ASEAN, to develop and prosper. 

b. Freer movement of labour has also increased job opportunities worldwide. When I was in San Francisco, I met many Singaporeans working and living in Silicon Valley, which is home to many of the world’s most innovative technology companies. 

6. However, these very benefits of openness, free trade and movement of people have come under pressure, with some questioning the merits of globalisation. 

a. Globalisation has enabled companies that have world-class competitive strengths to scale across many markets, and make significant profits.  Companies compete to pay for and hire the best, leading to greater wealth accumulation at the upper end, and rising tensions between the haves and have-nots. 

b. 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. 

Demographic Changes

7. The third driving force is demographic changes. While many countries including Singapore are grappling with an ageing population, others are experiencing a rise in young and working populations. 

8. An ageing population results in a declining workforce. Economic growth will have to be increasingly productivity-led. Coupled with rising life expectancy, this will have a profound impact on healthcare expenditures and the vibrancy of the economy.

a. For example, in Japan, the number of citizens aged 100 and above will exceed 100,000 in five years’ time. This compares with just 10,000 Japanese centenarians in 1998[3].

b. The Japanese Government has adopted a forward looking 100-Year Life as a national directive, with a dedicated Council established to study wide-ranging options in areas such as promoting lifelong learning, restructuring social security, and managing healthcare models[4].

c. As part of its “Society 5.0” initiative, Japan is also using new technologies, to find solutions to economic and social issues[5].

9. On the other hand, countries, including several ASEAN member states, can reap demographic dividends with a young population, but we need to invest well in education and infrastructure among others[6].

10. The three driving forces that I have just mentioned – technological advancements, declining support for globalisation and changing demographics are interacting in complex ways, and have significant implications for tripartite partners on how to create quality jobs and improve the lives of our people.

Singapore’s Approach in Charting the Future of Work

11. Over the next two days, all of you will be engaging in deep conversations on the future of work.   In Singapore, we have been having many discussions on this, especially with Minister Josephine Teo, Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng and Mr Heng Chee How.  To start the ball rolling, let me share how Singapore is thinking about and preparing for the future of work. 

12. Singapore’s approach is very much aligned with the ILO’s human-centred agenda for greater investments in workers, and collaboration with stakeholders.  Our approach is also in line with the three key themes of the recommendations put forth by the Future of Work Report.  Let me share the three key themes of our approach: 

a. First, strengthening partnerships with tripartite stakeholders and industry;

b. Second, investing in our people to ensure that they are equipped with skills for the future; and 

c. Third, strengthening international cooperation and partnerships to tackle common challenges. 

Strengthening Partnerships with Tripartite Stakeholders and Industry 

13. First, the Report recognises the importance of investing in institutions of work. In Singapore, the Government has all along developed strong partnerships with tripartite and industry stakeholders to create economic growth and an environment for our workers to succeed in.

14. Central to this is Singapore’s model of tripartism between the Government, employers and the unions. 

a. Our tripartite leaders are heavily involved in key national policies and are represented in key forums. An example is the National Wages Council, that forges national consensus on wages and wage-related matters. This ensures that our policies are robust and well-balanced, meeting the needs of both employers and employees.

b. In recent years, we set up several tripartite workgroups to conduct in-depth studies on key issues and review how existing policies may be improved. 

i. One such example is the Tripartite Workgroup on Older Workers, convened last year to study and address key issues faced by our senior workers, which is important as Singapore’s workforce ages.

ii. Our tripartite partners also work with academics from Institutes of Higher Learning to gain deeper insights into trends and challenges in the labour market. For instance, our unions partnered the Singapore University of Technology and Design in a study last year to study new skills pathways amidst job polarisation in the labour market[7]. Partnering with academia increase evidence-based rigour and helps us to make better policies. 

c. Tripartite partners also play a strategic role in charting Singapore’s next phase of economic transformation. Since Budget 2016, we have co-created Industry Transformation Maps for 23 key industries. 

i. The Industry Transformation Maps are centred on improving the competitiveness of industries and companies, supporting them in their transformation journeys, and enabling our workers to acquire deep skills and improve productivity. 

ii. Supporting companies and supporting workers are mutually reinforcing – stronger companies provide better jobs and pay for workers, and highly skilled workers make companies stronger. 

d. This tripartite collaboration continues to be successful and relevant. 

i. I will elaborate more during the Singapore May Day Rally, about how the Government will continue to support the unions to develop an adaptable and future-ready workforce.

15. Singapore believes that the best welfare is a job, and the best protection for workers is employment. It is hence important for Singapore to keep a steady growth agenda, become a Global-Asia Node of Technology, Innovation and Enterprise, in order to prepare our workers for the future.

Future of Skills - Investing in our people 

16. This leads to the second theme of our approach – investing in our people, so that they have the skills for the future. This is also recognised by the Future of Work Report. 

a. In Singapore, our workers are at the heart of everything we do. The Government continues to take active steps to help our people thrive amidst changes, and reach their fullest potential. 

b. To achieve this, we have to shift away from the mantra of “study hard in early life and get a good job later”. Instead, we recognise that the future of skills is one where learning continues even after graduation, and our workers can and have to learn anytime, anywhere and from anyone. 

17. We put in place many measures to prepare our people and workers for life.

a. For the young, the schooling years provide a strong and deep foundation as we continue to invest in providing a student-centric, values-driven education. This helps our young to develop holistically and prepare them for a lifelong journey of learning. 

b. Beyond schools, we are offering more opportunities to embrace lifelong learning. 

i. We launched a national SkillsFuture movement to provide greater support for Singaporeans to reach their fullest potential and acquire greater skills proficiency. One component is in providing a $500 SkillsFuture credit, for everyone to pick up new skills and pursue new interests.

ii. To complement the broad-based learning credits, we put in place tailored measures to support our people at every major career milestone. These include study awards and job placement programmes for early-career employees, as well as career conversion programmes to enable experienced professionals to learn new skills and move into new growth areas. 

Strengthening International Cooperation and Partnerships 

18. The third theme of our approach is to strengthen international cooperation to promote long-term, sustainable development. Amid geopolitical and economic uncertainties, it is critical for countries and international organisations like the ILO to continue to work closely together.

a. The world we live in is facing many complex and transnational challenges such as terrorism, climate change and food security.  

b. 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. 

19. Many of us here today are Ministers and tripartite leaders in charge of labour and employment. We should do our best to grow and develop our people, create different learning pathways to cater to different learning needs, and utilise labour more productively, so that our workers can lead better and meaningful lives. 

a. I am glad that as part of the Conference programme, ASEAN Labour Ministers will be adopting a common ASEAN statement on the Future of Work. 

i. This demonstrates the collective commitment of ASEAN member states to pool our resources and prepare our workers and businesses for the future of work. 

b. Over the years, ASEAN member states have undertaken many initiatives in many different domain areas to improve the lives of our people. 

i. I attended the ASEAN Finance Ministers’ and Central Banks Governors’ Meeting at Chiang Rai earlier this month. 

ii. We agreed that with the shift in global economic weight and changing global supply chains, we must continue to promote deeper integration, and work together to tap into longer term opportunities, such as in infrastructure financing, payment linkages, and services integration[8]. Secretary General of ASEAN, Dato Lim, was with us and made many good suggestions. I am sure that ASEAN Ministers will continue the discussions together on what to do on the labour front.

20. Beyond cooperation among countries, we must also strengthen partnerships with international and regional organisations. Singapore and the ILO have enjoyed longstanding cooperation. 

a. Through our partnership agreement, we co-hosted the 21st World Congress on Safety and Health at Work in 2017. This was the first time that the Congress was held in our region. The Congress was well received, with delegates from more than 100 countries. It is interesting that today is also the World Day for Safety and Health at Work - This is an important part of future of work and sustainable development. 

b. Last year, Singapore and ILO also renewed our partnership agreement. This was our third renewal, and signifies our strong commitment to develop and implement joint cooperation programmes on progressive labour and workplace practices in the ASEAN region. 

c. May I take this opportunity to thank Mr Guy Ryder and your team for deepening our partnership.

The Way Forward

21. I have shared three ways in which Singapore prepares for the future of work: 

(a) strengthening partnerships with tripartite stakeholders and industry; 

(b) investing in our people to ensure that they are equipped with skills for the future; 

(c) strengthening international cooperation and partnerships to tackle common challenges. 

22. Let me conclude by sharing an anecdote. In a dialogue with 700 students at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore last month, I asked the undergraduates what their biggest concerns were. 

i. To my surprise, several expressed concerns about whether machines will take over their jobs. Feeling perplexed, I asked why. Is it 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. 

ii. Indeed, by thinking deeply about our future, we can seek to create a better future. Your conference in the next two days will enable all our stakeholders from around the world to come together to turn challenges into opportunities, concerns into action, and build a brighter future together.  

I congratulate the ILO on the 100 years of good work. I wish you continued success ahead. Singapore will continue to be a close partner with the ILO. Singapore looks forward to learning from the experiences of our ASEAN and dialogue partners in charting the future of work. On this note, I wish the ILO and all participants a very fruitful conference. 

23. Thank you. 


[1] Source: ‘Work for A Brighter Future’ Future of Work Report, International Labour Organisation, Pg. 20 (Jan 2019); Figures: ILO’s World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2018 (Geneva)
[2] Source: The Future of Jobs Report 2018, World Economic Forum
[3] Source: Japan Times, Centenarians in Japan, Sep 2018. Based on projections by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.
[4] Source: Financial Times, Japan begins to embrace the 100-year life, Aug 2018
[5] Source: ‘Realising Society 5.0’ The Government of Japan. Retrieved from _userdata/abenomics/pdf/society_5.0.pdf
[6] Source: World Economic Forum on ASEAN article, Aug 2018. Retrieved from: agenda/2018/08/four-ways-asean-entrepreneurs-thrive-economy.
[7] Source: Polarising of Job Opportunities: Charting New Pathways and Adopting New Technologies, Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute and the Lew Kwan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, 2018.
[8] Source: Joint Statement of the 5th ASEAN Finance Ministers’ and Central Bank Governors’ Meeting, Chiang Rai, April 2019.