Governance of a City-State
Future-proofing Young Singaporeans – When Aspirations Meet Reality

At the re-opening of the 12th Parliament in May this year, President Tony Tan said, “We will enable young Singaporeans to fulfil their potential, pursue their dreams, and follow their interests in diverse fields.”.

This is an exciting and significant promise. However, it will also be an extremely challenging one to fulfill.

Our resident unemployment is only at 3% – a figure much lower than many developed countries. Yet, there are concerns about providing enough job opportunities for PMETs (Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians), and equipping Singaporeans with the right skills to fill such jobs. The future that our young will operate in will be even more competitive with well-educated and ambitious counterparts, many of them from Asia, driven to do whatever it takes to succeed. The future will also be characterised by rapid change, as new technological developments push corporations to innovate or die, and propel societies to adapt or wither.

Our education system must therefore prepare our young for such developments. We need to equip our young with multi-disciplinary skills, to be versatile and adaptable to a world where work will be transformed and enabled by technology. However, we should not simply educate for employment. We need to also groom and encourage young people to pursue their interests and aspirations – a tall order indeed.

Though education empowers people, we are seeing an increasing asymmetry in education, where young people tend to choose more exciting subjects such as the liberal arts, humanities and business, leaving out “boring” ones such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). This asymmetry fuels a severe jobs mismatch, for education and employment are intricately linked.

In Europe, for instance, there are 5.5 million youths unemployed and yet there are 2.5 million job vacancies waiting to be filled. The reason for this mismatch is the lack of young people educated in the fields of STEM. Young people are paying the price, unable to find gainful employment, let alone pursue their aspirations. The Youth Guarantee Programme has now been put in place to re-train and actively place these young Europeans into available jobs. Similarly, there is a growing mismatch of jobs and skills in developed countries like the US and Japan. In 2011, a McKinsey Global Institute survey found that 30% of US companies had positions open for more than six months that they could not fill, despite an unemployment rate of more than 9%. The situation is arguably worse in Japan with 80% of companies reporting similar gaps.

On the flip side, there is an ongoing global war for talents in the STEM fields. Ireland is looking to invest in STEM fields to propel the country out of its current crisis and build its workforce in line with economic demand. Canada continues to develop its immigration and employment policies to attract international STEM talents. And while the US seemed to have tightened immigration policies, it continues to encourage international STEM students from all over the world to enrol in its universities, and thereafter persuade many of them to stay back and spur economic growth.

In Singapore, we have always been careful in designing our education system, keeping in mind the end goal: to ensure meaningful employment for Singaporeans, whilst also nurturing  holistic growth. Our system has evolved over the past decades – from a one-size-fits-all in the Colonial days to post World War II’s “10 years programme” to the “survival driven education” in the 1950s and 1960s to “quality education” in the 1980s to the “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” in the 1990s which continues to be relevant today.

Because of our rigorously designed education system, Singapore has been able to nurture generations of knowledgeable and skilled Singaporeans, and capitalise on our talented human resource to transform our nation from Third World to First within a lifetime.

Our education system needs another transformation for the future. Like our counterparts in developed nations, young Singaporeans are choosing arts, social sciences and business subjects. In response, the government has moved to open up more choices and pathways, establishing new institutions such as The School of the Arts and the Sports School. This is the right thing to do, to enable our young to pursue diverse passions. But even then, our system must continue to emphasise STEM skills, if we are to prevent ourselves from facing the same fate as other developed nations.

Therefore, our future education system should:

1) Allow students to move in and out of vertical domains, and to return to school easily and with minimal opportunity costs in terms of time and opportunities, even after they have entered the work force. Such a highly flexible system will give students the freedom to study subjects that they are passionate about, and later re-train and re-skill when necessary.

2) Provide a strong foundation in STEM skills and knowledge. Currently, we have a strong curriculum in mathematics and science from primary to pre-university level. This must be preserved even while we adapt the pedagogy to suit the needs of different learners at each level. We must equip even those students who may not have the aptitude for these subjects with a reasonable foundation, to prepare them for future job opportunities.

3) Supplement science and mathematics learning with coding skills, as part of building the STEM foundation. Coding is a fundamental in understanding and designing technology and it is critical given that jobs in the future world will be transformed and highly enabled by technology. Many countries have introduced coding lessons to their curriculums – examples include Israel, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark and some German states. The Economist has also reported that computer science is slated to become part of England’s primary-school curriculum this September.

4) Make readily available continued education and training (CET) of high quality to Singaporeans who desire or need to change jobs. With institutions such as the Workforce Development Agency, Employment and Employability Institute and Caliberlink striving to build up the CET landscape, there is also a need to leverage more on online learning as it becomes more prolific and time-saving.

Finally, attitudes must change. This is probably most difficult because attitudes are more enduring than behaviours. Students must be willing to try courses that they lack confidence or interest in. Workers need to be open to new opportunities and get out of their comfort zones in order to be trained for new fields. Employers need to recognise the dynamic environment and actively encourage their workers to be trained and re-trained, even if it means making do with some inefficiencies in the short run.

When the entire system is aligned and members share the same values and attitudes, there is nothing that cannot be achieved.

Ms Tin Pei Ling is a Member of Parliament in the Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency. She had also spoken on this topic during the Debate on President’s Address in Parliament in May 2014.

Photo credit: SOTA SG Facebook

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