Opening Address by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) at The Lifelong Learning Festival 2017

Published Date: 28 October 2017 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Mr Tan Kay Yong Chairman, Lifelong Learning Council

Mr Howie Lau President, Singapore Computer Society

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

1.Good afternoon. It is my pleasure to join you again to open the Lifelong Learning Festival 2017.

The longstanding tug-of-war

2 .Changi Airport Terminal 4 will officially open in a few days’ time. I was hosted by the Changi Airport Group (CAG) on a tour of the terminal recently. It is a delicately and thoughtfully built terminal, one that we can be proud of.

3 .What left the deepest impression on me was the pervasive and seamless use of technology throughout the terminal. Self-check in has been made easy, using facial recognition. The gates for the departure lounge are fully automated – again verification is through facial recognition plus thumb print, to make doubly sure it is you. It is a seamless process made possible through tremendous co-operation between CAG and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority.

4.Security checks of carry-ons is via a CT X-Ray machine. The resolution is high enough that there is no need to take your computers and tablets out of your bags – this also means that handlers are no longer required to help you with the security checks. At the departure lounge you will be greeted with delightful art pieces, even moving ones, abundant greenery and robotic cleaners. The airport system already remembers your face, so you can scan your ticket and board the plane through an automated gate.

5.You may realise by now that your experience at the terminal can be entirely handled by automation and IT, and you need not interact with another human being. I asked the CEO of CAG, Mr Lee Seow Hiang, that with all these technological applications, what is the manpower savings compared to running it like Terminal 3? His answer: At steady state, only 10-20% less.

6 .There was no large scale destruction of jobs, because instead of check-in counter staff, T4 will have customer service staff guiding and giving assistance to travellers going through self-check in and automated immigration counters. In the backroom, there are numerous IT and technical staff keeping the automated system going. There needs to be supervisors overseeing the cleaning robots. T4 will have half a million plants, and the number of trees is more than T1-3 combined – and has a strong team of horticulturalists and landscape professionals maintaining them. They will have staff curating the art pieces and the creative displays.

7 .At T4, jobs did not disappear, but the nature of jobs has changed. This is the longstanding tug-of-war between technological advancement and human adaptation. It is part and parcel of human progress. In the case of T4, airport staff need to learn to work alongside computers and machines, to bring about a better, one-of-a-kind airport experience.

8 .What happens in T4 applies to all industries. Workers the world over, need to acquire new skills, adopt fresh attitudes, develop interests and passions. If you are in the technology sector, you need to be tech savvy enough to manipulate, supervise and configure the computers and robots, or at least be able to leverage new technological capabilities to raise your performance. If you are in the services sector, you need to be able to exercise judgement and think on your feet, and provide service with a high touch when the situation requires it. Ironically, in this age of machines, the more human you are, the less likely technology can displace you. The truth is everyone needs to possess a bit of both high tech and high touch skills.

To adapt, one needs to be empowered

9.How do we prepare a workforce for a changing world? In Singapore, people do look to the Government from time to time. And if we look back over the course of our short history, the Government has played an active role to retool our workforce at critical junctures of our economic development. In our early years of industrialisation, the Government rolled out BEST and WISE to equip the workforce with literacy and numeracy skills. In the 1980s, the Government established the National Computer Board and embarked on a national training programme to teach Singaporeans how to use computers. Most recently, we rolled out SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace – targeted at 100,000 workers in the next three years as a start – to help them adapt to a data- and technology-rich workplace environment.

10.But these programmes address only the basic, foundational skills. They are effective in signalling to workers that major changes are afoot, and it is time to adapt, but it is by no means adequate for workers to chart a whole new career. They also help workers overcome unfamiliarity and apprehension to new work demands. But to adapt to seismic changes, we need every worker to take the initiative to adapt and learn. The Government’s job must be to empower individual workers to exercise such initiative, and take charge of their own lifelong learning journey.

11 .That is why SkillsFuture needs to be a national movement, and not just a Government scheme. And I believe Singaporeans understand the importance of SkillsFuture. Last year, training participation in job-related training was 42%, a significant increase of 7%-points over the previous year, and we still have room for improvement.

12.There are many things we need to do to strengthen this sense of empowerment for workers. Today, I would like to touch on just one aspect, which is to make good training programmes more accessible and known to Singaporeans. Such training opportunities can be made available to workers through three channels: their employers, private training providers, and our Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs), namely, ITE, Polytechnics and Autonomous Universities. Collectively, they form the three pillars of supply of Continuing Education and Training (CET).

Building up the three pillars of CET

13 .We built up the employers pillar in the early years of our industrialisation. We were attracting MNCs to invest in Singapore, and these are big companies who know their skills requirements and are able to train their workers well. So the CET policy at that time was very much about encouraging employers to train their workers well. In 1979, we established the Skills Development Levy; the revenue goes into the Skills Development Fund, from which employers can apply for training reimbursement. Over the years, this mechanism encouraged many employers to build up their in-house training system, and invest in the training of their employees. And so the CET pillar of employer-based training was built up.

14.However, the weakness of the system is the lack of support for those without employers – the unemployed, contract workers, or workers seeking to change industries or trades. The weakness became more apparent during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, when unemployment spiked. Then, there was a deep realisation that we also needed a system for training support to be given directly to the individual worker, to empower him to take charge of his own skills upgrading, to find a job, or upgrade to a better job. The Government therefore worked with the unions and industry bodies to build up the second CET pillar – private sector training institutions, which offer subsidised training directly to individual workers.

15.To help drive this effort, the NTUC initiated the Skills Redevelopment Programme to support individual workers seeking to upgrade. The Government followed up and set up the Lifelong Learning Endowment Fund in 2001. To give dedicated attention to grow this second pillar, the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) was established in 2003. WDA worked with private training providers to set up CET training centres – mostly private sector-led – to broaden the range of subsidised training courses to workers. Today, there are about 50 such CET centres offering training for workers across many industries. Community Development Councils (CDCs) and NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) helped connect individual workers to relevant training courses offered by CET Centres, making the promotion of lifelong learning a strong Tripartite effort.

16.The unfinished work today lies in the third CET pillar, which is workers’ training delivered by public IHLs. If we exclude programmes which may be more academic in nature, such as part-time Diplomas, Masters and PhDs, IHLs account for 8% of total CET delivery today. It is a pity, given the tremendous delivery capability of IHLs. But it is also understandable, because CET has never been the remit of IHLs, whose primary mission is to educate students. That has changed. Today, SkillsFuture is under MOE, and CET forms part of the expanded mission of IHLs.

17 .Over the next three years, from now to 2020, MOE will therefore expand CET delivery capacity significantly, by ramping up delivery by IHLs. This will ensure that our CET delivery system rests on three equally strong pillars – employers, private training institutes, and IHLs – each playing a critical, systemic role.

SkillsFuture Series by IHLs

18.Let me flesh out our plan a little. We have lined up more than 400 courses as a start, for which IHLs will start enrolment from now till the early part of 2018. We call this initial roll out the IHL SkillsFuture Series.

19.The programmes will be modular and bite-sized, so that it is easier for working adults to participate in. They will be pre-subsidised, by up to 70% of the course fees for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents, and the remainder nett fee can be paid through your SkillsFuture Credit.

20.The courses will be focused around eight emerging and important areas that are central to Singapore’s future economy needs. Several of these areas will cover new technologies that have caused some sense of uncertainty and worry amongst workers. We hope that through the SkillsFuture Series, the new and unknown can be demystified, and Singaporeans can pick up relevant skills and knowledge of this era, and face the future with greater confidence and enthusiasm.

21.As a start, we have assigned specific IHLs to each emerging area, but in time, we must expect each IHL’s offerings to diversify and broaden. The eight areas are:

  • Data analytics, which NUS will focus on;
  • Advanced manufacturing, which NTU and SP will focus on;
  • Finance, which will be SMU’s focus area;
  • Digital Media, by NYP;
  • Cybersecurity, by SUTD and TP;
  • Entrepreneurship, by NP;
  • Tech-enabled services, such as logistics and hospitality, by SUSS and RP; and
  • Urban solutions, by SIT and ITE.

22.Some examples of the courses are: Cyber Intelligence and Cyber Risk Management, Internet of Things, and Cloud Computing. There will be programmes on creation of digitised content, digital communications, virtual reality, and augmented reality technologies. For the less technically-inclined, there are courses related to entrepreneurship – the art of transforming an idea into a venture through innovation and risk-taking, finance skills for start-ups, and branding. For the financial industry, there will be courses to teach workers how to leverage emerging technologies and new business models in the new FinTech ecosystem. To cater to Singaporeans at all stages of learning, the courses will be available across beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. There will be something for everyone.

23.Over the next three years, MOE will be spending more than $70 million on the SkillsFuture Series. Through the SkillsFuture Series, adult learners will have access to a curated catalogue of industry-relevant training programmes. By 2020, we expect the total annual CET training hours delivered through the IHL SkillsFuture Series to increase five-fold, from 440,000 hours today to 2.2 million hours by 2020. The number of trainees will grow five-fold as well. By year 2020, the projected annual expenditure by IHLs on modular training under SkillsFuture Series will be about $40 million a year, compared to less than $5 million now.

24 .As we invest more in industry-relevant, modular training for adult workers, we face the reality of a finite budget, and the need for prioritisation. MOE will therefore review the funding arrangement and delivery of postgraduate Masters’ programmes by coursework at the Autonomous Universities. Some of these may be skills and vocational-based, and better delivered as modular industry training leading to graduate certifications. Further, we will have to relook the funding levels for coursework programmes which are purely academic in nature. Any changes will take effect no earlier than 2019.

25.The IHLs are all keenly aware that this is a major transformation for their institutions, but a necessary one, in response to the challenges of our time. In pushing for CET, there is also a great opportunity for IHLs to better synergise research and teaching. However, while they are leveraging their existing and traditional strengths, I must caution that training adult workers is not simply about unstacking a full qualification programme into modules and dishing them out with a CET label.

26.The learning needs of students and adults are fundamentally different, and in the coming years, IHLs will build up expertise and experience in this area. Part of the training may be customised for corporate training, but the bulk must be offered based on open enrolment and be accessible to individual workers. Some of the courses should be structured into Professional Conversion Programmes.


27.Every evolutionary improvement of our lifelong learning ecosystem has been the result of close collaboration between industries, unions, private training providers, the Government, and now, IHLs. Today we are here not just to launch the Lifelong Learning Festival and announce the launch of the SkillsFuture Series, it is also the anniversary of an important partner – the Singapore Computer Society (SCS).

28.The SCS has been a strong supporter of continuing education and training for technology professionals, helping to ensure that the skillsets of its members keep pace with the changing economy. Over the years, SCS has rolled out a diverse range of such initiatives, including career support for mid-career professionals, such as through professional conversion, and raising the digital proficiency for the wider workforce. It also provided career guidance and mentorship to students and youth, and contributed to the growth of Singapore’s cybersecurity talent pool. Well done SCS!

29.Congratulations on your 50th anniversary, and I look forward to another 50 more years of partnership and collaboration. Let us all join hands and prepare to ride the wave of the future economy, as we build a better Singapore for generations to come. Thank you.

Share this article: