Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the HR Tech Festival Asia and the Opening of ASEAN Future Work Conference on 12 May 2022.
Ladies and gentlemen,
A very good morning. I am pleased to join all of you at the HR Tech Festival Asia and the ASEAN Future of Work Conference.
It is very timely to discuss the future of work. Fundamentally, the future of work is shaped by the future of the economy.
Economies face periodic shocks, and COVID-19 is a major shock to the global economy. UN labour experts estimate that the resulting economic crisis pushed global unemployment to over 200 million.
Just as we are shifting from crisis gear to learning to live with COVID-19, the Ukraine crisis struck. Inflation, which was already a problem before the Ukraine crisis, has become a significant concern. Global growth will be weaker, and there may even be a recession within the next two years.
With this turbulent and highly uncertain economic outlook, labour market recovery will likewise be bumpy and tentative.
Future of Work
But beyond the immediate impact of COVID-19 and the Ukraine crisis, these two major events have also accelerated several major structural shifts which were already underway.
First, digitalisation is taking off beyond any CTO’s wildest imagination. People and businesses migrated online, creating new opportunities and disrupting existing ones. Businesses are pivoting to capture new growth, and equipping workers to operate in a more digital environment. Even how we manage and develop our human resources are changing with digitalisation.
Second, the pace of technological adoption and innovation have gained pace. Faced with manpower shortages due to restrictions in the movement of people, many companies turned to automation and robotics as they transformed their operations. In the coming years, workers will need to be more adept with the man-machine interface.
Third, COVID-19 has also accelerated the green transition. Sustainability will be a major driver of growth as green energy and carbon services come to the fore. There will be new business opportunities across many sectors, and new skills to be learnt.
Fourth, there is now greater emphasis on the resilience of global supply chains. More can be done to diversify supply chains and improve the efficiency of the flow of goods. The reconfiguration of supply chains will create many new possibilities.
ASEAN is in a good position to contribute to and benefit from these major shifts. The fundamentals of this region are sound – with good potential for catch-up growth, a youthful population, and a growing middle class.
The digital economy is growing rapidly. The region’s blue carbon stock has considerable potential for nature-based solutions for carbon removal. Southeast Asia can be alternative bases for advanced manufacturing to strengthen supply chain resilience.
The opportunities ahead are very promising – for businesses to grow and workers to earn a better living. But realising this potential is far from a given. What do we need to do to help our workers ride on these new opportunities in the future of work?
The Next Skills Wave
First, we must keep our eye on the next skills wave. We must not only equip workers for the current demands of the labour market, but also prepare them for the future.
In the past decade, the digital wave came upon us in a big way. The digital economy is now a key engine of growth.
Numerous digital tech companies have emerged, creating many good jobs and occupations, some of which were previously unheard of.
Computer science is now one of the most – if not the most – popular course in our tertiary institutions.
Digital skills are now foundational to many jobs. Even many hawkers and micro-enterprises have gone digital.
There will be more waves to come. One emerging wave is the green wave. Sustainability is an emerging engine of growth that is taking on greater momentum, and much more still needs to be done before countries can meet their net zero goals.
Green skills will continue to be defined and developed in the coming years, and it may be some time before a wider range of training pathways and appropriate salary premiums settle.
More companies today are already taking active steps to green their processes and invest in sustainable technologies. More green-collar jobs are being created. Some in more mature fields, such as sustainable finance and solar management. Some in emerging areas, such as hydrogen and tidewater architecture. Others do not even exist today.
Over time, almost every other job will have some shade of green. Much like digital literacy, green literacy might just be a foundational skill for jobs of the future.
The potential of the green wave is tremendous. The efforts to develop green skills will be an iterative one, as the green economy develops.
But taking a leaf from how the global workforce adapted to the digital wave, we could help our workers adapt even better to the green wave and future waves.
This requires every stakeholder to work in collaboration, to create better livelihoods, a more vibrant economy, and a more sustainable environment.
Indeed, the fortunes of companies, workers, and governments are intertwined. Companies that prosper create better jobs for their workers. Skilled and motivated workers enable companies to grow. We can’t have one without the other.
In Singapore, our brand of collaborative tripartism is a key enabler for economic agility and transformation.
Unions take an enlightened view – not only championing the rights of workers, but also partnering companies to help them transform and their workers upskill.
Companies that do well see transformation and upgrading their workers as two sides of the same coin.
The Government invests significantly in education – providing our young with a strong foundation and a curiosity for the world, and our workers with lifelong learning through SkillsFuture.
In our tight labour market, the extent to which we can upskill and reskill workers will set the pace of growth. We have laid the groundwork for our workforce over the past decade.
We created multiple pathways for progression, and expanded training opportunities in every industry and every occupation.
We made a concerted effort to better protect vulnerable workers and focused on developing mature workers who have many more years to offer.
By learning from the past and from one another, we can better prepare our workers for the new skills waves that will come our way.
Changing Construct of Work
Second, to fully realise the potential of our workforce, we will also need to collectively adapt to the rapidly changing construct of work.
COVID-19 has accelerated not just major structural shifts, but also how work is organised and carried out. Social norms and the preferences of workers are also evolving.
Our workforce and employers will need to adapt in this respect. Let me briefly highlight two examples – the hybrid work environment, and the platform economy.
Flexible work arrangements are not new. But they have gained significant traction during the pandemic. Flexible workplaces are here to stay.
These arrangements enable workers to balance their work and personal commitments, especially those with caregiving needs.
More employers also see these as a means to improve employee engagement and productivity, as well as boost talent retention and attraction.
But arriving at a hybrid work environment is not straightforward.
Supervisors want to ensure that business outcomes are not compromised, and that such arrangements are not abused. Workers want a conducive workplace environment where requesting for flexibility is the norm rather than the exception.
Different workers also have differing expectations for flexible work arrangements. Workplace settings and business needs also differ across companies. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work.
To transition well, there needs to be mutual understanding, and some give and take between employers and workers. This is why, in Singapore, we have taken a tripartite approach to promote flexible workplaces.
The shift towards greater flexible work arrangements will take time, and some iteration. Many countries and companies are also feeling their way forward, and we can learn from one another.
The pandemic has also shone a spotlight on platform workers.
The platform economy has grown significantly, due in part to a boom in e-commerce and food delivery. It has changed how work is organised, distributed and remunerated. Platform work provides the labour market with greater flexibility, but it also has implications on the protections and career pathways for workers.
As more workers gravitate towards such jobs, we need to look at improving their protection and social security. Countries have taken different approaches to supporting platform workers. In Singapore, we too are looking at enhancing protections for platform workers based on our local context.
Trade-offs have to be made if we are to do right by platform workers, many of whom have helped keep our lives going during the pandemic. We have therefore taken a tripartite approach to arriving at a consensus of the changes needed, including in financial protection in the event of work injuries, social security, and representation.
As importantly, we need to strengthen career guidance, especially for young jobseekers. We will need to help them look beyond the more attractive take-home pay in the near-term, and explore other pathways that could better nurture their skills and provide better livelihoods in the longer-term.
Unlocking Potential Through Collaboration
The third suggestion is to unlock the potential of the future of work through collaboration.
I already spoke about how within each economy, it is useful for companies, workers, and governments to work in concert to double down on economic transformation and workforce transition.
But it goes beyond what we do in our individual economies. To fully harness the potential opportunities in the future of work, countries must work in close partnership.
Through trade agreements like the CPTPP and RCEP, we are strengthening regional economic integration. With the emergence of digital trade, more is being done to enable the trusted flow of data and harmonise standards.
Human capital development is also an important area of cooperation for ASEAN, including the promotion of digital skills. The adoption of the ASEAN Declaration on Human Resource Development for the Changing World of Work two years ago reflects the region’s commitment to nurturing workers.
I look forward to more collaboration and integration within our region in the years ahead.
Let me conclude.
The future of work is intrinsically linked to the future economy. The global economy is going through some major structural shifts and near-term headwinds. The pace of growth will be dependent on the extent to which we can upskill and reskill workers.
The digital wave came upon us in a big way. The green wave is emerging. Learning from the digital wave, we can better help our workers adapt to the green wave and to future waves.
Another evolving aspect of the future of work that we must respond to is the changing construct of work. I highlighted two examples – the hybrid work environment, and the platform economy.
The best way to navigate these labour market changes is to foster closer collaboration, between countries and across all stakeholders within each economy.
It is in this spirit of collaboration that we are gathered here today. I hope you will find opportunities to explore new ground, share ideas, and forge new partnerships.
On that note, thank you and I wish you all a fruitful conference.
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