By Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim

In its report to the Prime Minister on 7 February 2017, the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) noted that Singapore is making “good progress” by nurturing highly-skilled people and an innovative economy for a “distinctive global city”. However, it also warned of a radically different future scenario marred by slower global growth, rapid technological change and political uncertainty.

A small, open, export-oriented economy that is highly dependent on external demand, Singapore is facing subdued global growth as major economies grapple with the effects of the last global economic crisis and a host of fiscal and macroeconomic challenges. A phenomenon that became more apparent recently is how the anxieties of significant segments of their populace, who are reeling under the side-effects of globalisation, led to conservative trade stances such as protectionism. Great Britain’s Brexit and the election of President Donald Trump – who rallied against international trade deals during election campaigns and subsequently withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership as President– come readily to mind.

Technologically, disruptive innovations could wipe out longstanding and viable business models like a tsunami, forcing industries to adapt, government to make policy responses and people to reskill. A case in point is the entry of Uber and Grab into the public transport sector which hit the taxi industry in an unprecedented way. The livelihoods of cabbies were threatened and taxi operators saw a rising number of unhired cabs piling up in their backyard. It was not an easy situation for the government to deal with. On one hand, imposing regulations in response to the protest by parties, such as the National Taxi Association arguing that the playing field is tilted in favour of the new entrants, may send the wrong signal about its commitment to creating an environment conducive for innovation to flourish. On the other hand, ignoring the concerns of incumbent players may be interpreted to mean the government is disregarding the interests of local businesses in its pursuit of economic gains.

The future may however not be all that gloomy. A developing region that is urbanising and a growing middle class will create opportunities for some industries. The CFE identified six growth clusters that “marry high projected growth rates with Singapore’s comparative advantages, namely, digital technology, advanced manufacturing, hub services, logistics, urban solutions and infrastructure, and healthcare.” The CFE report further states that scalable healthcare technology solutions can help meet both domestic healthcare needs as well as growing demand abroad.

Internationalisation: Opportunities for Malay/Muslim Businesses

The CFE outlined seven strategies, among them are two that, for the Malay/Muslim community at least, are arguably the ones they should devote special attention to – deepening and diversifying international connections, and acquiring and utilising deep skills. The CFE highlighted the numerous opportunities for both companies and individuals in Asia as consumption and demand for infrastructure increases.

Generally, any discussion on growing opportunities in Asia tends to be associated with China. However, there are prospects in Malaysia and Indonesia, a locality with which the Malays share a common linguistic and cultural background, which constitute an advantage in forging partnerships. Internationalising could address the constraints that Malay/Muslim companies are facing in catering to the domestic market. Relevant Malay/Muslim institutions, in collaboration with the government, could complement the goal of deepening international connections by supporting Malay/Muslim companies to deepen their knowledge of and links with key markets in neighbouring economies.

It is worth noting that in 2014, a survey carried out by the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SMCCI) and DP Information revealed that there were significantly more start-ups and rapidly growing businesses among the Malay business community compared to a similar study undertaken in 2007. The SMCCI-DP survey also found that a third of the 500 business owners who participated in the survey derived the bulk of their revenue overseas. It behooves the community to make greater effort to help Malay/Muslim businesses develop its regional networks and harness new ideas for growth.

Starting Young

Among the CFE’s recommendations pertaining to deepening international connections is facilitating more overseas internships of a substantive duration for students in post-secondary education institutions (PSEIs). With an ever-increasing number of Malay/Muslim students progressing to PSEIs, this constitutes a starting point for the community’s larger endeavour of internationalising and capitalising on regional growth. Other initiatives to be tapped on is the Global Innovation Alliance (GIA) and SkillsFuture Leadership Development Initiative (LDI). GIA links students to enterprising overseas companies and start-ups, which could help groom entrepreneurial talents and promising start-ups in the community. LDI aims to provide international experiences, such as cross-functional rotations to different markets to help potential leaders develop their competence in regional and global markets. It will be sending, for a start, 800 promising individuals over three years on specialised courses and overseas postings. The community should aim for Malay/Muslims to be among the 800.

Aligning Education Goals with the Future Economy

During the Third National Convention of Singapore Muslim Professionals in 2012, the goal of Graduates in Every Family was proposed as a target for the Malay/Muslim community. “Graduate” was defined as including post-secondary qualifications across the board – not only university but also ITE and polytechnic. Given the Malays’ jarring underrepresentation at the degree level, there is a tacit inclination to assign greater weightage to university qualifications.

However, at the national level, leaders have expressed concerns about skill sets not fitting industries’ changing needs. The problem will intensify in a future economy fraught with disruptions brought about by technological innovations. The CFE once again raised this concern, underscoring the need to go beyond the pursuit of the highest possible academic qualifications early in life, but to seek knowledge, experience and skills throughout one’s life instead.

In addition to acquiring deeper skills, it is also imperative that skills are utilised in one’s job. To achieve this, the CFE argued that it does not make sense for workers to take “extended periods of time off from their careers to pursue a degree or post-graduate qualification” but instead pursue short, modularised training programme so as to build on their existing knowledge and skills acquired through work experience. It advised that the Government work with institutions of higher learning to offer such courses endorsed by industries and approved by the Ministry of Education.

An initiative such as this requires extensive collaboration between the government and employers to ensure that, firstly, the courses provided have a high degree of relevance and applicability in the workplace; and, secondly, that employers are willing to restructure their workplace to create pathways for career progression, culminating in higher responsibilities and commensurate salaries. To this end, the Government has actually already gotten the ball rolling.

In his National Day Rally Speech in 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shared the interviews he conducted with two Keppel Offshore and Marine Shipyard employees, Ms Dorothy Han and Mr Abu Bakar, ITE and polytechnic graduates respectively, who rose through the ranks by pursuing the training programmes provided by Keppel to attain management positions. Mr Abu Bakar, for instance, is the Chief Executive Officer of Nakilat-Keppel Offshore and Marine. Mr Lee announced then that he had asked Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam to lead a tripartite committee which will involve the Government, employers and unions, to develop an integrated system of education, training and progression for all Singaporeans and promote industry support and social recognition for individuals to advance based on their skills. He added that the Government, as a public service and an employer, will also do its part.

Credentials vs Skills

Some thorny issues remain however. Taking the responses to the SkillsFuture initiative as an indication, human resource practices and the beliefs of workers are apparently not keeping pace with the changes. Dr Walter Theseira, an economist and senior lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, stressed that there was still too much emphasis on credentials at the workplace and not enough on skills and abilities. He also said that there is a strong belief among many that the solution to a stagnating career is to pursue another degree or get a particular certification. Echoing the concern, the Workforce Development Agency (WDA) called on companies to refresh their human resource practices to focus on skills and strength of character in their hiring and promotion activities, and “not on a person’s age or academic paper qualifications”.

Community’s Role

Following the release of the CFE report, PM Lee announced that the Government accepts the strategies proposed and will pursue all of them. Malay/Muslim institutions can play a role in monitoring the implementation of the strategies and providing constructive feedback especially the ones that are pertinent to the community’s continued socioeconomic progress. In this regard, opportunities for Malay/Muslim SMEs and long-term employability should be at the top of their radar.

Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is a Researcher / Projects Coordinator with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), the research subsidiary of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP). The views expressed in the article are his own.

This commentary was also published in Karyawan, April 2017, Volume 12, Issue 2.

Photo Source: Karyawan