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According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center from October 2019 to March 2020, 61% of Singaporeans polled in favour of automation and 72% in favour of environmental protection and artificial intelligence (AI).
Yet, while the median across 20 publics (spanning from Europe and North America to the Asia-Pacific) of those in favour of automation was only 48% — an inversion of the Singaporean public opinion — the median (71%) for environmental protection was very much in line (much less for AI, whose median was 53%) with the view of the vast majority of Singaporeans.
Technology is the future of our economy
At a panel discussion for the inauguration of Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Deep Deep Learning Week, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the current Minister for Foreign Affairs, told university students that they “are the dynamos that will drive our transformation and push the boundaries of how we can leverage technology to transform our economy and make a real difference”.
He also drew attention to fields such as data analytics, machine learning, and AI.
However, as rosy as tech jobs may appear as a viable career prospect, only 2,800 information and communications students graduate yearly, leaving 17,200 vacancies wide open.
This has led to a shortage of tech graduates as notable banks like OCBC and DBS ramp up on their recruitment of tech professionals to more than compensate for Grab’s mid-year retrenchment of technologists.
Singapore’s transition to a hub for emerging technologies will create 60,000 new jobs in the next three years.
Mid-career individuals encouraged to take up tech jobs
Under the Smart Nation Initiative helmed by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the Singapore government aims to encourage mid-career individuals to take up attachments, temporary assignments, and traineeships in the tech sector through subsidies.
Furthermore, banks have also stepped in to retrain pre-existing staff to work tech and digital-focused jobs. For example, Standard Chartered announced in June its plan to improve its SkillsFuture@SC programme so as to upskill its workers over the next three years.
Razer Fintech and Facebook roping in young local talent
Razer Fintech hosted a 48-hour hackathon from 15 to 17 May 2020 to invite local tertiary students and young professionals to utilise the fintech industry’s latest technologies and solutions in order to solve financial challenges like insufficient insurance coverage, adapting to cashless and digital solutions, and problems in accessing grants.
NTU’s Centre for Professional and Continuing Education also collaborated with Facebook to train local engineering undergraduates and postgraduates to take on data centre specialist roles at data centre operations here in Singapore and overseas.
Automation will create new jobs at the expense of current ones
There could be some underlying fear with regard to automation which would explain why a lower percentage of Singaporeans polled in favour of automation compared to that of AI.
This is because there is a fundamental difference between AI and automation.
AI is concerned with technologies and processes that sufficiently mimic how humans make decisions, react to new information and understand language, while automation simply involves the use of programmable robots to replace low-skilled workers, essentially freeing them up for more complex processes. However, machine learning, which is a subset of AI, can be applied to robots to enable them to learn from data, identify patterns and recommend decisions without human involvement — but this is not necessarily the case for automation.
Locally, automation has already begun replacing chefs and financial planners while also creating new jobs like prospecting and lead generation by merely assisting in work operations rather than replacing them entirely.
COVID-19 speeding up automation
With automation, companies can streamline low-skilled jobs so that workers can focus on upskilling and eventually take on higher-paying ones. This is being done at Soverus, a local security solutions provider.
Yet, COVID-19 has also sped up the implementation of automation within our service industry as companies try to bypass the high labour cost and labour shortages here, leading to the inevitable displacement of low-skilled workers.
With this in mind, just how effective will the Smart Nation Initiative and banks’ upskilling programmes be in ensuring a smooth transition of displaced workers to tech jobs?
Environmental sustainability is a viable sector
Amidst the massive job losses incurred due to the pandemic, the sustainability sector will continue to grow to include professionals such as climate scientists, engineers, and food scientists.
Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, Grace Fu, claimed that 55,000 new and upgraded jobs are expected to be created within the next 10 years, with 4,000 already foreseen to be added to our local economy within the next year.
She said, “People always say if you have economic competitiveness, you can’t have environmental considerations. I’d like to challenge that, I think it’s less of a trade-off. It makes more sense now for us to [consider both objectives together].”
Environmental tax could lead to job losses if imposed on struggling companies
On 5 October 2020, Dr Jamus Lim posed a Parliamentary Question to Minister for Transport, Ong Ye Kung, asking him if the Ministry had considered imposing per-flight environmental tax on SIA’s proposed ‘flights to nowhere’.
Ong responded in parliament by saying that the environmental tax (and other considerations brought up by Lim) could be “done” if there were no pandemic right now.
He also argued that imposing an environmental tax on SIA was not sensible as there would be too few passengers to pass on the cost to.
He finished his answer by emphasising that the environmental tax would only worsen SIA’s current predicament.
This came after the SIA had announced on 10 September that it would be axing around 2,400 staff based in Singapore and in overseas stations.
Environmental protection and economic viability need not clash
After the parliamentary debate, Jamus Lim took to Facebook to clarify why he had raised the issue of environmental tax.
In the post, he asserted that “thinking about how we can be good stewards of” the environment “need not come at the expense of jobs or profit”, thus echoing Ms. Fu’s earlier comment.
He also added that the government’s decision “not to withdraw carbon taxes” amidst the pandemic was “an implicit admission that we should always bear in mind environmental tradeoffs in any discussion of policy”.
In parliament, he had squared off against Ong, arguing that an environmental tax on SIA’s ‘flights to nowhere’ would not “impose an immediate concern on the economic viability” of the airline if it “is able to pass on the cost” to its passengers.