AI Futures: Grooming Singapore’s AI talents

By Amanda Oon

Interview with Michael Fung, Deputy Chief Executive (Industry), Chief Human Resource Officer, and Chief Data Officer at SkillsFuture Singapore.

What are your key priorities and projects for the post-pandemic era?

Singapore has consistently invested in the development of literacy and skills of the population. In addition to investing in building up the formal education system, sustained investments have been made since the 1980s to develop the skills of the workforce.

Building upon this, the SkillsFuture movement was launched in 2015 to build a culture of lifelong learning for Singaporeans. The investment in SkillsFuture was estimated to cost about S$1 billion per year from 2015 to 2020. That’s an increase from the previous S$600 million per year from 2010 to 2015.

With an active labour force size of around 2.5M, such levels of investments are relatively substantial. The increased spending is a clear sign of Singapore’s commitment to build a robust Continuing Education and Training (CET) ecosystem.

Hence, when Covid-19 took the global economy by surprise, we were able to leverage the CET ecosystem to support our workforce – ranging from supporting enterprises to send their employees for training under the Enhanced Training Support Package, to heavily subsidising training and providing training allowance for those who have lost their jobs to reskill and upskill under the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package.

Building on the positive receptivity for SGUnited Skills and SGUnited Mid-Career Pathways – Company Training programmes, we will expand the capacity of in-demand courses and courses with good hiring opportunities in sectors such as Infocomm Technology (ICT) and Media, Professional Services, Healthcare, and Manufacturing. The duration of courses will also be condensed to six months and below, so that trainees can more quickly transition to employment.

Looking beyond Covid-19, we will ensure continued opportunities to bridge fresh graduates’ transition into the workforce through the various SkillsFuture Work-Study Programmes, and for the workforce to upskill, reskill, and multi-skill in priority and emerging areas to stay relevant to evolving industry needs.

What is the biggest impact the advancement of AI will have on the workforce? What are the biggest challenges, and what are the solutions?

Based on Singapore’s experience, there is a need to continue to groom more talents in technology and AI-related fields, given the sharply escalating demand for such talents across almost all industry sectors. With the scale and pace of technological developments, we will need to mobilise the wider education and training sector to offer access to continuing education opportunities to all population segments, beyond the traditional formal education systems.

In upskilling and reskilling for AI, we have taken a two-prong approach – “AI + X” and “X + AI”. The first prong focuses on deep-skilling AI/ICT professionals with the ability to apply their skills across a multitude of domains (“X”). The second prong focuses on equipping workers from various industry sectors with relevant AI knowledge and skills, to be able to apply and use AI in their respective job roles.

This will ensure that our workforce has the capabilities to develop cutting-edge AI systems, and to use these systems to support the transformation and growth of businesses across our various industry sectors.

What are the key skills that you believe are needed for the new AI-enabled era?

Digital technologies, including AI, have fundamentally altered the way we live, work and communicate with one another. To navigate the changes brought about by digital transformation, we will require a digital-ready workforce equipped with the relevant digital capabilities.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for change in how businesses and individuals operate, in order to survive and adapt to the public health and safety concerns. The power of technology is evident as companies and employees around the world switched to new working arrangements, enabled by digitalisation of business processes, remote working, and online interactions and learning. Many companies have leveraged technology to usher in new business models and upskill employees during this period, and these models are likely to become the new norm post pandemic.

As companies transform to sharpen their competitive edge during this period of disruption, they need to continue to invest in skills development of their employees, in preparation for recovery. This is the time for enterprises to build up capabilities to support transformation, digitalise business processes, capture emerging opportunities, and build new workforce skills, in particular AI and digitalization skills, to respond to the challenges.

How can you equip citizens with the skills and resources needed to keep up with the demands of digital acceleration and the rapid advancements in AI-enabled technologies?

SkillsFuture Singapore aims to nurture a nation of lifelong learners, and a society that values skills mastery. Our mission is to enable individuals to learn for life, pursue skills mastery and develop fulfilling careers, for a future-ready Singapore.

In the area of technology and AI, we have rolled out a number of talent development initiatives:

  • SkillsFuture Series - a curated list of modular, industry-relevant training programmes that focus on priority and emerging skills in eight categories, including data analytics/AI, digital media, and advance manufacturing.

  • SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace (SFDW) – a two-day national programme to equip learners with the mindset and essential digital skills to be effective in a future economy that will be increasingly digitalised.

  • Digital Learner Beginner Workshop (DLBW) – a 1 to 2-day workshop designed to equip learners who are unfamiliar in the use of technical devices or in accessing digital learning to pick up some basic knowledge in these skills sets.


There are also many complementary initiatives by the Government that span across different public agencies or programme offices to groom AI talents in Singapore.

For instance, AI Singapore (AISG) is a national AI programme launched by the National Research Foundation (NRF) to anchor deep national capabilities in AI. AISG has introducing a series of initiatives to encourage employees and their companies to deep-skill in digital technology through the AI for Industry and the AI Apprenticeship Programmes.

The government also announced the TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA) initiative in 2016 as a tripartite initiative to build and develop a skilled ICT workforce. It is co-led by IMDA, SSG and WSG, and this initiative offers a broad range of skills development and training programmes to help workers pick up essential skills for career progression in the ICT sector and/or related roles.

These courses/programmes are heavily funded by the government, with up to 90% of course fee subsidies provided to particular segments of the population.

How do you address the fear of the ‘Man vs. Machine’ threat amongst workforces? How do instill a national culture of embracing AI, and aligning skills to work alongside new technologies?

First, the point must be made that technology is an enabler for improving business processes and the nature of jobs. While many jobs tasks will change and some jobs will be lost due to adoption of technology, many job roles will be enhanced, and even more new jobs will be created. Hence, instead of fearing technology, we should learn about it, embrace it, and make it support and augment us in our work. So it is not really about ‘Man vs Machine’, but rather ‘Man leveraging Machine’.

Given the rapid pace of change brought about by technology and AI, we will need to evolve our education and training systems to be much more integrated, flexible and agile, to be able to respond quickly and be relevant to changing industry needs. Our systems will need to provide multiple pathways for upskilling, with bite-sized modular learning through various delivery modes.

However, what is even more important and challenging is to address the mindsets of individuals and companies, to embrace the need for innovation and change, and to take ownership and action to build up capabilities to navigate disruptions. We need to nurture a mindset of embracing change and lifelong learning among our workforce and citizens.

Individuals have to be open towards learning new technologies, to be able to handle ambiguity and seek change, and complementing technical skills training with soft skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking. Individuals need to see learning as a long-term investment and are motivated to learn-for-life.

Companies have to look for ways to adapt to the challenges brought about by disruptions, and be prepared to transform their business models to capture new opportunities. They will need to adopt a mindset of investing in talent development to support their business transformation, to support the upskilling of their employees on an ongoing basis.

An effective lifelong-learning mindset and culture will increase the resilience of our companies and workforce in the face of technological advancements, globalisation, and broad-based economic disruptions.

In 2019, SkillsFuture SG partnered with IBM to launch new Artificial Intelligence (AI) Training Programmes to help Singaporean citizens adapt to the “emerging era of artificial intelligence”. How has this progressed since then? What have been the project’s main successes, and how has the AI landscape developed? Is there a greater demand now for such projects and will this demand continue to grow and evolve?

In Oct 2019, SSG partnered IBM Singapore to launch a suite of programmes in the emerging area of Artificial Intelligence (AI). These programmes aim to enable Singaporeans to learn and apply AI in areas such as Human Resource, Supply Chain Management and Media. SSG has also enhanced the SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace (SFDW) programme to include AI content produced by IBM, to ensure that the SFDW programme keeps pace with technological advancements. The programmes delivered by IBM in the area of AI have been well-received by companies and individuals across various industry sectors, such as Retail and Food Services.

Apart from SSG’s partnership with IBM to launch AI training programmes to enable citizens to be future-ready for the evolving AI landscape, SSG has also collaborated with other leaders in the ICT industry such as SAP, Microsoft, Nvidia, Salesforce, amongst others, to broaden the range of training options in related domains, such as the use of data science, business intelligence, amongst others.

Business adoption of AI helps to create business value for enterprises. The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the impetus to innovate and digitalise. With the remote work arrangements and revamp processes, the proliferation of AI and technology adoption has become a cornerstone in the new normal, leading to creation of tech-enabled jobs and projects as well as the need for skilled workforce in deep-tech capabilities. We have seen a corresponding increase in the uptake of ICT courses, including AI-related ones.

How can public private collaboration between government agencies and private tech companies help build a greater understanding of digital skills and demands, and work towards a stronger digital workforce?

Government agencies, such as SSG, play a catalyst role in partnering with the private sector companies to foster skills development in emerging areas such as AI. In particular, SSG has appointed a number of SkillsFuture Queen Bee companies, which are anchor companies that drive enterprise-led skills development, to provide smaller industry players stewardship on skills and training. As industry leaders, these SkillsFuture Queen Bee companies have a keen sense of the skillsets most relevant to the industry, and take the lead in bringing along other industry players and companies in the business networks and value chain. SSG has partnered companies such as IBM and Microsoft to co-create skills and training solutions, and to promote workplace learning. SMEs can also benefit from the networks of the SkillsFuture Queen Bee companies to grow enterprise capabilities and facilitate enterprise transformation.

Interview responses have been edited for clarity.

Want to find out more about SkillsFuture’s work in AI? Catch up on their session from AI x GOV here!