Exclusive: Inside Singapore’s lifelong learning revolution

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Interview with Ng Cher Pong, Chief Executive, SkillsFuture Singapore.

“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”

This invaluable advice comes from Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper, in a piece on his incessant desire to learn continuously, no matter what. Graduates often leave university with qualifications that may be obsolete in the blink of an eye; the best solution is to keep studying, Kuper believes.

Singapore, in particular, has been championing lifelong learning, continuous education and upskilling since 2015, when the government launched the SkillsFuture movement along with the coordinating agency, SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG).

“With the SkillsFuture movement, we aim to build a strong culture of lifelong learning and skills mastery,” SSG Chief Executive Ng Cher Pong tells GovInsider in an exclusive interview.

Keyword: ‘relevance’


This shift comes at a time when Singapore’s workforce is ageing and therefore shrinking; there is a “vocal citizenry with rising expectations”; and technology is “drastically reconfiguring” almost every industry, according to Ong Ye Kung, Minister-in-charge of Public Service Innovation. “Now, more than ever, Singapore has no path to follow and no models to copy,” warns Ong.

The goalposts will shift constantly in the future, as artificial intelligence, data analytics and other new technologies permeate industries. In the face of this, the country Singapore hopes to inspire citizens the desire to upskill and reskill “in order to stay relevant”, says SSG’s Ng. This could mean mid-career shifts for some, and a complete 180-degree change for others.

The agency has launched schemes to boost basic digital skills. The SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace will help employees navigate a tech-driven workplace; understand the importance of cybersecurity; and learn how to protect their data and information.
“With the SkillsFuture movement, we aim to build a strong culture of lifelong learning and skills mastery.”
SSG has also released 17 “skills frameworks”, which are resources for anyone to gain a deeper understanding of the employment prospects, job roles, and required skills across various industries in Singapore, and to “identify required and emerging skills”.

These help individuals make informed decisions on their future career options, based on how a career as a Cyber Risk Specialist or Precision Engineering Machinist would look, for instance.

Singapore wants to help citizens adopt emerging and priority skills. The SSG has launched the SkillsFuture Series, a list of short courses that focus on eight areas: data analytics; finance; tech-enabled services; digital media; cyber security; entrepreneurship; advanced manufacturing; and urban solutions, says Ng. These courses are run by tertiary institutes in Singapore.

Getting businesses on board

SSG is supporting businesses in Singapore in playing a critical role to their employees’ reskilling journey - but has seen “some resistance from employers, especially smaller ones”, Ng was quoted as saying. They may not know of the training possibilities that are available to them, or possess the capabilities to develop training plans for their workers.

Here, SMEs may apply for “enhanced funding” of up to 90% subsidies on training course fees, says Ng. The Enhanced Training Support for SMEs programme offers over 8,000 courses, he continues.

There is also the SME Mentors programme, where "mentors who specialise in industry-relevant skills can help companies implement measures to deepen the skills of their workforce, and help their supervisors and managers develop their coaching and training capabilities”, Ng says.

Training providers themselves need training to design the next generation of adult education courses. “They must ensure that the training delivered helps to support businesses in their transformation,” Ng points out.

SSG will soon launch new programmes to help training and adult education professionals “make learning even more relevant and accessible”, he says, and its Institute for Adult Learning will regularly refresh its training programmes for them.

Global resonance

Singapore’s lifelong learning revolution has already become a source for inspiration for other developed countries such as Denmark, which is now also encouraging citizens to learn continuously. “It is my wish that a blacksmith is motivated to become a robot builder,” writes Troels Lund Poulsen, Danish Minister for Employment, in an insight piece for GovInsider.

The Danish government has set up the Disruption Council, made up of members from trade unions and employer organisations along with ministers and members of the community to discuss “future skills, free trade, international partnerships, new business models, tomorrow’s technology and lifelong learning”, Poulsen writes.

The government works closely with social partners, and has recently inked a tripartite agreement on vocational training and education, he continues. “The essence of the model is to allow companies and public institutions to respond quickly to changes in the economy, while ensuring that workers who lose their jobs are taken care of,” Poulsen writes.

Back in Singapore, SSG’s Ng hopes to see a “cultural shift” towards lifelong learning and skills mastery. The agency is on the path to building the education and training infrastructure needed to “enable Singaporeans to take responsibility for their skills and career development”, he believes.

SSG is working to provide Singaporeans with the resources they need so that learning doesn’t end at graduation: it is only the beginning.