I confess. I went because I wanted to see the LinkedIn office in Singapore (it didn’t disappoint!). And for the free dinner.
But in the end, I found the session, organised by Young NTUC to help young workers gain insights into how work processes have transformed greatly as a result of technology, to be quite thought provoking.
There were four speakers who talked about various issues then answered questions. They were:
- Ms Rebecca Siow from the Human Capital Leadership Institute
- Mr Roger Pua, who is the Head of Corporate Communications for APAC
- Mr Hector Lin, who is now running his own startup
- Mr Russell Tham, the Regional President for Southeast Asia of Applied Materials
They all talked about different strategies young workers can take to be prepared for a world that is increasingly VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous). They also talked about how the fourth industrial revolution will be disruptive to the jobs market, causing the net loss of up to 5million jobs worldwide. These are two points that have been repeated ad nauseam these few months to warn us to be prepared for a very different jobs landscape in the future. What they said is roughly summarised in this visualisation:
But what do they really mean for us?
I think a VUCA world means that it’s less likely that a bureaucratic interventionist approach that Singapore has been used to taking would work. Instead, we need to change, quite fundamentally, the way we tackle the problem. As Adrian Kuah, senior research fellow of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, explained, the government ought to restrain itself from (too much) action, but instead create space for the ground up solutions to emerge.
“But our government knows best!” Really? I remember that there was a time when the government encouraged people to go into the IT industry. No. Not the recent rush into tech startup world. Way before that. In the 80s. Then in the late-90s the government said that IT is a sunset industry. Then they made a huge push for life sciences. I remembered that the number of classes that took biology in my JC suddenly doubled.
And what good did that do us? Now that the IT industry is THE industry that is leading the fourth industrial revolution, we suddenly find ourselves with an acute (hopefully not chronic) shortage of trained professionals who are able to get us ahead of the curve. Imagine if we had stuck to training people for the IT industry, but shifted the focus to the Internet then, who knows… we might have a few Singaporean tech unicorns now.
Our government’s crystal ball was faulty then. And the world then was far less VUCA than what it is now. What makes us think that our government’s crystal ball would work well now? No. It would be naive to think that way. I think it would be much better to create the space, prepare a fertile ground for bold ideas and wild dreams to flourish from the ground up.
But this might be a bit problematic too. We are the victims of our own success. Our government has done extremely well in developing in us an ability to game the system. Many of us do well in environments with well defined rules – do this, this, and this, then you will get your rewards as such and such and such. Like… our national exams – PSLE, O-Levels, A-Levels. Do the past year exam papers. Know the rules. See the patterns of questions. Do well.
Either knowingly or unknowingly, many of us have turned our lives into exams. There is a set format. There is a set of rubrics to judge our performance. If we know the format and the rubrics, we can game the system and appear to have done well.
But in a world that is very VUCA, the rules are… what rules? We need to make up the rules as we go along. To quote BMW, the best way to predict the future is to create it. The best way to win is to play our own game, with rules that we define ourselves. That takes a whole lot of guts. And the ability to challenge assumptions and ask the right questions.
But Singaporeans, I think, are terrible at asking questions. We are great at finding answers. But we are terrible at asking tough questions. Especially the “why” sort of questions. Especially the questions that challenge assumptions and the norm.
I guess that’s why we are so concerned with whether we will lose jobs to machines. Because if there’s one thing that machines can’t quite do (and probably can’t do for many years to come), it’s to ask questions that challenges assumptions. Machines are really good at crunching numbers and finding answers. Machines are very good at playing games with well defined rules. Oh… wait. That sounds like most Singaporeans.
We need to be able to learn to ask better questions. And I think chief amongst the questions that we need to learn to ask, are questions that would lead to great improvement of society. The ability to do this, I think, is really what distinguishes us from machines. Because the ability to ask those sort of questions is fundamental to another key characteristic that distinguishes us from machines – the ability to dream.
I think it’ll take at least a few centuries before machines gain the ability to dream. We won’t see Sonny from “I, Robot” by SG100, maybe not even at SG500.
So to be better placed to thrive and come out riding the wave of the fourth industrial revolution, I think we need to be better able to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and dream. George Bernard Shaw said “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?'”
How can we do that? I don’t have all the answers. Education needs to change. Parents mindsets need to change. The government needs to allow space in the socio-political space for greater discourse, discussion, and debate. We, as a society, need to be more comfortable with a bit of messiness, with less defined paths, with being slightly uncomfortable.
Of course, those are fluffy statements. The actual steps that need to be taken, I think, can’t be properly discussed in a simple blog post. Besides, if I’m really that good and can chart all the steps needed to bring us gloriously into the future, you think I’ll be blogging? Heh…
[Photo credits: All photos and images courtesy of NTUC’s Youth Development Unit. Rights belong to them. Please ask them before using any of the images.]