• The Convergence

“Digitalisation is a journey and not a destination post-COVID-19”: Minister S Iswaran

By Zhou Xizhuang Michael, Editor-in-Chief


On 15 June 2020, about 280 graduating and recently graduated students from all five polytechnics – Nanyang Polytechnic, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Republic Polytechnic, Singapore Polytechnic, and Temasek Polytechnic – joined Minister for Communications and Information & Minister-in-charge of Trade Relations, Mr S Iswaran and Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, Dr Koh Poh Koon at the REACH Dialogue in a conversation on COVID-19: Digitalisation and Jobs. 


Below is a summary of the dialogue highlights.


“Mr COVID” has given Singapore’s digitalisation development a new push


Singapore has been pushing for greater adoption of technology for a while. So, what makes the current push different from pre-COVID-19 times? In response to this question, Minister Iswaran acknowledged that digitalisation is not new for Singapore. 


However, he added that the COVID-19 situation had crystallised the importance of digitalisation. As a result, the Government is doubling down efforts to promote widespread digitalisation through a range of efforts. Such efforts include the SG Digital Office, the hiring of digital ambassadors, and reaching out to hawker stall owners and the elderly to help them adapt to technology.


Right now, it may not be the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) or Chief Information Officer (CIO) that is proving most pivotal in the company’s overall digital development. It may be “Mr COVID” instead, added the Minister.


Echoing the Minister, Senior Minister of State (SMS) Koh Poh Koon, commented that the coronavirus pandemic had induced an increased realisation of the merits of flexible working arrangements, such as working from home.


On a participant’s question regarding the ability for Singapore to capitalise on digitalisation to rebuild the economy, SMS Koh added that digitalisation is pervasive across many sectors and is an enabler in the city-state’s industry transformation. Such transformation, in turn, allows Singapore companies to become more competitive and productive, which will aid them to capture opportunities in new overseas markets.


Minister Iswaran also emphasised that digitalisation is a journey and not a destination, and urged the participants to get on the digitalisation journey to learn and optimise technology for the country’s future developments.


Minister Iswaran. Photo courtesy of MCI

Young Singaporeans should remain optimistic and open-minded about the future


The greater adoption of digitalisation and technology may be a double-edged sword for Singaporean workers. For one, the growing popularity of working digitally has enabled employers to hire globally. However, as one participant pointed out, such shifts in hiring practices may affect job security and opportunities of Singaporeans.


An open mindset – the key to opening opportunities


In response, SMS Koh said that this can work both ways. While some job functions may be outsourced, companies may choose to expand higher value-added activities in Singapore which will in turn create good jobs for Singaporeans. He encouraged participants to upskill and remain competitive in terms of employability, so that they are able to fill these new roles.


Minister Iswaran further posited that we should consider Singapore’s value proposition as a regional hub in Southeast Asia. Technology will serve as a strong “force multiplier” and allow Singapore to value add to the region, thereby generating more economic opportunities for all.


One of the participants asked if there would be training opportunities for youths that do not qualify for existing schemes such as the SGUnited Traineeships Programme due to National Service (NS) commitments.  Minister Iswaran reassured participants that the Government would look into making funding more widely available.


SMS Koh added that students’ education would have already provided them with a good foundation. In addition, the skills that they learnt in school would not be obsolete even after they have completed their NS. He also encouraged participants to explore other forms of online learning; they could also join the Young NTUC network to tap on subsidised schemes, mentorship, and networking opportunities to keep themselves, including those serving NS, apprised of industry developments.


During the dialogue, several participants raised their concerns over the relevance of their educational skill sets and the prospects of switching careers in the post-COVID-19 era.


Regarding these concerns, Minister Iswaran commented that any job should allow workers to pick up skills that are relevant to a variety of sectors. Thus, he encouraged graduates to use their time meaningfully during this time by taking up jobs.


He added that what employers look out for at the end of the day is what employees can bring to the table, including experience and skills. As such, the Minister urged graduates to seize opportunities that can help them value add to the job market.


For non-working graduates, SMS Koh advised that they should be open to taking up traineeships and internships to gain work experience during this economic downturn. This way, they would maintain a competitive edge in the job market.


SMS Koh. Photo courtesy of MTI

Life after COVID-19: Adjusting to a “New Normal”


Many participants expressed their concerns and curiosity over the shifting dynamics between physical interactions and working digitally from home in the post-COVID-19 era.


Minister Iswaran said that we should aim for a new equilibrium between physical and digital workspaces. This includes encouraging workers to increase productivity by working digitally, yet, retain the advantages of physical, face-to-face interactions.


While the ability to harness digital solutions creates productivity, the human touch remains indispensable in certain contexts, he emphasised.


SMS Koh added that it is necessary to establish a routine to determine when one can work from home and when one is required to work in the office, even though the protocol for working from home would vary across sectors.


Regarding a participant’s query on how the rise of telecommuting and work-from-home arrangements may affect the use of office and commercial buildings, Minister Iswaran replied that he anticipated possible adjustments to the commercial space sector. 


This includes the repurposing of workspaces and accommodating the growing need for more digital support facilities. 


The dialogue was part of a series that REACH is organising between 15 and 30 June 2020, following the delivery of the National Broadcasts. These dialogues will discuss key national issues relating to COVID-19.


Collage of Minister Iswaran, SMS Koh and participants. Photo courtesy of MCI REACH

Zhou Xizhuang Michael was the moderator for the Reach Dialogue on Covid-19: Digitalisation and Jobs.

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