"I believe in the notion of a trampoline." That metaphor was all it took for Singapore’s deputy prime minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam to encapsulate Singapore’s approach toward fostering socio-economic resilience in her population. The robust exchange with BBC’s Stephen Sackur happened at last year’s St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland, which theme was fittingly dubbed "Proudly Small", as if conference organisers were tipping their hat toward how big of an influence this Little Red Dot has become.
On 24 March, minister for finance Heng Swee Keat will present Singapore’s first post-SG50 Budget. This would be his first as well since taking on the heavy-weight portfolio. Off the heels of the country’s jubilee celebrations, this year’s Budget is widely anticipated to be more prudent, while keeping Singapore on-course in its transition to becoming a smart economy.
Beyond the technology investments, a smart economy must enable Singaporean firms to be nimble enough to catch momentums and advances from beyond our shores. This ought to be driven by smarter citizens at all levels – from captains of industry to front-line staff – who exude skill sets that command exceptionalism in the global marketplace.
Productivity that keeps pace with industry developments
A smart economy must be a productive one. And from a productivity standpoint, Singapore’s performance seems bleak at best. Six years ago, a target of 2 to 3 percent in annual productivity growth was set by the government for Singapore over the next ten years.
Six years on and we have yet to see improvements. Productivity gains were a mere 0.1 percent from 2011 to the second quarter of 2014. That in spite of the fact that as of end-August 2014, over $1.8 billion had been granted to businesses in tax savings and cash payouts through the Productivity and Innovation Credit in Budget 2010.
Experts say that beyond the financial incentives, Singapore's national manpower strategy must stem from a mindset change, geared toward the pursuit of future-oriented skillsets and know-hows that cannot also be estranged from being smart and selective about keeping pace with broader industry developments.
For example, there has been much buzz about the popularity of computational thinking and coding lessons at primary and secondary school levels. While coding is expected to be sine qua non for aspiring "Zuckerbergs", I believe that software development and programming must first become intuitive in order to become mainstream. And the science of coding is simply anything but intuitive.
One should remember how websites were once built by savvy specialists using lines of code. Then software makers produced tools that enabled more people, beyond the specialist pool, to create websites via intuitive ways as how one would use spreadsheet applications. Today, almost anyone can build a website with simple 'drag-and-drop' features on one’s browser, without the need to even install web-development software!
Which begs the question: will intuitive technology eventually democratise specialist skillsets like coding so that everyone can become active participants in Singapore's smart economy without needing to acquire these skills?
Being smarter in acquiring tools and skillsets
The data analytics space evokes a similar tale. LinkedIn listed Statistical Analysis and Data Mining as the number two skill in their list of the "25 Professional Skills that will be Hot in 2016." Does this mean that more people from all walks of life will need to become data scientists so as to be able to fill this skills gap?
Well, busy executives outside the IT or Business Intelligence (BI) department would be pleased to hear that technology analysts say that this isn’t necessary. According to "Agility is key in the Year of the Monkey", a commentary which discusses the necessity for nimbler enterprises in Singapore, "Gartner publishes a Magic Quadrant, an annual report on the state of play in the data analytics market. This year’s Magic Quadrant found that purchasing decisions are increasingly being made by line-of-business executives and users who want more flexibility, as opposed to IT departments."
Consistent with this development, winning data analytics tools are forecast to be geared toward more self-service applications. Gartner refers to this development as "the modern analytics era", where centralised provisioning and tightly governed platforms are becoming a thing of the past, and are being counterbalanced and replaced by tools that promote business user autonomy.
In this era, the data analytics firms that thrive are software makers that take the Big out of Big Data, employ intuitive, drag-and-drop interfaces, and enable mainstream users to quickly see and understand data by themselves.
While government's support for upskilling and raising productivity of local businesses is expected to continue, I believe that 2016’s Budget must reinforce the right mindset of what Mr Heng’s predecessor describes as "active government (intervention) to support social mobility, without undermining personal and family responsibility."
In other words, instead of a Budget that encourages one to pursue skillsets and investments deemed as flavors-of-the-month, one should expect a "Bounce-Back Budget" for Singaporeans and firms here to first help themselves in all seasons.
And on the theme of upskilling Singapore's workforce, current and future, to train them for a smarter age, governments, employers, and parents ought to keep pace with broader industry developments so that they do not eagerly steer budding and talented trainees down the garden path.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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JY is Senior Vice President of Asia Pacific, Tableau Software. He has close to 25 years of IT leadership experience. JY has a bachelor's degree in Science from the National University of Singapore and post graduate degrees in Marketing and Finance from Singapore Institute of Management.