Thursday, 25 July 2019

Future Economy - how to prepare for it?

[15 Feb 2017]

The Committee on the Future Economy released it's report. And the opposition parties immediately savaged it.

I don't blame them. The report was disappointing. Uninspiring. Insipid. Unreadable. And... what did SDP's Chee say?
“Long on rhetoric but woefully lacking in bold and aggressive measures to tackle the serious problems that confront Singapore”.
"Long on rhetoric" - that was what I was thinking too. About Chee's critique.

To be fair, I agree that the recommendations are disappointing. However, what is Chee suggesting or proposing "to tackle the problems that confront Singapore? This:
"He also said the political scene and mass media have to be freed up as the present situation stifles debate, creativity and the development of questioning minds."
And that is what I mean by "long on rhetoric" -- the usual cliched political "talking points" that comes from the opposition, with barely any attempt to hide their political agenda.
"Questioning minds"? We have that. That's why we are asking questions, like what is the future economy going to be like? How do we prepare for it? The CFE report doesn't answer that (IMHO). So what is Chee's proposal?
"There must also be a comprehensive reform of the exam-oriented education system to prepare students for a future where critical thinking and a creative attitude are needed, he added."

Every parent of school-going kids are saying exactly that. We need a leader, and Chee is ready to present himself as... someone who can say exactly what everyone is also saying. Brilliant. That's not a leader. That's a populist demagogue. Like a Trump.

I don't think the CFE report is going to make a difference. Not in the current form. Not without practical and concrete implementable ideas and strategies (what Chee calls "long on rhetoric"). What were the "strategies"?
"The need to deepen and diversify international connections; acquire and utilise deep skills; strengthen enterprise capabilities to innovate and scale up; build strong digital capabilities; develop a vibrant and connected city of opportunity; develop and implement Industry Transformation Maps; and partner each other to enable growth and innovation."

Great! The question is "how?" Not just "how are we going to do all that", because we are already in the process of doing many of that, but "how will all that make a significant difference?"

The danger is by speaking in such general "motherhoody" platitudes (or rhetoric), the CFE turns off Singaporeans who are looking for practical and pragmatic leadership, and they turn to populists and demagogues (like Chee) to get simple answers.

The simple answer is, there are no simple answers. There is no "silver bullet". There is no #MakeSingaporeGreatAgain, or Build That Wall, or Singaporeans First, or any other simplistic sloganeering.

A "rebuttal" of sorts was published subsequently. One explanation for the lack of concrete plans was this:

Several observers have pointed out the lack of meticulous details in the CFE’s report, unlike its predecessors’ work. But several experts felt that this was a sign of the times: It is no longer possible to prescribe a series of actions to boost the economy over the longer term, given how quickly the world changes. To do so would be akin to picking out winners and staking the country’s future on them. However, this is increasingly tricky to do in the current global climate and at this stage of Singapore’s economic development. “Over time, the Government has become more aware of the difficulty of choosing winners... The government is shifting emphasis to being an enabler,” 
Which is all right and true. But how is the CFE report enabling? How is the govt to enable Singaporeans to be winners or choose winners? The other "rebuttal" has this:
Singaporeans [need] to shake off their propensity to leave things to the Government.
Which is again true, or if not true, good to do. But how? The problem is that the starting point is already wrong.

As noted by the second "rebuttal",
Such exercises in strategy-making [the CFE] are based on three main assumptions: The primacy of the Government in charting Singapore’s future directions (albeit with broad consultation with different stakeholders)...
The CFE report is disappointing because the questions parents are asking are, how do we prepare our children for the economy of the future? What skills, knowledge, and attitudes will put our children in good standing for the future? Should they get as much formal academic qualification, or should they pursue vocational skills and trades? Should they pursue specialised skills (and what specialised skills) or should they pursue generalist skills and be prepared to be flexible? How do we prepare our children to be flexible? What do we mean by "flexible"? What about the "gig economy"? Or the "sharing economy?" How do we leverage on those? Are those opportunities or pitfalls?

These are the question they have to ask because these are questions from the perspective of Singaporeans. If you want Singaporeans to THINK for themselves, then the years and years when you have thought for them have not prepared them to "shake off their propensity to leave things to the government."

Thus the basic assumption of "the primacy of the government in charting Singapore's future direction" is the wrong assumption the wrong premise.

The right questions to ask, since it is clear that it is no longer possible to prescribe specific actions given how quickly the world changes, should be from the perspective of the individuals, the ordinary Singaporeans.

Here's a practical rebuttal of the Skills Framework which is based on the Industry Transformation Maps of 2016:
"we cannot possibly teach children, and adults for that matter, skills for the 21st century when we don’t and can’t know what skills will be required. This is a world in which the “dream job” has not even been dreamt up yet."
If the CFE had concluded that they cannot recommend a silver bullet, then they have to empower all Singaporeans to be "bullets". Or at least find their way to be "bullets".

If the conclusion is that there is no "silver bullet", then even the Industry Transformation Maps are suspect. How can you have a transformation map if the nature of the transformation is, as they admit, unclear? That is either presumptuous, or inconsistent with their hypothesis.

The truth is probably a little of both.

[This was first drafted two years ago, and updated with a recent story from Mar 2019.]

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