TL;DR – We really need to up our game.
Think about China. What are the immediate thoughts that come to mind? Cheap knock-offs of low quality? Lots of people packed in factories labouring away? That’s what will come to the minds of Singaporeans. But that is only partially true.
Yes, China still produces a lot of cheap knock-offs of low quality. Yes, there are still factories where armies of people work in sweatshop-like conditions. But China is transforming at a frighteningly fast pace. Parts of China are at the forefront of Industry 4.0.
Industry 4.0 is the latest movement in the manufacturing industry. It refers to the shift from simple automated manufacturing to Artificial Intelligence (AI)-run automation, creating a “smart factory”.
Also known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this movement relies mainly on four pillars: Cloud computing, the Internet of Things (IoT), big data analytics and machine learning systems (mechanisms controlled by digital algorithms).
In short, it is essentially the Internet of Things amplified to an Industrial scale, used to boost manufacturing efficiency, productivity and return on investment.
Not too long ago, PM Lee shared a Facebook post where he spoke with a group of Singaporean union leaders who went on a learning journey to one such smart factory in Chengdu. You can watch the full video here.
The union leaders went to Chengdu because they were worried. With an ageing and shrinking Singaporean population and reduction in intake of foreign workers, the future of manufacturing in Singapore would be bleak unless we transform drastically.
But how to transform? What sort of skills do workers need for this transformation to take place? That was what they wanted to find out on their learning journey.
To find out more, we spoke to two union leaders, Mr Toh Hock Poh and Mr Arasu Duraisamy.
China may overtake us
After seeing the smart factory in Chengdu, Mr Toh got rather worried. He thinks that the factories in Singapore lag behind what he saw in Chengdu. He thinks that the factories in Singapore have stagnated, still operating in pretty much the same way as they have for years.
What’s worse, our workforce is fast losing its competitiveness. We are more expensive. We used to be able to justify the higher labour costs by saying that our workforce is better trained and higher skilled. That is no longer the case. Mr Toh commented that if our workers aren’t as highly skilled, and are more expensive, then there’s no reason why companies would want to invest in setting up factories in Singapore.
And that is something that Mr Toh is very concerned with. Because if companies don’t invest in setting up factories in Singapore, then there won’t be jobs for Singaporean workers.
So what can be done?
That is the key factor that Mr Arasu highlighted. He felt that if an individual feels that his job is at stake, it is his responsibility to ensure that he picks up the skills to ensure that he’s still relevant to the labour market.
But, what skills should the worker pick up?
Mr Arasu said that that’s where unions can come in. They can work with the companies to identify the skills that would be relevant for the companies. From that, work out how best to send the workers for the appropriate training to prepare them for tomorrow’s jobs.
Beyond training, Mr Toh highlighted that companies have a responsibility to change their processes. He said that if the companies in Singapore have CEOs who just want to play safe and have no desire to innovate, then “We’re all going to be dead”.
Is that something we can control?
Perhaps, perhaps not.
There are various government agencies that can encourage the companies to innovate and adopt more productive and advance manufacturing methods. Union leaders, in fact, the entire Labour Movement can and should also play their part. They can encourage and urge the companies to tap on the various government grants to innovate and improve their productivity, and the Labour MPs should also use their voices in Parliament to speak up for the workers.
We need to do this
If we don’t, we will lose our competitiveness. The economy will shrink. Jobs will be gone. If we think that we can continue doing things the way we have done, Singapore won’t survive for long, let alone thrive and prosper. Let’s hope it won’t come to that.