Implications for labour markets, workforces, jobs and skills

The results of our survey confirm that few jobs in Singapore’s labour market will be untouched by the impact of 4IR. The impact of Al and automation is already being felt within a number of key industries in Singapore. In banking for instance, digitisation has had a dramatic impact on the sector, with chatbots, advanced online banking through apps, digital wallets and cashless e-payment systems reducing the need for traditional retail banking and the jobs that accompanied that business model. Artificial intelligence and data analytics are also impacting urban transport systems with bus companies drawing on commuter data to better manage bus fleets. At Singapore’s Changi Airport (one of the world’s busiest), new automation technologies mean that passengers are able to proceed from check-in to boarding without interacting with another person. Outside the airport, robotic parking police direct traffic and photograph errant drivers’ vehicles. As a result of global competitive pressures, the large number of multinational corporations resident in Singapore, and with government encouragement, it seems very likely that that the reach of 4IR will only accelerate and transform its labour market and workforce.

One likely outcome of this transformation is the contraction of the foreign workforce (particularly in manufacturing) although construction might continue its traditional high dependency on foreign workers. Some of the trends that have been forecasted elsewhere (for example, McKinsey Global Institute, 2017) are likely to be observed in Singapore. For instance, in some cases occupations might be rendered obsolete, but what is perhaps more likely is that the 4IR will displace tasks rather than whole occupations.The results of our survey also indicate that the wave of technological change will effectively erode some jobs and professions while reinforcing others. For instance, our survey suggests that the accounting profession will be radically transformed with lower level accounting jobs destroyed, while IT is likely to be strengthened with more jobs created. In this way we see Schumpeters (1942) cycles of creative destruction unleashed at the micro, messo and macro levels within Singapore’s labour market but within shorter timeframes.

Implications for governments, labour market planners and human resource professionals

Leading a modern, agile and open economy that rides on the fluctuating winds of globalisation, the authorities in Singapore have long recognised the significance of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. They have sought to both embrace its opportunities while also inoculating the workforce from its deleterious side effects. A key pillar of the latter has been the concentrated policy focus on skills. The government’s ‘Skills Future’ program is a significant multi-billion dollar commitment designed to upgrade the skills of the workforce and thereby hopefully preparing Singaporeans for the transformation of industry, jobs and tasks. Underpinning this initiative is an acknowledgement that automation and artificial intelligence are likely to displace certain tasks, and in some cases whole occupations.

As we have documented elsewhere (Bali et al., 2018), Singapore’s productivity has lagged behind that of other developed countries over the last few decades. Automation of production processes and service delivery has therefore been encouraged by the state by increasing the costs and constricting the supply of semi-skilled foreign labour, while also providing financial and tax incentives for firms to acquire automation technologies. These strategies have proved to be partially successful but overcoming the historic and long-term dependency on foreign labour will take many years. It is likely that greater adoption of 4IR technologies will help to expedite this process and may eventually reduce the need for such a large contingent foreign labour force, which in turn would help to raise productivity and reduce urban congestion.

The prospect of a rising tide of automation represents a particular challenge in the Singapore context where there are no unemployment benefits or State provided pensions. It is typical for Singaporean men, for example, to become taxi drivers after being made redundant from a manufacturing job. Similarly, elderly Singaporeans frequently hold jobs in fast food outlets or as cleaners, gardeners or similar due to the absence of public pensions. Singaporean policy makers may no longer be able to depend upon these low or semi-skilled jobs to buttress the absence of transfer payments. Autonomous vehicles will eventually reduce the need for human drivers while greater use of automated ordering and production techniques in fast food outlets will mean fewer job opportunities for elderly Singaporeans.To address these challenges, there will need to be a renewed policy focus on task and occupational change as a result of automation. Policy-makers will need to straddle the need for Singapore to continue to be perceived as ‘business friendly’ while also protecting the economic interests of its citizens and especially those whose jobs are more likely to be displaced by 4IR technologies. Ideally, new employment rules will need to be commissioned which require employers to consult extensively with the tripartite partners over the introduction of such technological change and help to identify redeployment and retraining options. Beyond such measures, we would anticipate policy debate on the merits of some level of transfer payment to displaced workers or perhaps even consideration of a guaranteed minimum income scheme, though in the present political milieu that seems unlikely.

Singapore’s strong emphasis on tripartism in employment relations is also likely to be an asset as it seeks to cope with the pressing challenges unleashed by 4IR. The trade union movement, which is closely aligned to the government, is unlikely to resist the introduction of new technologies, but rather can be expected to pursue negotiated change, retraining and redeployment options with businesses. For human resource professionals, the 4IR highlights the centrality of their role in business restructuring, change management and workforce planning. Further, the impact of 4IR technology on tasks and functions will draw attention to the methodology of job re-design and place a renewed onus on such professionals to (re)create meaningful jobs. To some extent, this is familiar territory, but these roles are likely to be given added piquancy as a result of the impact of these new technologies.

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