Adaptability key for young Singaporeans: Chan Chun Sing

Adaptability key for young Singaporeans: Chan Chun Sing
Mr Chan Chun Sing speaking with NTU students yesterday after the Ministerial Forum, which was attended by about 400 undergraduates. Photo: Jason Quah
Published: 4:00 AM, April 6, 2017
Updated: 1:26 PM, April 6, 2017

SINGAPORE — When asked by labour chief Chan Chun Sing how they would pitch the Republic to potential investors, a vast majority of students at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) students’ union ministerial forum yesterday cited “safety” and “security” as the country’s selling points.

The response, however, revealed a mindset that was “way too conservative”, he told the undergraduates.

“If you are trying to convince people to come because of stability ... (Singapore has) essentially become a bond market,” said Mr Chan, who is also a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, at the dialogue with 400 undergraduates.

Citing the “winning combination” of an innovative business model, adept use of technology, and skilled talent, he challenged the students: “Isn’t it true ... that if you want to sell an idea to somebody to attract investments here, you have to convince me that you have one or more of (these factors), over and above stability and security?”

The ability to anticipate and adapt to changes around the world is key for the next generation, said Mr Chan.

At the annual forum, which had the theme of Advancing Our Competitiveness in the New Economy, Mr Chan painted the picture of a fast-changing future economy which will require young Singaporeans to be highly adaptive and have a healthy appetite for risk-taking. He posed several questions to the audience, whose responses were compiled into word clouds. The discussion was anchored on the most prevalent words or phrases that came up for each question.

Mr Chan noted that fluctuations in the economy can present “tremendous opportunities” for those who wield them to their advantage. “But if you are on the wrong side of the value chain, you might end up in the minus 2 (per cent), and that is scary,” he said.

Even technology is but a neutral tool that users must learn to master.

“Whoever can use technology to complement them better and evolve their business model wins. The same technology, if not well applied, will cause us to be fearful of our jobs, because indeed, someone might steal our lunch over the Internet,” Mr Chan said.

“Adaptability” was the response that stood out to his question on the “most important skill set for tomorrow” that students hope to graduate with. Agreeing, Mr Chan pointed out that while it takes an average of two years for new skills to be identified and passed on to the students, new technologies and product cycles today can be turned around overnight.

“Many of the things that we learn may belong to the history books quite soon if we are not careful,” he said.

Citing the Israeli Defence Forces’ approach of training versatile combat soldiers to deal with a wide variety of scenarios — with different missions, various enemies, across varied terrains — Mr Chan stressed the importance of continually evolving and not being stuck in tried-and-tested methods of approaching problems.

He then posed a question to the university’s faculty, which sparked laughter from the audience: “Would you dare to set an exam where you don’t have the answer? You should be, because if you only dare to set an exam with a known answer, then that must be a history test. But in the world today, there are many situations where we do not necessarily know the answer, and we have to evolve those answers along the way.”

Mr Chan added: “If we get the questions right, we will find the answers. If we only get the answers right but the question is wrong ... We are completely irrelevant.”

While students here start from a “much higher education base” than others in the region, Mr Chan cautioned that they must not rest on their laurels. “Because someone who is hungrier, someone who can adapt faster, will overtake us,” he said.

Singaporeans must guard against complacency, which poses the greatest threat to competitiveness in the new economy, he said. Urging the students to uphold a “sense of ownership”, Mr Chan said: “So long as we stay hungry, not complacent, always watching out for the next competitor who might take our lunch away ... I have no fear for your generation.”