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SkillsFuture Level-Up programme shows Singapore at its lifelong-learning best

Government deserves praise for encouraging oldies like me to stay relevant, as a frustrated workforce with no job future is troubling

Singapore is introducing a new SkillsFuture Level-Up programme, offering a S$4,000 credit top-up for Singaporeans to upgrade their skills.
Singapore is introducing a new SkillsFuture Level-Up programme, offering a S$4,000 credit top-up for Singaporeans to upgrade their skills. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

MY DAUGHTER used to call out to me to change her diaper. Now I call out to her to change my laptop software. This transformation took just over a decade. And while our roles have reversed, the process is much the same, one that begins with love and patience and ends with someone shouting, “For God’s sake, how much longer do I need to keep doing this?”

The diaper changing lasted two years or so. The software updates will presumably endure until this avowed Luddite shuffles off this mortal coil, chanting, “analog forever, digital never”. I’ve always been a tech traditionalist, but there’s an abrupt line between relevance and irrelevance, particularly in the media industry.

Believe me, I know. One minute, you’re a hip, young satirist and novelist, chronicling the quirks and foibles of Singapore life. The next, an intern is giving you a sorrowful smile, the kind a care nurse gives to an elderly patient, as you ask again how to use Google Sheets.

An exaggeration? This happened to me last week.

The journey towards workplace obsolescence used to be a marathon, now it’s a sprint. Beginning a career as a rookie journalist in the previous century, a skills upgrade required a quick chat with the chief sub-editor about an upcoming page design tweak. Today, a skills upgrade feels outdated the moment it gets logged into an ageing brain.

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on my inglorious career as the anti-Bill Gates. In 1996, a bank of computers at the University of Manchester library were installed with a rudimentary email system. On receiving my first email, from a friend two computer terminals away, I reflected, “what a waste of time. Why would we ever need emails?”

Luckily, I ventured into a couple of forward-thinking industries: print media and print publishing. I tried to invest my time and energy in a third – the blacksmith trade – but the Flintstones beat me to it.

Job complacency a silent killer

So I admire the recent announcement that Singapore will introduce a new SkillsFuture Level-Up programme, offering a S$4,000 credit top-up for all Singaporeans aged 40 and above to improve their skillsets in areas with better employability outcomes, despite the grating LinkedIn language of “better employability outcomes”.

(The real mid-career job crisis will come when AI creates a programme that writes inspirational LinkedIn posts that turn everyday encounters into humble-brag job applications. Then, hopefully, people will have to speak and write normally again.)

But the SkillsFuture Level-Up programme is genuinely impressive, not because I’m doffing a cap to the powers that be, but because I’ve witnessed the alternative first hand. Job complacency - and then job insecurity - is a silent killer in any developed country. In England, where I grew up, blue-collar jobs for life became blue-collar jobs for the time-being, if at all. Certainty gave away to fear and then anger. Were these jobs disappearing or being taken by others? Culprits and scapegoats were soon targeted. If only there was a box that could be ticked to wash away all that industry disruption. If only there was a way to make England great again.

You know the rest. The same twisted narrative will play out in the campaign for the American Presidency in the coming months.

Yes, it’s an oversimplification, but Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong was right to focus on the global turbulence, the geopolitical uncertainty and the inexorable rise of AI in his Budget speech. It’s not even the process of disruption that’s alarming anymore. It’s the speed. Mid-career retrenchments rose in 2023 as companies right-sized their operations. (The term “right-sized” is doing a lot of work here. It’s like saying Hannibal Lecter right-sized his number of dinner guests by eating them.)

The SkillsFutures programme may well encourage cynics to pull out the Huxleyan stereotype of a productivity-obsessed nation working its utilitarian automatons to the bone, but have you seen what frustrated citizens do when they feel sidelined, outsourced or left behind? I have. It doesn’t end well for larger nations, let alone little red dots on a fragile canvas.

But it’s the underlying emphasis on lifelong learning that really appeals, particularly for a working-class kid who grew up on an East London housing estate, surrounded by Cockney locals saying things like, “I’ve never read a book in my life, mate, and look at me!”

Yeah, mate, you’re a pillock.

Don't entirely downplay value of human experience

The strain of anti-intellectualism that has threaded its way through British and American societies, to use the most obvious examples, has long stymied social mobility and has often kept the blue-collar classes “in their place” – unintentionally or otherwise, you decide – but it’s been a source of irritation for decades.

And here we have the Singapore government paying its citizens to intellectualise – at least in the workplace - to acquire new capabilities to stay relevant, to keep up with the teens throwing up tech start-ups in their school lunch breaks. (I may be guilty of exaggeration here, but my daughter is currently finishing songs she’s written, performed and produced on her laptop. I can’t remove the iTunes songs on my laptop.)

But the real trick will be not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In Singapore’s admirable eagerness to upgrade in all areas of the modern workplace, we must be careful not to dismiss anyone over 25 as a doddery, dribbling old fool unable to put one foot in front of the other (ironically, that was me under the age of 25, before I stopped drinking.) To use a facile and self-indulgent example, I co-present a football podcast. I don’t know the tech wizardry involved to put the show out on different platforms. I do know what to say when the mic goes live. The 25 minutes on air comes from 25 years in the media.

That’s not an “aw shucks” piteous plea for sympathy, but a request not to entirely succumb to the wet dreams of digital tech and AI and downplay the value of human experience. The SkillsFutures programme can add to that human experience, but it can’t replace it. Getting the right balance between the two will be the real breakthrough.

Still, the initiative showcases the best of Singapore’s lifelong-learning ambitions. It’s certainly inspired me to refresh my laptop skillset. So when you get a minute, DPM Wong, just pass the S$4,000 along to my daughter.

The SkillsFutures programme may well encourage cynics to pull out the Huxleyan stereotype of a productivity-obsessed nation working its utilitarian automatons to the bone, but have you seen what frustrated citizens do when they feel sidelined, outsourced or left behind?

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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