HERE’S A SENTENCE that risks boring you to tears if only because you’ve read it so often: Technological advancement is taking place so rapidly that entire industries, not just jobs, are going under.
But before you roll your eyes and yawn, understand this: Unless you’re the guy sitting at the top of the system that makes the rules – and I mean at the very top – your posterior is going to be the one closest to that boot marked ‘RETRENCHMENT’.
Focus for a minute: Uber is going with driverless taxis, Deliveroo is looking to using drones to make its food deliveries, and MacDonald’s is experimenting with automation to let customers create their own burgers. Property agents, stock brokers, receptionists, cashiers and sales assistants are becoming surplus to requirements as buyers and sellers directly transact their business through the Internet.
Even higher-end professionals like accountants, lawyers and medical professionals are not in the safe zone: Sophisticated tax software will eliminate the need for accountants, court cases can be fought with the employment of artificial intelligence in place of attorneys, and surgeons replaced with robots which can carry out intricate operations at lower costs.
The discussion is not whether workers are replaceable but how rapidly the process is taking place. In 1998, the Kodak Co. employed nearly 150,000 workers. Today, Facebook, managing how we share photographs through Instagram, has only 10,000 employees – about 7% of what Kodak used to employ. In the 1970s, the American communications giant AT&T had 750,000 employees under its belt. Today, Google dwarfs it in market value but hires only 55,000 people.
The way things are trending, huge swathes of the population are going to be rendered workless resulting in an increasingly jobless economy. When that time comes (and it’ll be sooner than you think), the idea of a Universal Basic Income would have to be contemplated. But that is a discussion for another occasion. (In the meantime, read Alex Au’s discussion on this topic here.)
Not only is the world changing, the pace is also quickening. Today’s Google, it’s executives fret, could become tomorrow’s ‘there once was this giant corporation’ story if the company does not constantly innovate.
Progress is driven by the obsession to develop new technology – an obsession embedded in the cultures of advanced economies where freedom of thought fuels debate and creative destruction.
Think about it. Now think about Singapore.
We are neither productive nor innovative; we make nothing that the world wants to buy. Yes, we’re tops when it comes to using technology but that’s not what is going to make us competitive. The fact that we – to adopt the commonly used slang – suck at inventing new technology is what is going to be our undoing.
We’re falling behind and, with each passing year, going to fall even further behind if nothing changes.
What can we do? More immediately, what should we not continue to do? For one thing, let’s stop cobbling together committees made up of establishment folks, conducting discussions in PAP echo-chambers and writing fanciful reports that say much but achieve little.
It was the Economic Review Committee in 2003, the Economic Strategies Committee in 2010 and the Committee for Future Economy in 2017. Each one liberally employed buzzwords like ‘innovation’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘knowledge economy’ as if merely repeating them will magically transform our economy.
The groupthink meant that what’s really needed to cultivate an innovative culture – one, dumping the state-dominated economic model, two, reforming the media, and, three, revamping the painfully out-dated education system – were not examined.
Whistling past the graveyard
On the first point: In an economy whose domestic sector is overwhelmed by Government-linked companies (GLCs), how are entrepreneurs going to emerge?
The sector comprises several hundred conglomerates and their subsidiaries and employs tens of thousands of workers. But surveys tell us that GLC executives do not possess the requisite leadership skills especially when it comes to taking risks and motivating workers. Is it any wonder then that our labour productivity grows sideways?
To top it off, the overall performance of the sector is largely inscrutable, that is, until they go bust (Neptune Orient Lines) or come close to it (Keppel Corp and SembMarine).
The argument that GLCs are a viable and necessary part of the corporate landscape is borne more out of the PAP’s autistic pronouncements than hard evidence. The case for Temsek Holdings to divest its portfolio has never been more pressing.
Yet, the government’s strategy seems to be one of whistling past the graveyard.
A secret formula?
The mass media is another area in need of a desperate makeover. The PAP is, however, betting the farm that it can transform Singapore into a society on the cutting edge of research and innovation while clinging onto 1960s standards of state censorship and citizen intimidation.
Maybe it knows the secret formula to squaring this circle. But with ministers telling us that flooding on our roads is a once-in-50-years phenomenon, we shouldn’t hold our breaths.
If we are going to nourish creativity, we must upgrade minds. If we are going to upgrade minds, we must discard state control of the media. We must encourage open exchange of ideas, intelligent debate, free expression and questioning minds.
How long more are we going to delude ourselves and deny the fact that the most innovative societies are also the most open and democratic ones?
(The third area that needs reform is our education system which I discuss here and will not repeat in this essay.)
There is a steep price to pay if these reforms are not undertaken soon. Even if a political epiphany miraculously descends upon the PAP today and its leaders awake to implement the much-needed changes, it would take another generation for results to actualise.
Yet, where there should be urgency, only calm pervades. It is, tragically, the calm of a sedated populace, and it is in this state that we will walk over the cliff with the PAP.