Friday 22 April 2016

What SkillsFuture is about

By Ong Ye Kung, Published The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2016

We know that it is not easy to understand what SkillsFuture is about.

We are used to names of funding schemes and organisations. So we have many people equating SkillsFuture with SkillsFuture Credit, the $500 granted to every Singaporean above 25 years old. But the Credit is only a small, though important, part of SkillsFuture.

In time to come, when we restructure WDA (Singapore Workforce Development Agency) into two statutory boards - SkillsFuture Singapore and Workforce Singapore - I am sure people will think SkillsFuture is the name of a government agency. But it is not.

What is SkillsFuture? Not a funding scheme, a training programme, or organisation. All of the above and none of the above.

I'd like to think of it as a national movement. SkillsFuture is everything we do to create a future that is different and better than today, in the way we look at work and careers, and the way we develop ourselves and our next generation.

SkillsFuture is three big ideas.


The first idea is mastery. It is a future where the focus is not on paper qualifications, but on the skills and destiny we create with these skills.

Paper qualifications will still serve an important purpose. Ask any worker and he will tell you how important it is to have some paper qualifications to show when looking for a job.

Paper qualifications are akin to currency - they hold value and can facilitate functioning of the market; they make exchange of distilled information more efficient.

But just as we do not, and should not, live for cash, qualifications are not the be all and end all. They are the means to an end - the end being to achieve mastery - to be really good at what we are doing. To attain a level of expertise so deep that we can innovate, venture into new territory, dream and invent.

William Hewlett and David Packard, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg - they were all tinkerers at the top of their game before they became inventors. Lionel Messi and Ronaldo were very skilful with the ball before they become creative players. Mastery begets creativity and invention.

So what needs to change is the kind of paper qualifications we want to have. Paper qualifications need to be more diverse and varied, and reflect not just academic qualifications but also qualifications for skills and other aptitudes.

The focus should also not just be on academic qualifications given at major milestones such as diplomas, bachelor's degrees, master's degrees or PhDs, but recognising what we learn throughout our whole life. Credentials can come in many forms - statements of attainment, credits, badges, advanced certificates.

Whatever we do, we need to focus on it, and continuously practise and upgrade, share our knowledge and learn from fellow practitioners. That is the most powerful function of the craft guilds in Europe. SkillsFuture challenges us to create a future where our people collectively do this and help Singapore stand out in terms of quality and competitiveness.


The second big idea is meritocracy. If people are collectively pursuing and achieving mastery across various fields, surely our notion of success must also change in the future.

While in Switzerland and Germany recently, I saw how society respected not just those with academic achievements or who are managers and CEOs, but also artisans and craftsmen.

When our nation was young and our path straight and narrow, success and merit was seen as a pyramid - the cleverest and most able could climb to the apex, and be recognised for it.

As our nation becomes more established, the economy becomes more diversified, and we see many people flourishing in different fields. There are many paths, each ascending to a different, equally beautiful peak - a mountain range of successes. But that may not be fully descriptive of the future we envision, or even the present that is unfolding.

We assume people want to climb mountains. A friend who trekked in Nepal recently told me this story. He remarked to his Sherpa guide that Nepal is such a mountainous country that Nepalese must be a mountain people. The Sherpa replied: "You are mistaken, we are valley people." Indeed, Nepalese do not live in the mountains. The air there is thin and altitude sickness can kill you.

We each have different destinations - the village, the city, the seaside, the oasis, the valley, the riverbank. It is a function of our gifts, our dreams, our resources. And we all find different paths to get there. That will be the evolution of meritocracy - inclusive, embracing, and celebrating the diversity of all our achievements.


Finally, SkillsFuture is about you.

As a macro strategy, it is still important to know what path our country will take and what sectors we are growing. This is the top down element - how we read the global environment, identify opportunities and seize them. It is a nation's enterprise.

But there will also be many micro, individual decisions in society - students choosing what course to study, what careers or interests to pursue, who inspires them, what fields they want to attain mastery in. The top down macro-economic strategy and national imperatives may or may not be relevant to them.

SkillsFuture is a very personal enterprise. As Singapore flourishes and comes of age, as we become more mature, people feel free to pursue their interests, aspirations and passions.

It is a good thing that we can pursue our interests and follow our passions. If we discover our passions, we will have curiosity. If we have curiosity, we have the motivation to learn our whole life and achieve mastery.

And if a young person has yet to discover their specific area of interest or aspirations, the education system should give them more time for self-discovery.

Mastery, meritocracy and you - that is what SkillsFuture is about. The last, to me, is the most important.

Pursuing excellence is hard. Bone-deep difficult. Boredom, fatigue, self-doubt are constant bedfellows.

That is when we have to remind ourselves honestly, why we are doing this. It cannot be because my parents or Government tells me so. It must be because it is my choice, and deep down, this mastery is part of who I really am.

The writer is Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills).

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