May 26, 2017

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Authors Posts by Suhaile Md

Suhaile Md

Suhaile Md
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You can reach me at suhaile@themiddleground.sg

by Suhaile Md

DIGITAL jobs like software, web, and multimedia developers are the third most in-demand jobs according to a report released by the Manpower Ministry on Tuesday (Feb 7). Clearly, technical skills like coding and data analysis will put candidates in a good position for these jobs.

But it would be a mistake to think coding is all that matters. Soft skills play an integral role in career progression as well.

The idea of the “lone wolf” who does not get along well with others, but writes brilliant code, is a thing of the past, said Mr Sheng Yunzhou, a software engineer.

“Like any other job, domain skills alone are not enough,” he said. Other skills like resilience, ability to learn, teamwork, and communication, are important, added Mr Sheng. The 29-year-old develops apps for private banking clients at a major international bank.

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Teamwork

In the past, coding used to be “product or project centric”. So when a project came along, various people were pulled together to work on it, only to be disbanded once completed. But now, it’s about “nurturing a strong team, keeping them together”, to work on successive projects said Mr Sheng.

A team “has to become an entity itself… so that it can move quickly” to solve problems.

Mr Sheng recalled the time his team had a developer whose coding was good but his inability to work with others created problems. For example, the team would have two weeks of the project planned out but the developer’s tendency to do things his own way would throw the plans off. Time, and hence money, was lost due to a lack of cooperation from the developer.

Learning how to work well with people is a skill that can be picked up.

For example, understanding what motivates others, or why they act a certain way, goes far in making one an effective team player. The Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS) course “Winning with difficult people” is a course you can take. Singaporeans can use their SkillsFuture credit to pay for the course. 

 

Communication

The “biggest problem” with many developers, Mr Sheng found, is their inability to “communicate ideas clearly” even to their fellow coders.

Bad communication can hamper the quality of work. After all, developers basically “teach computers to do things that people can use”. If developers do not learn how to listen, to talk to people to find out what problems users are facing, or to hold a conversation exploring different ideas, how can they create a product that people find useful?

Courses that teach skills like how to structure a conversation such that you draw out the relevant information, understand the various communication styles people have, and craft clear messages, are available. For example, the “interpersonal communication skills” course by the British Council.

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Resilience

Coding is hard, even for developers, said Mr Sheng. The field changes so fast, “it’s a must to keep on learning new things, all the time”. New jargon crop up every time there’s a development.

So anyone who wishes to progress in this field needs to “instil the habit of deliberate practise”.

It’s the “most valuable asset”.

Coders need to practise harder codes and different programming languages in their downtime, over the weekends and so on. Or other developers will take their place.

The challenge of continual learning and deliberate practise is that failing is part of the process, which can be “really daunting,” he added. Without resilience, effective learning in this field is difficult.

It’s a sentiment shared by Mr Tan Choon Ngee, CEO of aZaaS, a Singapore-based Information Technology firm with subsidiaries in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China.

“Positive nature and grit” is what Mr Tan looks out for in his new hires. Otherwise they would not be able to keep up with the industry as it “experiences high rates of change”, said the 42-year-old.

At the end of the day, as Mr Sheng said, while coding is a must-have primary skill in his field, without communication skills, team work, and resilience, your career would be stunted.

His advice, regardless of which industry you’re in: “Keep learning, don’t stop.”

 

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

 

Featured image by Pixabay user Tumisu. (CC0 1.0)

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by Suhaile Md

CONOR McGregor. Who’s that?

He’s a mixed martial arts (MMA) star and star swimmer Joseph Schooling’s idol.

Although practising kicks are about the only thing the sport has in common with swimming, it doesn’t stop Joseph Schooling from finding inspiration in McGregor, reported TODAY (Feb 7).

MMA is a growing in prominence globally but is not as well known as swimming in Singapore. Here are five things about 28-year-old MMA champ Conor McGregor and why, we think, he inspires our very own Olympic champion.

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1. Championship record

McGregor won the featherweight title in December 2015. Not content with just one, he went on to win another title in the lightweight class nearly a year later. This made him the first fighter in Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) history to simultaneously hold two titles from two different weight classes. Not an easy task because losing or adding weight affects a fighter’s balance and body awareness. And McGregor did it in the UFC, the most prominent competition in MMA.

Schooling won gold and broke the 100m butterfly record at the Olympics last year. After the win, like McGregor, he set his eyes beyond that one event. Schooling has said he wanted to compete in other races in the future: The 200m butterfly and 100m freestyle. We hope he dominates those events as well. Go Joe!

 

2. Champion mindset 

“I should create my own belt. I am, in myself, my own belt. It doesn’t matter if its featherweight, lightweight, welterweight. It’s the McGregor belt. That’s it, I’m fighting for my own belt,” said McGregor, at a press conference in the lead up to a fight last year (Feb 24) .

“I want to make a mark for myself, set my own tone, I don’t want to be compared to anyone,” said Schooling when asked about comparisons to swimming great Michael Phelps (Aug 16, 2016).

Yes, McGregor is known to be much more flamboyant and uses colourful words not fit for kids. Schooling is not like that, he has a reputation of being very polite. But the mindset, of being the best and in a class of their own, is something they both share.

 

3. Champion support

McGregor, on his girlfriend Dee (Nov 14): “She’d drive me to the gym, and she’d listen to all my dreams. Dee is a lifesaver for me. I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for her, and that’s for sure.”

McGregor’s story has his leading lady.

As for Schooling, sorry ladies, that spot is taken by Joe’s mum May Schooling. Although, rumour has it he was dating 22-year old Casey Shomaker, who is pursuing a doctorate in law at the University of Texas where Schooling studies.

“Without their help, their love, their contributions, I would not be where I am today. So mum and dad, thank you,” said Schooling yesterday, reported ST( Feb 7).

By the way ladies, mummy May is ever watchful, making sure her son is not put in a compromising position by random girls (read more about May Schooling here).

 

4. Champion focus

Fame in the fighting arena set McGregor up for an action movie appearance with Hollywood star Vin Diesel. But last year McGregor cancelled the seven-figure movie deal so as not to get distracted from training.

Likewise, Schooling is focused on the coming swimming season in the United States, where he is studying and training.

“I came back (from Singapore) in December and started working hard, watched what I ate, no more going out, time to focus on the championship season,” said Schooling, reported TODAY (Feb 7).

 

5. Champion… body?

McGregor did a shoot for the ESPN sports magazine last year. The magazine has an annual “body issue” where athletes strip to their birthday suits and readers can lust after appreciate the athletic build of leading sports figures.

No Schooling has not done a naked photoshoot… yet. But there is a photo book, “Hello, my name is Joseph Schooling”, published last year. It contains photographs by Alvin Toh, who had exclusive access to Schooling on many occasions. But there’s nothing risque.

And yes, it was a bit sneaky to put this part in. Just a bit. But come on, how many ladies (and guys too, admit it!) would love Joe to bare it all?

Let’s hope he gets all inspired…

 

 

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by Suhaile Md

WITH four promotions in five years and earning two and a half times her starting salary, you’d think Ms Gloria Loh started her career on a fast track graduate programme, like a management traineeship.

Not so. The 44-year-old Senior Supervisor joined Mothercare, a parenting products retailer, four months after finding herself unemployed when her small business shut down in 2011.

Ms Loh said she “had no knowledge of retail” when she started. The change was not easy at first.

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It’s all in the head

“I had IT phobia”, said Ms Loh.

“There are a lot of changes in IT” and very often at that, she said. Her previous job required little to no use of computers. So in the 20 years since she got her O-levels and Institute of Technical Education (ITE) certificates, she did not pick up any IT skills. As a result, she had “really lost confidence”.

Ms Loh knew she needed to get past it or she’d not find a stable job. So she approached the Community Development Council (CDC), which then signed her up for free basic computer training courses. Successfully completing the training was a key turning point for her. It was there that she “gained confidence”.

“I had IT phobia”

The experience of overcoming her fear and learning something new got her hooked. “I wanted to upgrade some more.” That was when she signed up for a certificate course in retail supervision at the Singapore Institute of Retail Studies (SIRS), with the aim to enter the retail industry.

Her commitment to learning grew strong. So much so that she “always requested” for two fixed off-days when she went for retail job interviews even though she had been jobless for months. In the retail business, there are no fixed off days and people work in rotating shifts – making it hard to attend classes.

 

The journey to skills upgrade

Ms Loh joined Mothercare as an entry level sales assistant in 2011 while she was still studying for her skills certificate course.

It took about “six to nine months” to complete the certificate and she promptly signed up for an advanced course which eventually led to her diploma in retail management in early 2013.

Throughout the nine-month course, Ms Loh attended classes from 9am to 6pm, twice a week. And she continued working full-time the remaining five days. Life was “just work and study” and taking care of her mum during that time.

When asked why she did not take a study break as it would have been easier, she laughed and said: “I cannot afford to have a study break. I have house loan to pay… I’m the sole breadwinner, I pau ka liao [do everything].”

“I cannot afford to have a study break. I have house loan to pay… I’m the sole breadwinner, I pau ka liao everything.”

The effort pays off

Ms Gloria Loh, Senior Supervisor, Mothercare. Image by SkillsFuture Singapore.
Ms Gloria Loh, Senior Supervisor, Mothercare. Image by SkillsFuture Singapore.

Ms Loh started in sales. And since she had no previous experience, a lot of her focus was on learning what was right in front of her.

The courses “show the various angles”, from specifics like how to do stock taking to broader trends like online retail. She also picked up relevant practical skills like how to analyse the various information her company gives her.  It “helped me understand my job more”, she added.

As a result, she rose through the ranks quickly: From sales advisor to senior sales advisor, assistant supervisor, supervisor, to her current role as senior supervisor. Four promotions in five years.

 

You can’t do it alone

It was not easy to work for five days, only to spend the next two days attending classes full-time, and then repeat that cycle for a few months.

So “most important”, said Ms Loh, is that both the company and family “give moral support”.

“Most important… somebody to give moral support”

The company encourages staff to go for training. Mothercare also made allowances for her to have fixed off days. “I’m very fortunate to have good managers.”

Financially, she had support from the various G programmes. Up to 95 per cent of the course fees were subsidised under Workfare schemes. She does not recall how much she eventually paid for the certificate courses that led to her diploma but it was affordable enough for her to enrol in her very first certificate course in 2011 even though she was unemployed at that time.

 

Keep learning

Even though Ms Loh’s job is secure and her career is progressing well, she still keeps an eye out for learning opportunities.

“The world is changing, so either you change or you lose”, said Ms Loh.

Last September, Ms Loh embarked on her six-month specialist diploma in retail management course at SIRS. She took advantage of the SkillsFuture Mid-Career Enhanced Subsidy (MES) to reduce her costs. The scheme covers up to 90 per cent of her course fees (read more here). The MES is specifically for Singaporeans aged 40 and above.

There are other schemes Singaporeans qualify for that can be combined with the MES, like the Workfare Training Support Scheme. The balance after all subsidies can be further reduced using the $500 SkillsFuture credits all Singaporeans get when they turn 25. After subsidies, Ms Loh only forks out $700 even though the full fees were over $10,000.

For two decades, she did not need to use a computer. Now, she uses it daily. Previously she did not source for learning opportunities until she was forced to. Now, she’s hooked to learning. Change can be hard. But it’s necessary.

Said Ms Loh: “Be brave to step out. Even if you fail, try again… It’s not the end of the world.”

“Be brave to step out. Even if you fail, try again… It’s not the end of the world”

 

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

 

 

Featured image Keyboard by Flickr user Toshiyuki IMAICC BY-SA 2.0

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by Suhaile Md

BARELY two weeks in power and newly minted United States (US) President Donald Trump has signed a slew of Executive Orders (EO) targeting immigrants. The most well known of which are the orders to build a wall (Jan 25) at the Mexico-US border and a ban on immigrants from seven Muslim majority countries (Jan 27).

Mr Trump’s supporters claim he is only doing the necessary for national security by tightening rules and borders. Across the political divide, they charge that the moves are ineffective and blatantly bigoted against Muslim and Mexican immigrants. Which is it?

 

On the Muslim ban

EO title: Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States

Some key points from the EO:

  1. Cuts refugee entry quota numbers from 110,000 to 50,000.
  2. Suspends, for 120 days, the US Refugee Admissions Programme (USRAP).
  3. Suspends, for 90 days, entry of all “immigrants and non-immigrants” from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Syria.
  4. Upon resumption of the USRAP, “to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality”.
  5.  A ban on all refugees from Syria until further notice.

“To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting. This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe,” said President Trump last Sunday (Jan 29).

Mr Andrew McCarthy, a writer for conservative site National Review (Jan 30), agreed that it was a ban against extremist Muslims, not all Muslims. It stems from a “need to separate our Muslim friends from our radical Islamic enemies”. And the seven countries are on the list because they either have governments that “hate the United States or are too dysfunctional to provide background checks on their nationals”, he said.

Another national review writer, Mr David French, said (Jan 28) that a refugee intake of 50,000 per year was actually the 15-year average before 2016. Former President Obama was the one who had gone beyond the norm by increasing it to 110,00 in 2016. Mr Trump is merely going back to the norm, added Mr French, citing data from the Migration Policy Institute, a US non-profit think tank.

However, it’s hard to believe the move is free of bigotry for three main reasons, opponents of the ban has countered.

Firstly, Mr Trump called for a Muslim ban during the elections campaign and when the White House press secretary Sean Spicer was recently asked about the EO, he stated that Mr Trump is merely fulfilling his campaign promises.

House press secretary Sean Spicer was recently asked about the EO. He stated that Mr Trump is merely fulfilling his campaign promise. Mr Trump had called for a Muslim ban then.

Secondly, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani publicly said that Mr Trump had asked him to find a legal way to ban Muslims.

And finally, the direct involvement of Mr Trump’s Chief Strategist Steve Bannon in the creation of the EO concerned some, like writer Andrew Prokop of left leaning website Vox.com. Mr Bannon ran the Trump election campaign. Before that, he used to run Breitbart news, the hard-line right wing media company.

Mr Bannon has been growing increasingly powerful in the White House, with a controversial seat in the National Security Council’s top-level meetings. A senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official said that in the drafting of the EO, the input of experts from the DHS was overruled by Mr Bannon, reported Reuters on Jan 31. DHS is the national agency responsible for public security.

Critics like the left-leaning Atlantic Magazine pointed out that more terrorists have come from countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan than the seven listed, yet the two countries are not on the list. Furthermore, non-Muslim immigrants and refugees will be prioritised. This is religious discrimination, it added. Such discrimination will only embolden the extremist narrative that the US is anti-Muslim and hence the move would be counter-productive.

A recent poll by Reuters (Jan 31) found that 49 per cent of Americans supported the EO, while 41 per cent don’t. The support was split along party lines as well, with 51 per cent of Republicans who “strongly agree” with the ban, compared to 53 per cent of Democrats who “strongly disagree”.

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On the US-Mexican border wall

EO title: Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements

Some key points of the EO:

  1. Begin planning, designing, and constructing a wall along the US-Mexico border.
  2. Hire 5,000 additional border patrol agents subject to existing funds available.
  3. Quantify “sources of direct and indirect Federal aid or assistance to the Government of Mexico on an annual basis over the past five years”.
  4. Build detention facilities near the border to vet asylum claims.

Both sides of the debate on the wall agree that illegal immigration is an issue. About 3.5 per cent of the US population and 5 per cent of its civilian labour force are illegal immigrants, of whom 52 per cent are Mexicans, according to a Pew research in 2014.

Interestingly, only 39 per cent of Americans view building the wall as an important goal according to another Pew research earlier this month.

Interestingly, only 39 per cent of Americans view building the wall as an important goal according to another Pew research earlier this month. Building the wall and making Mexico pay for it was one of Mr Trump’s campaign slogans.

Supporters of the wall of course argue that the wall will be effective, with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chiming in on Twitter, that the wall he built on Israel’s southern border was effective. Of the various popular media in the US, it seems only hardline right-wing site Breitbart was effusive about its support for the wall. Recall that Mr Steve Bannon, Mr Trump’s Chief Strategist, used to head the media company.

There are practical hurdles however. The border stretches 3,100 km and the terrain is varied. While Mr Trump claims the wall will cost US$12 billion (SG$16.9 billion), independent estimates range between US$12 billion and US$25 billion, reported the BBC (Jan 26).

“The campaign is over and so is fun time. If the wall is worth having, it’s worth paying for”, wrote conservative news site National Review. It also questioned if it was worth aggravating Mexico with repeated calls, by Mr Trump, for it to pay for the US wall.

The Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto cancelled his trip to the US to signal his displeasure. He had said, “Mexico does not believe in walls. I have said it time and again: Mexico will not pay for any wall.

“I regret and condemn the decision of the United States to continue construction of a wall that, for years, has divided us instead of uniting us.”

I regret and condemn the decision of the United States to continue construction of a wall that, for years, has divided us instead of uniting us.

The idea of an import tariff of 20 per cent on Mexican goods was also floated by the President to raise funds. Ideas like imposing taxes on remittance out of the US into Mexico or a border tax have been suggested among others.

Opponents also question the effectiveness of the move. Republican Congressman Will Hurd of Texas said: “Big Bend National Park and many areas in my district are perfect examples of where a wall is unnecessary and would negatively impact the environment, private property rights and economy.”

Furthermore, an estimated 40 per cent of illegal immigrants came in legally with visas only to overstay and never leave. A wall does not address that, wrote the Chicago Tribune (Jan 27). This echoes the sentiments of the Boston Herald editorial (Jan 26). The figure however is based on a 2006 pew research on migration.

There have also been charges of racism specific to the wall. Most prominently, Republican Congressman O’Rourke from El-Paso, Texas, said that building the wall is racist, given Mr Trump’s characterisation of Mexicans as criminals and rapists during his election campaign.

Said the lawmaker: “When you begin with the premise that Mexico is sending rapists and criminal to the U.S. and you meet that with a wall, that wall in itself is a racist reaction to a racist myth that does not reflect the reality of this country at all.”

When you begin with the premise that Mexico is sending rapists and criminal to the U.S. and you meet that with a wall, that wall in itself is a racist reaction to a racist myth that does not reflect the reality of this country at all.

The other immigration related EO, “Enhancing public safety in the interior of the United States”, signed on Jan 25, dealt with “sanctuary cities”. These are cities that have had policies that empower local authorities to deal with illegal immigrants without getting federal authorities involved. These policies give local law enforcement more discretion and freedom to build trust with local immigrant communities as well as report crimes without the fear of deportation. This tamps down crime. On the flip side, it allows illegal immigrants to slip in to avoid deportation. Mr Trump’s EO aims to address that.

EOs are basically legally enforceable instructions from the President, to the federal agencies, on how to run the show. But they are not new laws per se. The various agencies are obliged to follow the instructions. Presidents have historically used this tool to set policies that bypass Congress, the elected body of lawmakers. Over 13,000 EOs have been issued since 1789.

The Supreme Court can overturn EOs if it’s proven to flout existing laws and the US constitution. In a study between 1945 and 1998, the Court upheld 83 per cent of EOs. Congress can sometimes step in as well. A study commissioned by the Congressional Research Service in 2006 found that only 4 per cent of EOs were modified by Congress. Furthermore Congress is currently dominated by the Republican Party. It’s doubtful it will challenge Mr Trump, the party’s own Presidential Nominee.

So regardless of how people may feel about Mr Trump’s orders, whether his EOs are overturned or stay depends primarily on the Supreme Court in the months to come.

 

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by Suhaile Md

WHAT’S the secret to career success? That’s a perennial question and these days, skills mastery has come to be accepted as a key component of a successful climb up the career ladder.

But what exactly is “skills mastery”?

To put it simply, it is a mindset – of continually striving towards greater excellence through knowledge, application and experience. Skills mastery is more than having the right paper qualifications and being good at what you do now.

We discuss three important areas of mastery:

 

Mastery of learning 

The mastery of learning is not just about intellectual humility and the willingness to learn, but also about building on existing knowledge bases and not throwing them away.

Yes, there are jobs today that did not exist yesterday – social media marketing for example. But that does not mean that you have to jump to an entirely different field to be relevant.

For example, a brick-and-mortar shoe salesman’s job may be at risk due to e-commerce. But he may want to capitalise on his knowledge of various shoe products to learn more about purchasing for the e-commerce company and not necessarily try to pick up coding skills to run the website.

Not everybody is able to pick up entirely different skill sets. And age is also a factor here. The young are better able to learn something completely new. But adults have an edge over younger employees – existing knowledge.

“If learning can be assimilated into an existing knowledge case, advantage tilts to the old,” said Dr Timothy Salthouse, Director of The Cognitive Aging Laboratory at the University of Virginia, in The Economist earlier this month (Jan 14).

So the idea of skills mastery here, is to pick up a new but related skill that extends from your existing knowledge base and not from scratch. 

Skills mastery is about striving to be the best in what you can do, so as to innovate better and progress. It’s hard to innovate when you have to build up your knowledge base again.

Which is why SkillsFuture has its fellowship programme for Singaporeans with at least 10 years of experience in the same industry or similar job function, possess deep expertise, and wish to upgrade further. Fellows will get $10,000 to spend on courses relevant to their work. This year, 30 such fellowships will be given out and the number is set to increase up to 100 annually at a later date.

While not everyone can be a fellow, there are many affordable skills-based modular courses at post-secondary institutions here for the rest of us. From customer relationship management to manpower resource management, these part-time courses courses are designed for working adults.

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Mastery of industry

How do you know what to learn if you don’t know what skills are going to be relevant in the future?

The e-commerce scene in Singapore for instance, is expected to grow to US$5.4 billion (S$7.46 billion) by 2025, up from US$1 billion in 2015, according to a report by Temasek and Google last year. The up-to-date brick-and-mortar retail worker should then work towards acquiring skills relevant to e-commerce, whether it’s purchasing or online marketing.

The shipbuilding industry has also been taking a hit. Just last year, Keppel Shipyard, one of Singapore’s largest, cut 35 per cent of its workforce, which is over 10,000 workers. Such changes do not happen overnight. Workers alert to such changes can prepare beforehand to absorb the shock better.

While there’s no need to know details like stock price movements and so on, a general awareness of industry trends is important in developing skills mastery.

Students about to enter the workforce may have the largest gap in industry related knowledge. Fresh polytechnic and ITE graduates may want to enrol in the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn programme. The work-study programme enables them to learn skills that are relevant to their industry, while drawing a regular paycheck. The certification they acquire along the way would also be recognised by other companies in the industry.

 

Mastery of social skills

Many jobs today are lost not just to lower wage workers overseas, but also to machines and automation.

By 2035, over a third of jobs held in Singapore are at risk of automation, according to a 2015 report by the Centre for Strategic Futures, Prime Minister’s Office.

The solution to securing future job prospects would be to develop social skills like negotiation and social perceptiveness. The labour market rewards workers with social skills according to a study last August (2016) by Professor David Deming of Harvard University. Between 1980 and 2012, the proportion of jobs that required high social skills increased by nearly 10 percentage points while math-intensive roles that did not require much use of social skills fell by about 3 percentage points in the same period.

The reason is that machines cannot read emotions, build consensus and basically, be human. So even though the study was conducted in the United States, the lessons for Singapore in the face of automation, is still relevant.

Again, new graduates are at a disadvantage when it comes to acquiring social skills at the workplace. Which is why they should take up internships, to start to acquire social skills at the workplace before they formally enter their careers. By 2020 all polytechnics and ITEs will have enhanced internships integrated into their core curriculum. Enhanced because there will be clearer learning outcomes and closer interactions between industry partners and educational institutes in developing the internships.

In a nutshell, acquiring skills alone does not lead to mastery. There’s a need to know what skills are relevant in the future through understanding industry trends, building on – and not discarding – existing knowledge to be able to innovate and having the social skills to get work done well.

 

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

 

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by Suhaile Md

MY CHINESE friend once told me that a practising Muslim will support ISIS. He hates ISIS with a passion. I consider myself a practising Muslim. I quietly wondered if he hated me.

If I really know my own religion, he continued, I would either support ISIS, or convert. It’s the western education that prevented me from becoming like them. There’s a reason why Muslims don’t get into sensitive roles in the army, or civil service, he said.

I did not know how to respond to that. It hit a sore point.

Muslim loyalty to Singapore has been in question for a long time. For years after National Service (NS) was instituted in 1967, Muslims were not called up for conscription. The policy was eventually reversed. But the feeling of being untrustworthy has remained among some people here.

When I attended my brother’s passing out parade at the Civil Defence Academy in 2015, all I saw was a sea of brown faces. I remember the Chinese uncle sitting with his family in front of me, looking around and noting: “Wah, we are a minority here.” Singapore is 74.3 per cent Chinese.

I guess I was lucky to have served in the Army instead. But while serving, the feeling that I was not trusted because of my religion intensified at times. Sometimes my NS job required me to drive to other military camps that had no halal food catered in the cookhouse because there weren’t any Muslims posted to that unit. In the cookhouse at my camp, the Muslim queue was about as long as the non-Muslim queue, even though less than 15 per cent of Singaporeans are Muslim.

Why? Security reasons, I heard. 

I met national servicemen in the army who were Chinese nationals just a year or two before enlistment. They could not speak a word of English – I always needed a translator. I always wondered if they understood the pledge, the national anthem, or what they were defending? Yet they serve in the army when many of my Muslims friends who grew up here can’t.

Someone once told me Muslims shouldn’t complain. Go online and you’ll see similar sentiments: Look at other countries, they don’t treat their minorities as well as Singapore does, so be grateful.

So I should just shut up about how I feel here, in my own home? Swallow my words? Do they hate my voice? Such comments confound me, frustrate me. I am not from those countries, how is it even relevant here? 

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I am not ISIS

In junior college, my class saw a documentary on violence against women in Pakistan. In a particular scene, a man used Islam to justify burning his wife. I was the only Muslim in the room. A few classmates glanced at me. I don’t think they could help it. Still, it was enough to get me tense.

But I understood their curiosity, and concern even. After all, supposedly non-violent-me based my life on the same Quran (holy book) as the violent man. So I marched into class the next day, notes filled with quotes and arguments, ready to defend myself. I told my classmates context matters. A violent man will find any justification. Hate the man, not my faith. Not me.

Hate the man, not my faith. Not me.

Not much has changed in the years since. Every time there’s a terror attack somewhere, it’s expected that as a Muslim, I take a moral stand against ISIS or its like. 

A tall order, given that there have been at least 140 terrorist attacks by ISIS, or inspired by it, in 29 countries in the 30 months since the group declared its caliphate in June 2014. Most recently, one of its followers shot up a nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve.

On average, that’s just over an attack a week. And it does not include other brutal groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria or Al-Shabaab in Somalia. It’s hard to apologise so frequently, publicly, for something I have no hand in and do not believe in.

There were times I got fed up and remained silent, especially on social media. ISIS is evil. It burns people alive and blows out their brains. It should be obvious that like everyone else, I am just as disgusted by these. Why do I have to continually prove my humanity by repeatedly condemning the same acts over and over again? Every time I disassociate myself from them, I am clumped together again the next time they attack, guilty by association. It gets tiring.

Still that does not mean I do not own the problem of extremism (read more here). Many Muslims do so too (here’s a list) because our faith demands that we speak out against oppression, inhumanity and injustice.

Taking a moral stance against extremism also means we speak up against the oppression of Palestinians by the Israelis and the inhumane treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar. 

Which is why we find it hard to quietly accept that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be warmly welcomed in Singapore next month. Or when Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has yet to condemn the atrocities being committed in her country, enjoyed a friendly tour here recently. 

When I speak out on such issues, I’ve had non-Muslim acquaintances dismiss it saying it’s just politics, just business. Funnily enough, these are the same people who ask me why Muslims don’t speak out against violence. As if my conscience can be turned on or off at their convenience.

Sometimes it feels as if Muslim voices only matter when it suits an agenda. Sometimes, it even feels like Muslim suffering overseas does not matter at all.

Don’t get me wrong. I get it, there are economic and security considerations Singapore needs to make. I understand why the G does not officially speak up on these issues, why it has an official policy of non-interference, while quietly allowing non-governmental donations to help Palestinian and Rohingya victims. At times the G donates a small sum too. There are pragmatic, political considerations.

But where does that leave its citizens, who feel slighted? The pragmatic and the political can leave a bitter aftertaste. Extremists capitalise on this, blurring complexities, obliterating nuance, drawing thick lines in the sand between Muslims and the rest of the world.

This divide is made stronger every time someone asks me if I’m a Muslim first or a Singaporean first. The question stops short of asking outright: Where does my loyalty lie?

It’s a ridiculous question, like asking if I’m a son first or a brother. I can’t imagine life outside either role. I don’t know where one relationship ends and where the other begins.

It’s a ridiculous question, like asking if I’m a son first, or a brother. I don’t know where one relationship ends and where the other begins.

Likewise, I don’t know where the Singaporean part of me ends and where the Muslim part begins. Besides, I thought we are Singaporeans regardless of race, language or religion.

So why the need to squeeze me into two categories – Singaporean and Muslim? It’s suffocating. I am Muslim Singaporean, Singaporean Muslim. I am both, at once. Don’t break me into two, please.

Thankfully, I have non-Muslim friends who get it.

Like Young-hwi, who in my absence, of his own accord, made sure the restaurant that the group booked was halal. Or the former classmate, Jianwei, who apologised to me for particular nasty racist comments on Facebook. The comments weren’t even directed at me personally and the commenters were online trolls in no way related to him. My friend had no obligation. Yet he apologised, to let me know that my concerns mattered to him, that he cared.

I wish more people around the world stand up for Muslims like my friends did. But the popular support and rise of anti-Islamic right wing figures like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders from the Netherlands scare me. Most troubling was the recent successful presidential election of Donald Trump in the United States, in spite of his anti-Muslim prejudice.

At the end of the day though, do I think the world hates me? No, but sometimes it feels that way.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Suhaile Md

CARRYING cash, counting change and a wallet full of jingling coins may not be your thing. Or you might have just forgotten to withdraw money to buy groceries. If so, there are various cashless payment options, like using your EZ-link or credit card, to pay for your groceries the next time you shop at supermarket chains like NTUC FairPrice and Giant.

Here’s a list of those available options at NTUC FairPrice, Giant, Sheng Siong, Cheers and 7-Eleven.

 FairPriceSheng SiongGiantCheers7-Eleven
VisaYesYesYesYesYes
MastercardYesYesYesYesYes
Diners Club InternationalYesYesYesNoNo
Samsung PayYesYesYesYesYes
Android PayYesYesYesYesYes
Apple PayYesYesYesYesYes
Ez-LinkNoNoYesYesYes
MasterCard PayPassYesYesYesYesYes
Visa PayWaveYesYesYesYesYes
Nets FlashPayYesYesYesYesYes
Nets
YesYesYesYesYes

NETS

Most of us are familiar with this. Insert the card into the card reader; type your pin. Money is deducted straight from your account. If you lose your card, a stranger has to know your PIN number to be able to use it. Even if it’s stolen and the thief knows your PIN, your losses are limited to your withdrawal limit.

 

Credit cards

Payment via VISA and Mastercard are still the most widely accepted. Diners International, not so much. As the names suggest, you buy on credit and pay the bank at the end of the month.

Cancel your card immediately if you lose your credit card though. Transactions below $45 (sometimes below $100 depending on the card) don’t require a signature. So if the cashier is not alert, anyone can use your card to make numerous transactions.

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EZ-Link

EZ-link payments are accepted at Giant, Cheers and 7-Eleven only. The stored value card needs to be topped up once you’ve used up its value. Given that most Singaporeans use EZ-link cards for public transport, you’d think that this method of payment would be widely accepted. But nope.

One reason could be because unlike credit cards and Nets, EZ-link cards have no security feature. No PIN number or signature is required for transactions.

Note though, that if you register your EZ-link card online, you can cancel the card if you lose it. The cash value of the card, at the point of cancellation, can be transferred to your new card when you register it.

 

Using your phone

If you see the “NFC” sign and you use a Samsung phone, iPhone or Android phone, chances are you can pay with your mobile phone. All you have to do is tap your phone on the Near Field Communication (NFC) reader.

Image Mobile payment terminal, in Fornebu, Norway. Operated by NFC technology. Telenor. taken from Wikicomm user HLundgaard.
Image Mobile payment terminal, in Fornebu, Norway. Operated by NFC technology. Telenor. from Wikimedia Commons user HLundgaard.

Apple pay, Samsung Pay and Android pay are services rolled out by the tech giants that allow users to input their credit and debit card information into their phones. But it’s not the sensitive 16-digit card number that is stored. Instead, a separate, unique digital code is generated. It’s this code that is used during the transaction. This way, your credit card information is not at risk of being stolen by anyone who has access to your phone.

Apple Pay and Samsung Pay require either a fingerprint or PIN authentication for every transaction. Android pay only requires it after every third transaction.

 

Contactless card payments

Nets FlashPay, Visa payWave and MasterCard PayPass are basically cards that you can just wave over a card reader to pay. No PINs, no signatures required. Read more about the cards here.

If you lose the card, cancel it as soon as possible. Otherwise, anyone can just use it until the credit limit is reached without ever getting caught. Contactless payments tend to be limited to $100 per transaction. Some cards however, do not have limits. Check with your bank for details.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Suhaile Md

MOST Singaporeans (69 per cent) do, said a report released on Sunday (Jan 15) . Which is more than can be said about Americans (47 per cent), the British (36 per cent), Australians (37 per cent), and Malaysians (37 per cent).

Of the 28 nations surveyed in the report, three out of four governments were not trusted by their people. Actually, only citizens of four other countries besides Singapore had faith in their political leaders: Indonesia, India, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and China, where 71 to 76 per cent of citizens believed in the government.

While it’s commendable that the G inspires so much trust compared to its counterparts in the rest of the world, this year’s (2017) figure is a 5 per cent drop from the 74 per cent trust it enjoyed last year, according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer. In 2015, 70 per cent trusted the G, and in 2014, 75 per cent kept faith. By the way, the People’s Action Party won 69.86 per cent of the vote share in the last general election in 2015.

The Trust Barometer was introduced in 2001 by Edelman, a global public relations company. Initially it measured trust in a handful of European countries and the United States but expanded over the years and eventually included Singapore from 2011 onwards. Surveys are conducted online, asking 1,150 adult citizens per country about the level of trust they had in the various institutions in their own country.

Note that the surveys were done between October and November of the preceding year to gauge the trust level in the new year. For example, the survey for trust levels in 2017 was conducted around October of 2016.

The dip in trust is not unique to Singapore. Last year, China scored 79 per cent and UAE came in at 80 per cent. So they dropped by 3 per cent and 5 per cent respectively. Citizen’s trust was even higher for them in 2015: China had 82 per cent trust and UAE had 90 per cent.

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In all, 10 countries bucked the trend of declining trust. The largest gains were in Indonesia and India, which saw an increase of 13 per cent and 10 per cent respectively from last year. 

The trust in the G was not the only institution measured. Three others were considered as well: Businesses in general, non-governmental organisations (NGO) and the media. Singaporeans don’t trust these as much as they do the G.

Compared to last year, trust in businesses this year went down 2 per cent, to 58 per cent. In NGOs, it was down by 1 per cent, to  61 per cent. And the media had the lowest level of trust at 54 per cent, which is a 6 per cent drop from 2016. In fact, Singaporean’s trust in the media has not been this low since the barometer included Singapore in 2011. “Media” refers to both online and offline media.

Singaporeans have a 60 per cent trust level in the system, that is the four institutions in sum. Again, it’s one of only five countries with this level of confidence. India, Indonesia, China, and UAE have 72 per cent, 69 per cent, 67 per cent and 60 per cent trust levels respectively. Two out of three countries’ citizens distrust the systems of their nation.

What do the results mean for the future?

According to Edelman, if trust in the system erodes, it leaves citizens “vulnerable to fears” of job loss, erosion of social values, immigrants damaging local culture and so on. But with no trust in the system to address these issues in the first place, the fears increase, which in turn erode more trust. A vicious cycle ensues. It leaves citizens with a sense that elites gain at their expense, that hard work is not rewarded any more and that leaders are unable to fix things. There will then be a desire for a populist, “forceful reformer” to bring change.

About the survey

Survey participants were asked to respond on a nine-point scale, how much they trusted a particular institution “to do what is right”. On the scale, one meant “do not trust them at all” and nine meant “trust them a great deal”. Unfortunately, it’s unclear exactly how many questions were asked, and what specific institutions within each of the four categories were referenced.

All surveys were conducted online. Respondents are at least 18 years old. There were 1,150 respondents per country. Quotas were set according to age, gender and region.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Suhaile Md

WHEN it comes to food, Singaporeans are a passionate bunch. No wonder, then, that our story about late lunches in primary schools was shared more than 500 times on Facebook. You can read the story here if you missed it.

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After we posted the story on social media last Friday (Jan 6), a lot of people wanted to know why. Why are our primary school children having lunch as late as 3pm?

We went to the Ministry of Education for some answers. They didn’t say much – except that the lunch schedules are planned by the schools and are “reasonably spaced” from recess breaks. A quick check online found most schools did not schedule any lunch breaks but had recess breaks in the mid-morning.

Here are the questions we asked MOE. See their full response copied below.

1. Does MOE have guidelines for primary and secondary schools when it comes to scheduling time for recess? If not, why not? If there is, kindly elaborate on the guidelines. E.g. recommended duration, timing, etc.

2. Or is it completely up to the schools to decide when and how long they decide to schedule time for recess? Why or why not?

3. Are there guidelines for when normal class schedules for schools (primary and secondary) should end? That is, formal classes which exclude CCA time and remedial classes.

4. Does MOE have guidelines for primary and secondary schools when it comes to scheduling time for lunch? If not, why not? If there is, kindly elaborate on the guidelines. E.g. recommended duration, timing, etc.

5. Or is it completely up to the schools to decide when and how long they decide to schedule time for Lunch? Why or why not?
6. Some schools have 10 min break during a time when people usually have lunch (12-1.30). Is that an MOE guideline? If so, why is it only 10mins, it seems too short for lunch.

Furthermore, is this restricted to the classroom or can student go down to the canteen? Can they eat meals in class? Or is it restricted to snacks?

… And here’s MOE’s response, in full:

“Our schools are mindful of student well-being when they plan the school schedule. Schools take into consideration the length of the school day and the size of the cohort to determine the duration and timing of the recess. This may require recess to be staggered for different levels.

“In addition, many schools include a snack break during formal curriculum time to allow students to eat regularly without increasing school hours further. Schools with any afternoon classes or programmes provide lunch breaks of about 30 min for the students. The timing of the lunch breaks are reasonably spaced from the recess break.”

 

Read our other stories on primary school late lunches:

Why do our primary school kids have such LATE lunches?

5 quick and easy meals for a lunchbox

 

Featured image from Little Fairyland Childcare & Development Centre‘s Facebook page.

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by Suhaile Md

EMPLOYEES who turn 60 can no longer have their wages cut because of their age. The re-employment age will also be up from 65 to 67, with effect from July 1 this year. These amendments to the Retirement and Re-employment Act (RRA) were passed in Parliament yesterday (Jan 9). The retirement age still stands at 62.

Prior to the amendments yesterday, employers were allowed, by law, to reduce up to 10 per cent of their employees’ wages when they turned 60. So now, workers will continue earning the same after their 60th birthday. However CPF contributions, which drop from 13 per cent to 9 per cent for employers, and 13 per cent to 7.5 per cent for employees, upon hitting 60, will continue. No changes have been announced on that front.

When workers turn 62, they can either choose to retire, or take up an offer of re-employment. The RRA obliges employers to offer re-employment to citizens and permanent residents. Yet, it may not be in the same role with the same wage. Also, workers have to be medically fit, serve the company for at least three years before turning 62, and have performed well enough, as judged by their employer.

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Why not just increase the retirement age then?

“When you raise the retirement age, the expectation is same job, same pay.” For re-employment though, “the concept is not necessarily the same job, not necessarily the same pay,” said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say in Parliament yesterday.

“When you raise the retirement age, the expectation is same job, same pay.”

So, it seems the removal of wage cuts when a worker reaches 60 is about “same job, same pay” being secured for at least two more years, with changes in a worker’s income only expected after 62. About 12 per cent of Singapore’s labour force was 60 or older in 2015, which is more than twice the 5.5 per cent proportion in 2006, reported The Business Times today (Jan 10).

About 12 per cent of the labour force was 60 or older in 2015, more than twice the 5.5 per cent proportion in 2006.

Also, CPF monthly payouts only kick in when Singaporeans turn 65. Increasing re-employment age to 67 provides older workers two more years of employment, hence reducing or even delaying their reliance on CPF payouts accordingly. On that note, current CPF contributions drop again at 65. Employers’ contribution decreases from 9 per cent to 7.5 per cent, while employee contribution drops from 7.5 per cent to 5 per cent.

 

Finding re-employment elsewhere

Another change: A company can find re-employment opportunities for its worker in another company, which is agreeable, and handover the obligation to that company. That is, the new company will be responsible for the re-employment of the worker until he’s 67 years old. This was not allowed prior to the amendments yesterday.

However, if the worker in question does not want to take up the offer to work in another company, his current employer must still find a role for him in-house. If there’s no opening available, the employee must be offered an Employment Assistance Payment (EAP). The one-off payment is to help with the loss of income, as former employees look for jobs on their own.

In response to the amendment in Parliament, the Ministry of Manpower, National Trades Union Congress, and Singapore National Employers Federation updated the joint guideline that recommends a payment range for the EAP. It’s recommended that the EAP be equal to three and a half months’ pay, with a minimum sum set at $5,500, and limited to $13,000. This comes into effect on July 1 this year. Presently, it’s set at three months’ pay, with the range between $4,500 and $10,000.

 

Incentives and help for employers

Businesses get some help too. Currently, employers who hire Singaporeans older than 55, and who earn less than $4,000 a month, will have up to 8 per cent of the monthly wage covered by the G under the Special Employment Credit (SEC) scheme. This scheme will end in 2019.

If a company voluntarily employs workers above 65, a total of 11 per cent of the monthly wage is offset.

If a company voluntarily employs workers aged above 65, an additional 3 per cent is offset. That is, a total of 11 per cent of the monthly wage is offset under the SEC scheme. The additional 3 per cent offset expires on June 30 this year, but the G is considering an extension, said Mr Lim. Details will be out later.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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