March 23, 2017

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by Lee Chin Wee

THE Labour Market Report 2016 released today (Mar 15) revealed that the annual average resident unemployment rate rose to 3.0 in 2016, after holding steady at 2.8 per cent for the last four years. This is the highest figure since 2010, when the resident unemployment rate was 3.1 per cent.

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Compared to data from 2015, residents aged 30 – 39 (2.3 per cent unemployed, up from 1.9 per cent), and 50 & over (2.7 per cent unemployed, up from 2.4 per cent) were particularly affected, while those aged 29 & below saw the unemployment rate decrease from 5.1 per cent to 5.0 per cent.

 

Taken from Labour Market Report 2016, Ministry of Manpower

 

Part of the high unemployment rate can be explained by seasonal and frictional unemployment due to the cyclical nature of the global economy. Singapore tends to be buffeted by forces outside our control. The manufacturing sector, for instance, shed 15,500 jobs in 2016 because of flagging global demand for products. This figure would have been far worse, had it not been for the manufacturing sector unexpectedly expanding by 6.4 per cent in Q4 2016. Plunging oil prices have also badly affected the offshore marine industry, with retrenchments picking up in 2015-16. One would expect unemployment figures to improve as the global economy recovers.

However, the unemployment rate can also be attributed to structural unemployment: As Singapore adjusts to the disruptive impacts of new technology on traditional businesses, people’s skills no longer match up to market demand. Singapore’s continued economic transformation, therefore, may lead to underskilled or wrongly-skilled workers left by the wayside. As firms reorganise and restructure to become manpower-lean, longstanding jobs like accounting and secretarial work may be cut, while new business interests – financial technologies, for instance – are developed.

There are now 17,000 long-term resident unemployed (refers to those unemployed for more than 25 weeks), compared to 12,700 in 2015. This figure is the highest since 2009, when the 2008 Financial Crisis led to thousands of Singaporeans losing their jobs.

 

Taken from Labour Market Report 2016, Ministry of Manpower

 

Most worryingly, the long-term unemployment rate for degree holders rose to 1.0 per cent in 2016, the highest since 2004. Does this mean that more university graduates now hold paper qualifications that are ill-suited for the modern economy? Possibly. A bachelor’s degree in programming or software engineering received 10 years ago, for instance, may bear little relevance to the sought-after skills of today. Without a constant push for skills upgrading and on-the-job training, many graduates will find themselves either underemployed, or out of work.

As the economy becomes more complex, the need for specialised skills has soared. This has challenged the traditional view that higher education guarantees a stable career, as demand for specialised skills can change overnight with the introduction of new technology or sudden industry transformation. Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMETs) formed 75 per cent of all residents made redundant in 4Q 2016 – a disproportionate figure.

Statistics seem to suggest that there is a growing mismatch between employee skills and job requirements; especially at white-collar managerial and technical levels. And even when tertiary-level education does meet market demand, the rapidly-evolving jobs landscape means that employees must be willing to continually upgrade themselves. Given this context, policies to help workers gain new skills or encourage businesses to leverage new technology are extremely important.

Whether Singapore will be able to bounce back stronger from this period of slowing growth and higher unemployment depends on how well we can react to technological disruption. If our workers and businesses do not stay ahead of the curve, one should be prepared for more grim news ahead.

 

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by Ryan Ong

BUDGET 2017 doesn’t have much of a theme, beyond upgrade yourself really quick. There’s a huge sense of urgency in this budget, and it’s not hard to see why. The events of 2016, which range from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump to China’s growing assertiveness, won’t be good for us. And the only way forward is, ironically, to look backward:

 

New budget, old strategy

Budget 2017 is out, and it’s all about forward progress in the industry. But in another sense, it’s also about looking backward, and returning to the root of what made Singapore successful in the first place.

When Singapore (unwillingly) gained its independence in 1965, the situation it faced was quite similiar to today. There was tension in South East Asia, and a sense that the future was a total unknown. In order to run our economy, we focused on producing a highly skilled and educated workforce. Singapore powered through its first decades on the back of that principle: That the Singaporean worker was more productive, more driven, and worth a higher salary than neighbouring counterparts.

But over the last decade, we’ve begun to lose steam. Not too long ago in 2015, for example, Minister for Trade and Industry Lim Hng Kiang pointed out that some industries had to restructure quickly, as productivity goals were not being hit.

Budget 2017 seems to be going back to an old formula. In the face of growing uncertainty, all we can do is rely on the Singaporean worker being better. Better skilled, better adapted, and hopefully better paid for it. That’s not an easy thing to ask, because our success in the mid-60s can be attributed to us being South East Asia’s (arguably) best workforce at the time. But our neighbours have had a lot of time to catch up since then.

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Here are the three harsh things that the budget implies:

 

1. Get with the programme or get left behind

Over $80 million will be spent on helping on Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) go digital, under the Go Digital Programme.

About $100 million is for the Global Innovation Alliance and Leadership Development Initiative, which basically encourages Singaporeans to go abroad and work.

Some $26 million will go to the Lifelong Learning Endowment Fund and Skills Development Fund, to train workers in skills relevant to fast growing industries.

A recent comment I read on Facebook asked: Does this mean we want a painter to become a programmer? The answer is yes. Budget 2017 is part of a life raft the government is building for workers.

Remember that retrenchments were at a seven year high, within the first nine months of 2016. Many workers, whom we assumed to be highly trained, were precisely the ones who found themselves out of a job. When you have large layoffs despite a (in terms of paper qualifications) highly skilled workforce, that means workers lack relevant skills.

That’s due to the rising number of disruptive business models (e.g. Uber and its effects on the transport industry), which have forced companies to value different skill sets. It’s bad news for Singaporean workers in their 30s and 40s, who may find their qualifications – which they paid good money to learn – become useless.

Now consider the urgency with which the G is driving at this:

Budget 2017 allocates $1.4 billion to upgrading jobs and the economy. Prior to that, Budget 2016 and Budget 2015 saw the development of the SkillsFuture programme, and emphasised support for robotics and digital technologies. It’s pretty clear what the G’s rescue plan is:

They want Singaporeans to be the innovative ones who are doing the disrupting, not the ones losing jobs from the industries that are disrupted.  Singaporeans who refuse to take big risks, and won’t step out of their comfort zone to learn new skills, are shark bait. The G isn’t taking steps to protect dying industries, or playing at protectionist moves.

 

2. Businesses might pass on the water costs

Pass it on to you, the buyer, that is. The price of water is increasing by 30 per cent, starting in July 2017. It’s estimated that this will come to less less than $25 a month, for 75 per cent of businesses; although I’d contend we don’t know how many businesses there are, and 25 per cent of all businesses in the country is still a huge number of businesses.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to guess that certain businesses – such as laundromats or restaurants – will be hit much harder by rising water costs than others. Now the purpose of the hike is to “raise awareness” of the importance of water, because without the government doing that none of us would know we’d die without it. But businesses tend to react to price hikes in two ways:

One, the G could have “raised awareness” of the importance of water, and businesses take steps to cut back. Or two, businesses could just factor the costs into their pricing. So we may see more places charging for water, higher prices at laundromats and car washes, higher costs on canned drinks, and so forth.

Now I’m not totally against the government’s intentions, by the way. I’m sure they just want us to waste less water, because over-consumption is the result of cheap supply. But it would be just as easy to set a water cap, and then impose a fine on over-consumption. And have some way to notify the household via text message when they’re nearing the water use limit.

Why punish those who have been conscientious about water use?

 

3. Carbon taxes can mean higher costs to consumers

I like to think most of you aren’t reading this from your ivory-backed chairs, while eating fried Pangolin and resting your rhinoceros-horn water on a coaster made from an endangered tortoise. Like most of you, I’m entirely for carbon taxes.

I’ll even say it’s an admirable and gutsy move: after the Trump election, I expected our pragmatic government to pivot in the other direction, and abandon environmentalism. We have financial inclination to do so, since Singapore has deep penetration into the oil and gas sector.

Nonetheless, from 2019 carbon emitters will be charged $10 to $20 per tonne of greenhouse gas. As with the water situation, businesses can go either way. Some might try to cut down on emissions, but some will try to pass on the costs to consumers. Knowing what big corporations are like, we’d better get realistic and plan to spend more.

On a related note, diesel will be taxed at 10 cents per litre. Cars pay $100 less annual diesel tax, and taxis pay $850 less. Diesel is more environmentally friendly than gasoline, so hopefully transport businesses will consider moving in this direction, rather than raising prices.

 

Budget 2017, along with the last two budgets, seem to be a polite way to remind us the clock is ticking.

Last year may have been the tipping point, in the way the global economy has changed. Stragglers who can’t adapt to the new economy are trying to fight back, by electing governments that impose protectionist measures.

But Singapore hasn’t got the luxury of doing that – we’re too small, and too vulnerable, to play the isolationist game. It’s clear we’re not catering to those who can’t adapt; that’s what all these expensive incentives are about. The clock is ticking, especially for those who refuse to re-skill and upgrade.

 

Read the first part, Economic Realities: 3 harsh takeaways from the Committee on the Future Economy, here.

 

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MEDIAN household income grew by 2.6 per cent to $8,846 in 2016, lower than 2015’s 4.9 per cent. The slower growth most affected the ends of the spectrum, with the bottom 10 per cent of earners seeing growth of only 1.4 per cent, compared to 10.7 per cent in 2015, and the top 10 per cent of earners saw their growth slow to 0.2 per cent from 7.2 per cent in 2015.

At the same time, the Gini Coefficient, which measures income inequality, also fell to 0.458 in 2016, lower than 0.463 in 2015. After transfers from the G in the form of subsidies and taxes are taken into account, the Gini stands at 0.402.

It’s a sign of the times, as an embattled economy drags down overall growth in spite of bright spots in tourism and manufacturing. Oil and gas remain in a critical state, which has had a knock-on effect on banking, finance and insurance companies, from which a larger proportion of high earners derive their income.

DBS reported a 9 per cent drop in Q4 profits, and on Tuesday (Feb 14) OCBC said its fourth quarter earnings had fallen by 18 per cent.

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A second woman and a man, said to be her boyfriend, have been arrested in connection with the killing of Mr Kim Jong-Nam in Malaysia. Malaysian police confirmed that the first woman arrested, a 28-year-old with a Vietnamese passport, was the suspect pictured wearing a white shirt with “LOL” printed on it.

The second woman, identified as Siti Aishah in her Indonesian passport, worked with her partner. Siti Aishah distracted Mr Kim by standing in front of him while the other woman grabbed Mr Kim from behind in a chokehold and administered the fatal poison.

Their escape was short-lived thanks to the many cameras deployed at the airport. Authorities are still seeking other suspects as “there are definitely other individuals involved” according to Malaysian Police Special Branch director Mohamad Fuzi Harun.

Word is emerging from sources close to China that North Korea had nothing to do with the assassination, even as Malaysian authorities continue to track the work of “foreign agents”. Malaysia has now said that they could release Mr Kim’s body to North Korea once all due process had been followed in Malaysia.

 

 

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by Wan Ting Koh

FINANCE Minister Heng Swee Keat was asked earlier at a press conference to identify a key big idea in the economic report produced by the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE). He didn’t name any but chose to re-frame the question – how Singapore can remain relevant to the world – a question which he pointed out, was not new.

Said Mr Heng: “We just have to keep ourselves very focused on how we are relevant to the world… Significant changes are going around in the world that we have to stay open and stay connected to the region and the global economy. And the way that we navigate this change is to build very deep capabilities.”

His co-chair, Trade and Industry Minister S Iswaran, named the Global Innovation Alliance (GIA) initiative, which offers tertiary institutions and companies more opportunities to link up with overseas partners, as one idea. He also said, however, that he didn’t think “novelty in itself defines the value of a report like this or any other government measure”.

So there you have it.

The much-awaited report, which numbered 109 pages, doesn’t have any specifics that would enthuse anyone. It seems to be a reiteration on the need to keep the economy open in the face of anti-globalisation sentiment, keeping enterprises and workers in pace with the changes through acquiring deeper skills, and collaboration among stakeholders, including trade associations and business chambers.

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If there was one point which stood out, it was about the tax system. The report said that rising domestic expenditures due to ageing and global change in tax rules will necessitate a review of the tax system. When asked for more details, Mr Heng said that specific changes will only be made after consultation processes.

The CFE report was supposed to be a follow-up on the Economic Strategies Committee report in 2010, which emphasised productivity-based growth, setting a target of 2 to 3 per cent per year.

Productivity didn’t figure in this report. When asked about other metrics to measure success, Mr Heng said that one could look into sector-by-sector growth in greater detail.

Likewise, while the 2010 report emphasised the need to make Singapore a home for “talent”, including foreign talent, this report was quiet on the matter. Asked about the role of foreign manpower, Mr Iswaran said that emphasis was not on nationality, but the productivity of the worker, adding that the “cumulative stock of foreign workers” in Singapore continues to grow even though there has been a “re-calibration” over the years.

“The policy on foreign workers has to complement the needs of economy and also balance that with the needs of our population. So it’s about investing in our people, and making sure that their skills and capabilities are up to mark so that they can participate in opportunities, but also recognising that there may be certain gaps in the market,” said Mr Iswaran.

Rather, more sobering is how the CFE had put 2 to 3 per cent as the annual expected GDP growth rate for this decade while the earlier committee said 3 to 5 per cent. It seems the CFE had taken into account the rising protectionistic tide since then, as well as the gloomier global outlook. Mr Iswaran said that the GDP growth was “not unlike what other economies achieve” and was an “appropriate and realistic indication” of GDP.

Why isn’t manufacturing taking up more than 20 per cent of the economy since it has been on the rebound? The sector had its strongest performance of the last year in the last three months before the year ended and manufacturing data from the Economic Development Board (EDB) showed that manufacturing output increased 21.3 per cent in December.

Said Mr Iswaran: “On manufacturing, I don’t think we are wedded to a number as a proportion of the GDP, that would be the wrong way to go about it… But we have good reasons to believe manufacturing continues to have [an] important role in [the] economy, we already have [a] strong base of companies and industries… to build on.”

What are we to take away from the report then?

Past reviews led to growth in areas such as investments overseas, and in Singapore’s links to other global financial centres and trading hubs. This time, the report is more concerned about getting people and businesses ready to capture opportunities as they arise.

Mr Tan Chong Meng, who is group chief executive officer of PSA International, said that the report addressed how Singapore would be ready for future changes. “Looking at how to do things, question is are we willing, are our people ready, and can we do it fast enough?
To this end, there was some focus on the impact of digitisation and proposals to capitalise on digital technologies, such as by providing Small Medium Enterprises with support to better understand these technologies and pushing for national initiatives like the National Trade Platform and National Payments Council. These were announced the Budget last year and in November last year respectively. To encourage Singaporeans to gain deeper skills, the report suggested setting up an online one-stop education, training and career guidance portal.

To support the development of promising industries, the report said that the G should consider “using lead demand”, adding that new enterprises with short track records would benefit from citing the G as its reference customer. This was the case for example, with water and defence technology industries.

One announcement made in the last Budget got extra attention from the CFE: Industry Transformation Maps (ITM) that will address issues within each industry and encourage collaboration between the G, firms and other stakeholders. Six ITMs have been rolled out so far, including those for hotels, retail, and logistics. “The CFE recommends that the early learning points from the first batch of ITMs be used to strengthen succeeding ITMs,” the report said, including how each ITM should continue to be customised for the particular industry and that related industries should have linkages to build “cluster-level” capabilities.
The report seems therefore, an endorsement of current strategies than containing any radical proposal. And no, it didn’t suggest that another casino be built.

 

The CFE was convened in January last year to map Singapore’s economic strategies for the future. The committee comprises of 30 members from different industries that operate in global and domestic markets. Here are the nine members of the panel in today’s conference:

The five ministers:

Mr Heng Swee Keat, Finance Minister

Mr S Iswaran, Minister for Trade and Industry

Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for National Development

Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher education and skills)

The four speakers from private companies:

Mr Teo Siong Seng, Chairman for Singapore Business Federation

Mr Bill Chang, Chief executive of group enterprise of Singtel

Mr Tan Chong Meng, PSA International group chief executive officer

Ms Mariam Jaafar, Partner and managing director of The Boston Consulting Group

 

The CFE suggested that the user experience and functionality of national jobs bank be improved. Here’s what we found out about it: 70,000 jobs on offer – but which is the right one for you?

 

 

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AS WE gear up for the Lunar New Year break, the labour outlook is rather bleak. Employment growth figures released by the Ministry of Manpower show the slowest growth since 2003, when the figure dipped into the negative.

Total employment increased by 0.4 per cent in 2016 compared to 0.9 per cent in 2015. The bulk of the growth was down to residents. Foreign employment fell for the first time since 2009 (the last recession), another sign of the still-tightening tap for foreign labour.

Unemployment nonetheless rose for residents (3 per cent) and citizens (3.1 per cent). Redundancies also hit a since-last-recession high of 19,000.

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Real income (after factoring in inflation) is still growing, but has slowed down from 7 per cent in 2015 to 1.3 per cent in 2016. The nominal median income is now $3,823.

One bright spot: manufacturing grew by a whopping 21.3 per cent in December, more than double the forecast 10.4 per cent. The sector accounts for about a fifth of Singapore’s economy, but economists expect it to take at least half a year before the positive impact spreads through the rest of the economy.

Part-time taxis are now available from SMRT’s fleet for drivers who want to drive less often. The new scheme offers an hourly rate with a minimum of three hours per booking. Rates range from $5.80 per hour during off-peak times to $12.80 per hour during high-demand timings.

The move is expected to help SMRT attract more part-time drivers out of the pool of some 100,000 taxi vocational license holders, and offers an alternative to drivers who were thinking of switching to driving private cars with Uber or Grab.

And now, the CNY weather:

That means please bring an umbrella.

 

 

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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.

 

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by Suhaile Md

MOST of the 6 per cent of Singaporeans who used their SkillsFuture Credits for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were below 40, reported SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) on Sunday (Jan 8). Busy with work and with little time to spare, it’s no wonder that MOOCs, which allow users to learn at a time and place of their choosing, appeal to the busy working Singaporean. Given its flexibility and eligibility for credit use, you might want to consider it too.

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SkillsFuture Credits cannot be used for just any MOOC though. It has to be one that has been approved by SSG. Still, there is a wide variety of over 2,000 courses that SSG has identified on its website. The three most popular courses were on business administration, Python programming language, and web development.

Currently (Jan 09), there are 2,212 MOOCs on the list. The courses range from general topics in problem solving to specialised ones like how to code and develop apps.

Here’s a breakdown according to course categories, costs, and duration:

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All 2,212 courses are categorised into 36 areas. The top 10 subject areas, shown in the graph above, make up nearly 92 per cent (2032) of all courses. Most courses are provided by either Coursera or Udemy.

Information and Communications by far has the most number of courses at 829 offerings (37 per cent). It includes courses on web development, programming languages like Python, Javascript, and C++, among others.

Business Management stands at second place with 325 courses (14.7 per cent). These include project management, foundations of business strategies, and conflict resolution, among others. There are some topics, like learning how to use Excel spreadsheets, or making a PowerPoint presentation, that some would consider under Business Management. But on the SSG site, these fall under “Administration”, which is a separate category on its own.

Likewise, subjects that can fall under advertising, sales and marketing, or accounting and finance, have separate categories of their own. They do not fall under the generic Business Management grouping. If these areas are considered business-related topics on the whole, then a total of 586 (26.5 per cent) of courses are available.

Beyond the top 10 categories, the remaining 26 make up only 8 per cent (180) of all courses. Some areas like fashion, sports, real estate, and marine and port services, have only one course each. 

 

 

The most expensive course ($795, before GST) on the site is a 100-hour business and financial modelling course. It’s a five-module course, created by the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, offered on the Coursera platform.

The cheapest costs $20 for about four to 12 hours of courses, on varied topics from learning how to use Excel, to launching social media marketing campaigns.

You can search for courses according to price range, but the values are preset on the site. The ranges are: Between $0 and $10, $10 and $50, $50 and $100, $100 and $500, $500 and $1,000. It goes higher, to $5,000, but there are no courses that reach that price range.

Note though, that the G gave $500 worth of credits to those 25 years old and above. Exceed the credit in your account, and you pay for the balance out of your own pocket. Also, there are plenty of free courses on Coursera and Udemy that are not reflected on the SSG site.

 

 

How much time do I need?

You can also search for courses according to the time commitment required to complete it. Like the price range search function, the time values are preset to specific ranges: Less than a day to one day, one day to one week, one week to a month, a month to six months, six months to a year, and over a year.

However, there is no clear definition of what “a day” actually means. Courses listed “a day” long range from 8.70 hours to 11.70 hours, the last of which is in effect longer than a full work day. However, you don’t have to complete the required hours in one shot, so you can spread it over a week, for instance. The shortest courses are three and a half hours long, and are considered “less than a day”.

The longest courses take 280 hours – there are only two of those. These fall under the one month to six month range. Search for courses longer than six months, and nothing turns up. So, assuming 280 hours over six months amounts to about 11.5 hours a week, or about one and a half hour per day, every day.

Yet there are also 90-hour courses that are categorised between the one week to one month range. Even if a full month is taken, it amounts to 22.5 hours a week – no small commitment if you’re working!

Basically, course duration is a very rough guide. Read the details of each course to find out more.

 

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GOVERNMENT officers will not be grouped merely by their educational qualifications from now on. This means that so long as poly diploma holders are competent and well-fit with relevant skills and work experience, they can compete fairly with degree graduates in job applications or career advancement.

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by Lim Qiu Ping

WHAT are Singaporeans looking for in this year’s Budget?

A 90-minute “Live” Q&A session, through Facebook, was held yesterday (Jan 4) at 8pm to find out. Organised by Reach, the G’s official feedback portal, the event was chaired by Mr Liang Eng Hwa, Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Finance and Trade and Industry, as well as Reach Supervisory Panel member Ms Foo Mee Har, a member of the same GPC.

The Facebook conversation covered three pre-arranged topics, with a fourth introduced in the final 13 minutes. These topics are, in the following order: supporting our families; transforming business to thrive in a competitive and digital world; enhancing workers’ skills and capabilities; building an inclusive society where people help one another.

There were 24 Facebook participants involved – including Reach, Mr Liang and Ms Foo – who provided a total of 46 comments (not counting the replies in the threads). The topic, which generated the most responses, is the one on how to transform businesses, creating a total of 40 replies.

Under this topic, three main areas of concern emerged.

First, about accessibility of grants for business to stay afloat or expand, with particular attention paid to the needs of the SMEs. Second, on what is necessary to create an ecosystem where entrepreneurship could thrive. Third, raising solutions to structural difficulties and unemployment, with particular worry for older workers amidst a consensus that local and overseas businesses are either already or getting digitalised.

 

 

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The next most popular topic was that of upgrading workers’ skills, which generated 21 replies. There was some debate on how effective skills upgrading programmes have been in helping people, especially older workers, find jobs. Time constraint was also a factor inhibiting the drive to acquire new skills, as pointed out by Facebook user Faizal Mohd.

 

In contrast, topics regarding developing an inclusive society and supporting families attracted 18 and 15 replies respectively. Input from participants included receiving childcare support in terms of time-offs and subsidies or rebates, as well as how to better inculcate volunteerism in Singaporeans, especially from young onwards. One Facebook user, Teo Lay Yan, gave an insight on looking beyond the handicapped when identifying those more needful of help.

 

Both Mr Liang and Ms Foo provided solutions when they were able to – such as in the case when Facebook user, Shabil Ali, raised the problem of increasing business costs and the toll it is taking on the SMEs. Mr Liang replied that there are a few assistance schemes in place, citing wage credit as well as those offered by the government agency Spring Singapore:  ICV (Innovation & Capability Voucher), CDG (Capability Development Grant) and TAP (Technology Adoption Programme).

Ms Foo agreed with Facebook user, Alan Yeap, that mentorship is needed to encourage expansion of businesses. She directed the user to an International Enterprise (IE) Singapore webpage, where relevant data and tips can be received for the purpose of business expansion into overseas markets.

Otherwise, Mr Liang and Ms Foo accepted and expressed thanks for some of the recommendations made. In a few cases, Ms Foo said they would convey the feedback to the relevant agencies. The two chairing GPC members were most active on the topics pertaining to transforming businesses and workers’ skills.

 

 

This is the second time Reach has organised a pre-Budget “Live” Q&A session on Facebook. The one last year, also 90 minutes long, was held at noon. The top topic then was about the SkillsFuture scheme and how its details could be better disseminated to the public.

It also attracted 20 participants altogether and 37 comments, 34 likes and five shares. Not only was this year’s discussion busier with more participants and comments, it garnered 48 likes and six shares.

The Facebook “Live” session was the latest in a number of outreach attempts by the G to feel the pulse of everyday Singaporeans when it comes to what they would like to see in the upcoming Budget. Since Dec 5 of last year till next Friday (Jan 13), members of the public have been and are still able to offer their suggestions for Budget 2017 through eight feedback channels opened by the Ministry of Finance.

These include the Singapore Budget Website, the Reach Budget microsite and Reach’s discussion forum.

During this period, Reach has also set up eight pre-Budget 2017 Listening Points islandwide, on various dates and times, where Singaporeans could give their opinions in person. This is an increase from three last year. The final Listening Point will happen this Saturday (Jan 8), 7.30am to 11am at Block 681, Hougang Avenue 8, Hougang Hawker Centre.

All public feedback will be taken into consideration for the design of Budget 2017, due to be announced on Feb 20 in parliament.

Significantly, a survey report released by the Singapore Business Federation on Dec 28 last year showed that most companies, especially the SMEs, did not find Budget 2016 helpful in dealing with immediate difficulties under the current more pessimistic economic climate. In the report, the proposed focus for Budget 2017 was to “look at measures to assist businesses with manpower issues as well as lower government compliance costs, fees and taxes”.

 

Featured image Numbers and Finance by Flickr user Ken Teegardin. (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

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by Bertha Henson

EVEN The Sunday Times has got into the act of trying to find a word to define 2016. Its poll involving observers and industry experts from 13 sectors threw up this blah word: challenging. I call it blah because most times, challenging is a euphemism. Why not say problematic or difficult? That’s because it smacks of too much pessimism. Say challenging and there’s still a chance that we can “rise up to the challenge”.

It’s like a weight-loss challenge – eat less and exercise more to achieve your desired weight. Would that it would be so easy to extrapolate from individual to country… Eating less and exercising more is well within an individual’s control or rather self-control. Being unable to rise up to the “challenge” means a lack of discipline and will power on the part of the individual. Outside forces (who’s forcing you to eat that bar of chocolate?) have little part to play in meeting the challenge.

So will 2017 be “challenging” too? And can we, as a nation, rise up to it?

We know the economy isn’t in high gear. The Prime Minister has said that we grew by more than 1 per cent last year, that is, probably between 1 and 1.5 per cent as officially projected. He said that it could be between 1 and 3 per cent in 2017. Who knows really? Projections have a way of being revised over the year, especially a city-state dependent on so many outside forces.

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Questioning whether the people here still have the mettle to go through hard times, The Straits Times columnist Han Fook Kwang called for a clearer vision of national identity or where the country wants to go.

Frankly, we’ve been navel-gazing over the identity issue every few years or so. Who remembers the Our Singapore Conversation? Here’s a re-cap if you want to recall:

  1. ‘Tweaks’ won’t fix S’pore meritocracy
  2. SGfuture dialogues: Let them not be same old, same old…

Or maybe it’s an economic identity we need and we should find it within the Committee on the Future Economy report expected this month. Hopefully it will not be so esoteric a vision that it can only be fulfilled in the next generation or the one after that.

We can expect the panel to point to new sectors of growth that will maximise our limited land and scarce manpower. We can also expect the panel, helmed by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, to say that a foundation is being laid with the focus on skills training and becoming master craftsmen. Engineering is being made sexy again.

But what about the rest of us who have passed through the school years and are half-way into a working life? We’ll be asked to train and re-train, no doubt. Or maybe to make sacrifices of some sort to assure the country’s continued future. Expect to hear the word “resilience” often.

I would like to offer an old-new word, “excellence”.

I would like to offer an old-new word, “excellence”. It’s been a long time since the phrase “the pursuit of excellence” has been in vogue. Like “meritocracy”, it’s been put on the back burner because it’s simply too stressful to be excellent. In fact, people associate excellent with excellent grades which equals to terrible stress on Ah Boy and Ah Girl. I doubt that the term is even used in working life because it’s hard to pursue work excellence while pursuing work-life balance.

Face it. We’ve gotten fat and flabby.

It shows in the way we don’t want to take up jobs that demand time and physical energy and can cite so many reasons why we won’t. It shows in our young people’s heightened expectations of the good life once we step into the working world. It shows in the way we are complacent about Number 1 rankings on international charts and yet chafe when things don’t go as efficiently or effectively as we think they should.

Everybody else and every group/agency should be excellent in their production or service. But we wouldn’t think the same for ourselves because we need time to smell the roses and explore the world. Yup, we deserve our work-life balance.

Our children, even more so.

This is not an attempt to deride young people. The fault, really, lies in the members of my generation who grew up to be better-off than our parents and want our children to be better-off than us – immediately. But for things to be better, we have to work harder and be even smarter. We have to be excellent.

We’re already working the longest hours we say? But we can’t be very smart about it since it isn’t showing on productivity charts. We used to progress at breakneck speed and suggestions that we can slow down the pace were slapped down. Nobody slaps anybody for wanting a slower pace now, because the mantra that we should be content with moderate growth has been drummed into us over the past decade.

We talk of forces beyond our control, which make for excellent scape-goats. We don’t say that we’re fat, lazy and unproductive people who like to grumble about everything. A politician who harangues the people this way risks political suicide. We don’t have Lee Kuan Yew to lecture and hector us to be the best that we can be.

We don’t have Lee Kuan Yew to lecture and hector us to be the best that we can be.

We’re content with “good enough”.

It’s demonstrated in several areas (except public transport which must be beyond excellent). Ah Boy’s grades are good enough. Not so many mistakes, so good enough. Being competent is good enough. Why drive yourself so hard when you’re good enough? Why not be content with good enough? Some of us can think that way, but not all of us.

We’re a city-state. We’re not competing among countries but among cities. The best talent in a country live and work in big cities. They can pull along the rest who decide to opt out of the rat race and live in the country-side. We don’t have a countryside with a slower treadmill.

But it’s not good to have high standards because you’ll be construed as unreasonable and described as a slave-driver. The bar gets lowered until mediocre becomes good enough. Why does the bar go down? Because it’s easier to make people feel good about themselves and harder to tell them that they are fat, lazy and unproductive.

I thought the pursuit of excellence would be in fashion because there was a time when the word “exceptional” was being bandied around.

Here’s what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the May Day rally in 2015: “We as a country we have to be ordinary people creating an exceptional nation because we are a small country in this part of the world and to survive you have to be exceptional. If you are in Europe, you might say if I’m something like my neighbours, that’s good enough. In Singapore, in Southeast Asia, if we say let’s just be something like our neighbours, you’ll be pushed around, shoved about, trampled upon, that’s the end of Singapore and the end of us.” 

Of course, it sounds like end-of-the-world rhetoric and we’re so put off by the “vulnerability” narrative aren’t we?

Maybe we do need a clearer vision, a new dream that will push us further.

After Mr Lee died in 2015, his phrase “chasing rainbows” made in a speech more than 20 years, was resurrected. His son, the PM, referred to it a few times. What the late Mr Lee said: “The sky has turned brighter. There is a glorious rainbow that beckons those with the spirit of adventure. And there are rich findings at the end of that rainbow. To the young and the not too old, I say, look at the horizon, find that rainbow, go ride it.”

The phrase caught on even though rainbows are elusive and a rainbow chaser could be as mad as a storm chaser. I like it though. It’s aspirational but it seems a more apt motto for individuals than a body-politic.

I don’t think I want to live through another bout of public navel-gazing about identity. I would appreciate someone just putting that dream out there, and getting people on board. That would be excellent leadership, methinks.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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