Where are we heading towards?

In 2002, when I was a young journalist, I met a cranky old lawyer who had many things to say about Singapore society. The one thing I remember him saying during that interview was this:

“I tell you, the young people of today need to worry. They were told by the government that if they studied hard and got good grades, they will get a condo, car and cash and whatever. But I see so many young people who face so many problems even though they have all the qualifications and work so hard.”

Our cohort born in 1976 had it tough when we came out to work around the early 2000s. There was the 1998 financial crash, followed by the 2001 recession and Twin Towers attack, and then SARS in 2003. I had job security because I had signed on with SPH on a scholarship (I still wonder if it was the right move). But as a journalist with a tabloid, I spoke to many people who really had it tough in their working life and my batch of fresh graduates understood what we had to do Рjust endure and wait for times to get better.

The economy did get better (at least until the 2008 crash), but we didn’t realize how the Gahmen would flood our shores with foreign talent to prop up the economy until we noticed how many of them were in the trains with us.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no issues with foreign talent (I was amused how I had learn how to speak Mandarin better to some China-born service staff), but many people became unhappy with the drastic change in the workforce mix of locals vs foreigners.

So after the 2011 elections, the Gahmen started to reverse its policies and pay more attention to the grouses of the public. In 2015, the public rewarded the PAP with a 70% vote of approval at the elections, boosted by the LKY effect and the uncertain economy.

Maybe the old lawyer was too pessimistic about society. If we worked hard and endured, perhaps we could do okay. Many of my cohort now have their own apartments and maybe not a car, but still getting by, or doing pretty well.

But what I mentioned above is merely reflective of traditional market cycles.

In 2015, some macro and technological shifts are happening which I am not sure if many people are even aware of, even as it happens right in front of them. I’ve been wanting to write this for some time, but I don’t know if I can articulate this properly, so bear with me if I sound incoherent. I suspect we might be heading towards a future we won’t like one bit.

Firstly, our traditional skills are becoming rapidly obsolete or valued less, faster than ever before.

Being able to write well is a precious skill. To qualify as a journalist in SPH, I had to take a writing test where it was said the passing rate was only 25%. Many households subscribed the newspapers in the past and held writers in esteem.

Great writers are still respected, but many journalists have lost their jobs around the world, or are paid poorly, because content has become a largely free commodity thanks to the Internet and free news sites.

The other area which I’m familiar with – photography – has become a strange place where everyone is now a better photographer thanks to a great camera on their smartphone, and much more familiarity with visual concepts due to easy editing apps and filters. Good pro photogs can still make a living, but I was stunned to see sites like Pexels where many high-quality images are now offered as royalty-free stock photography for anyone to use (I’m using it too!).

In a world where many things have become commoditised or free, why would people desire to become a professional writer or photographer?

The other area I’ve been working in is at retail. I do plenty of online shopping for goods I cannot get at retail and retailers are reeling from the e-commerce competition and “showrooming”.

Faced with high rents (especially during the good years), reduced margins (due to online competition) and an audience with more shopping choices, the only obvious route is for retailers to shutter more stores, lay off more staff and shift more of their operations online. Logistics folks would benefit, but as they compete for more transactions, they’ll want the cheapest possible couriers and despatch labor.

My point is that technology is displacing too many jobs too quickly. We know that but do we understand what we can do about it when it hits our own areas of expertise and experience?

Not everyone has the aptitude or opportunities to become a highly-skilled professional like a doctor or lawyer. The masses are still trying to get by, but I get the bad feeling that all this technological disruption is creating a bigger divide between the haves and have-nots, and hardly benefiting the latter.

I see the Gahmen now rushing to improve people’s skill sets with $500 worth of SkillsFuture credits. It’s a long-needed initiative to increase productivity and improve skill sets but let’s get real – what does it really take to upgrade people’s skill sets for the next five to ten years?

It’s not just about free training courses, but job opportunities where employers are willing to give skills upgraders a chance to prove themselves. Another long story is the mindset change required by employees themselves (but not today). A common thing I’ve been hearing more of today from middle-aged people who get displaced is “I’m going to become a taxi driver or Uber driver.” That’s a viable option to keep the lights on, but who really benefits when you become a crowdsourced worker?

Also, what new job skills are needed in a society like Singapore that has become one of almost pure consumption?

Just consider what many social circles like to talk about on Facebook – it’s usually about something they want to buy, wish to buy, wish to experience (after buying), had bought and experienced, and so on. It doesn’t matter whether it is about food, gadgets or holidays – people are just fixated on consumption and materialism. Otherwise, their time is spent reading about people’s misfortunes or mistakes online.

Perhaps I’m just naive and that society has always run on consumption. People go to work to create, distribute or present something that others will buy. Or they work to produce essential services that support societal infrastructure (security, sanitation, construction, transport etc).

However, don’t you get the same feeling I do that this consumption culture has run amok?

People walk around with their faces glued to their phones, including me (and I am trying to rip away constantly). If they’re not messaging, they’re reading and reading – in essence, they are consuming and consuming content. The outcome is generating more content in the form of replies, comments or a material purchase – thus more content for another person to consume.

Let’s say generating consumption is good and we need it to get society moving and get people paid.

But what about creation and creativity by the individual for non-consumption purposes?

This reminds me of the scene in Wall-E when the future human is just this fat blob that doesn’t walk or think, but floats around on machines consuming content, food and advertisements endlessly. Or are we already there? Is the mass worker’s job of the future about supporting endlessly scrollable content for people to fixate on?

To take a breather here, I have these swirling thoughts constantly because I wonder what my children are going to experience when they finish school and go to work in a decade’s time.

Readers of this blog will know I’m of the firm opinion that the Singapore education system is completely warped, robs children of their innocence, and doesn’t teach them what they really need to learn – ie. what they want for themselves.

The system is further messed up by parents who have a completely wrong idea about what education is about. MP Denise Phua articulated the problems well this week, but she’s surrounded by decision-makers who don’t defend their actions and continue to inflict our children with immeasurable misery that will probably lead to naught. I always say our education system is designed for filtering out the best civil servants, while discarding the rest.

One example is this whole talk by educators about everyone should learn how to code. Well, what subjects are we dropping in school to focus more on coding? Why are kids still learning complex mathematical concepts that are useless in driving the economy or in their future as innovators? Children are asked to learn things that used to be in our old-timers’ curriculum, while expected to pack a laptop in their bag along with their heavy textbooks. This is just ludicrous.

All this recent talk about parents sending their children for sports tuition so they can ace the Direct School Admission program is totally predictable. You can say parents are “kiasu”, I’d say they’re just ignorant and “uneducated” in what it means to be a true sportsman. So what if you can get into a good school through DSA? Look at the sorry plight of the RI athletes.

Now to shift gears a bit – The millennials probably wonder why the earlier generations call them self-entitled. Well, I’ve seen a few cases where young people apply for jobs and don’t even bother to turn up for interviews, or give a call beforehand to cancel. There are great young people I work with, but there are some really rotten eggs who think the world owes them a living.

Perhaps it’s our fault because we tried to make things comfortable for them.

I have difficulty explaining to my children what it is like to grow up in a dirty shophouse and not have any new toys, because I don’t want them to go through what I did. But you know how it goes, if you don’t experience a tough livelihood, you don’t truly understand what it means to toughen up.

In the past year, I’ve already largely decluttered my life and try to cut cost wherever possible (the Ducati is paid up for, if you’re wondering). I went shopping for a new shirt for CNY today but was just aghast at the poor designs and high prices. My family has gone along with this mode of living, but even then, we’re still more comfortable than many poor families globally and my kids will still not understand the plight of the have-nots and I honestly don’t know how to teach them toughness in that sense.

Finally, mashing all these ramblings together – what happens when you put together an older working population that may not be able to upgrade itself in time, a young generation which doesn’t really understand poverty or decluttering, pervasive technology that is both empowering and inhibiting to the mind, and an economy that will reel if people stop buying non-essential things?

I don’t have any answers, just more questions.

2 Replies to “Where are we heading towards?”

  1. Hi,
    Thank you for writing this honest view on poor Singaporeans plight. We must thank crafted policies for all that is happening on the ground. Elitism is the truly breeding and alive in Singapore.

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