Re-imagining skills development in Singapore

Academic Views, Coronavirus / Friday, June 26th, 2020

Arthur Chia, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Adult Learning, Singapore University of Social Sciences, argues that a more worker-centric approach to skills development is needed in Singapore.

The history of skills development in Singapore’s industrial planning

In Singapore, public investment in education, training and lifelong learning initiatives have primarily sought to equip students and workers with skills and knowledge to participate in the labour market. “This policy is founded on the fundamental belief that a skilled workforce is the only way to ensure the creation of employment because skills and employment offer the best social safety net” (Gog, 2019, p.208). But skills development also has political economy implications. In this context, I propose instead a “social economy”, based on the idea of “democratization of power over economic life by subordinating both economic power and state power to social power, power rooted in voluntary cooperation for collective action” (Wright, 2011, p.36). Economic activity can be organised based on principles of democracy and equality, distinct from state-organised and/or market-driven production, and yet not antagonistic to market forces and state powers.

The strategy of “export-led industrialisation through multi-national corporations”, pursued from 1965 to 1984 (Menon, 2015), set the stage for skills formation in Singapore. Together with the other “tiger economies” of South Korea and Taiwan, Singapore looked to Japan as a model of rapid industrialisation, with an interventionist industrial policy which “targeted and found ways to break into world markets dominated by Western powers, and foster the growth of indigenous companies” (Ashton et al, 2002, p.11). Albert Winsemius—a highly respected Dutch economist and “unofficial economic advisor” to the Singapore government from the 1960s—also urged an interventionist role “more forcefully in politics than in economics”, given a series of labour strikes in the early 1960s (Loh, 2019, p.83).

Unlike post-war Japan, Singapore and the other tiger economies had neither a competitive advantage in technological capabilities, nor a highly-skilled and educated workforce, so they focused on strong and direct government action in education and training. In Singapore, this sought to meet the needs of specific sectors, such as the oil, chemical, electronics and electrical industries (Ashton et al, 2002). The level and type of skills developed for these industries were delivered through the national education system, allowing centralised control over the curriculum and pedagogy.

A car manufacturing plant in Japan, whose rapid industrialisation became a model for Singapore and other “tiger economies” for several decades. (Photo: Bertel Schmitt)

Skills development was so closely integrated with the rapid industrialisation agenda that institutions for technical skills training and development, like Singapore Polytechnic (established with the help of British technical experts in 1958) became “an instrument of a formal, state-directed system capable of organising socio-economic change” (Loh, 2014, p.578).

The need to deliver progressively higher level skills for higher value-added production across a relatively narrow range of industries drove skills development to become increasingly specialised at the secondary and higher education systems. The Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), aided by the Economic Development Board (EDB), had the job of coordinating this provision with industrial development and inward investment, to “ensure that the requirements of the government’s industrial strategy take precedence over those of the vested interests of any one Ministry or Board” (Ashton et al, 2002, p.16).

Since the early days of independence, data on national skills needs have been systematically collected and analysed, alongside education and training data. These become the basis for targets and guidelines for educational institutions and investments in training. Decisions about education and training capacity, educational outputs, and migrant labour (to fill in skill shortages) have been made around industrial policies. One keen observer describes Singapore (tongue-in-cheek) as not so much having an industrial policy as “it is an industrial policy” (Garfinkel, 2020).

“Skills” became an administrative category in education, manpower, and industrial planning. The government adopted a supply-side policy agenda, seeking to control the qualities and characteristics of workers and the workforce through education and training, while leaving production and other work-related practices to companies.

Skills development relies on the effective coordination of capital and labour, and subordination of education and training policies to industry needs. Less emphasis was placed on the needs and interests of community and/or working people, or approaches which could enable workers to not just develop the necessary skills for their work, but also to self-organise and safe-guard their shared interests, and to extend their knowledge (Olesen, 2015, p.545).

Some economists (Green et al, 1999) regard the government taking this role as “coordinator” of skills  as a better alternative to the market process of skills formation. The underlying assumption is that the state, and more precisely political office holders, can and always do anticipate market demand correctly, as they have “potentially superior information and can therefore make better judgments (than individuals) about the returns to various types of skill formation” (Green et al, 1999, p.86).

Skills development also operates at an ideological level, in a labour situation called “stake-holding” that emphasises “self-reliance” and the notion that “a low-paying job is better than no job” (Gog, 2019, p.214). Stake-holding maximises the labour power directed by the state. This is explicit in purpose and design, “workers maximising their contribution in terms of their ability, and in the end creating their own stake-holding vis-à-vis their respective input into economic development process…It is all about establishing one’s own stake within society under the leadership of the developmental state” (Sung, 2006, p.93 in Gog, 2019, p.214). “Stake-holding” has helped to enable and sustain full labour force participation. But this is also a form of “factor accumulation”, especially when low-waged workers are kept in perpetual employment, which generates GDP growth but “at the expense of productivity growth, and of citizens’ social welfare” (Pang & Lim, 2015, p.23).

The current reality of skills development

Security guards on patrol. The author highlights this as a sector where low-waged workers have not been well served by the current “skills development” paradigm. (Photo: Huaiwei)

Skills development has not worked as well as policy makers wished, especially for low-waged workers in sectors such as private security. Here, the realities of industry practices—like “cheap sourcing”, “short contract terms”, “low-skills demand”, and the unwillingness of security companies to help workers upgrade—severely limited the promise of skills development for higher wages and productivity (Gog, 2019). Thus an alternative to the supply-side policy agenda is required.

In order to achieve broader and more equitable distribution of economic benefits, skills development needs to be informed by a different economic paradigm. For example, one plausible framework is a “social economy” whose “hallmark is production organized by collectivities directly to satisfy human needs not subject to the discipline of profit maximization or state technocratic rationality” (Wright, 2010, p.140-141).

However, the COVID-19 situation has only intensified state planning and management of jobs and skills development, reinforcing the prioritisation of industrial planning and development over other policy arenas. There is a sense of déjà vu about the government response, with many factors seemingly taken from the playbook of 1965-1984: the focus on investments in infrastructure, increasing the quantity and quality of capital and labour for a digital industry, and technocratic governance.

Changing the position of labour and social economy enterprises

In contrast to the modernist economic narrative of “Third World to First”, the political economy story of workers in Singapore is one of failure rather than triumph. Workers have failed to organise

even in those periods when they were able to wield power in protest against unfavourable working conditions because it was impossible to separate workers’ movements from ethnic, political and even family groupings. This failure to develop an autonomous sense of consciousness as workers has been a major stumbling block to the long-term success of labour movements in Singapore.

(Trocki, 2001, p.115)

The strong alliance between business and government, established since the 1960s, means that workers continue to “take a back-seat to the demands of industrial development and administrative authoritarianism” (Trocki, 2001, p.129). In Singapore’s “tripartite model” of labour relations, labour tends to be disempowered, and workers’ interests underrepresented and under-served relative to those of businesses and the state.

Following the successful suppression of communist-dominated unions in the 1960s, and state control over workers’ movement and unions (Trocki, 2001, p.129), workers continue to be disciplined in new and sophisticated ways by human resource development practices. For instance, the practical implementation of knowledge and skills has been translated into managerial tools and measurements for governing and bench-marking purposes that serve business interests. It remains to be seen if the use of skills in the national jobs, skills, and training classificatory schema called “Skills Framework” has helped to deliver on the social goods promised, or if it has merely provided “the justification for different points of remuneration thus feeding into the broader inequitable distributions of income” (Richardson & Bissell, 2019, p.279), further constraining workers.

Has the Skills Framework delivered on the social goods promised?

Observers have astutely noted that the Skills Framework over-simplifies skills development: “Take work. Decompose it into tasks and skills. Train people in those skills.” (Poon & Kuah, 2019) They imply that this Taylorist notion of skills used in factory management not only reduces the complexity of workers’ labour into packages marked by time-cost coordinates, but also leaves little room for workers to reflect, think, and grow in their own capacities. High levels of dissatisfaction towards skills development are reflected in a 2019 LinkedIn survey that highlighted “barriers” or challenges to training and learning including employee (dis)engagement, and uncertainty about its effectiveness and relevance.

Alternatively, skills can be more broadly defined as the individual and collective ability to do things in the world, produce effects, and develop “know-how” such as “the ability to reflect — to consider what works and what to do differently” (Poon & Kuah, 2019). This leads to a better quality of work, is more worker-centric, and operates on “the human side of political economy: the living forces of production, the anthropology of labour power, the soft tissue of capitalism” (Fore, 2014).

It is crucial that workers participate more equitably, freely, and creatively in the life of business, society, and the economy, to achieve fairer economic growth, real productivity gains, and greater job satisfaction. This can be enabled by a model of “social economy enterprise” for businesses that serve the local market. Such an enterprise “aims to serve the community rather than strive for profit; establishes democratic decision-making processes; prioritizes people and work over capital in the distribution of revenue and surplus; bases its activities on principles of participation, empowerment, and individual and collective responsibility” (Wright, 2010, p.136). This model prioritises building or establishing an equitable relationship between businesses and workers—where workers have a say in how their organisations are run and how the economy works—rather than regulatory measures to curb the excesses of capitalism. Here, business activities are directed by workers’ interests, on the basis that workers “constitute the universal class whose interests are identical to the interests of society as a whole” (Wright, 2011, p.9). Workers are empowered to democratically perform key business activities such as “(a) divide all the labours to be performed, (b) determine what is to be produced, how it is to be produced, and where it is to be produced, and (c) decide on the use and distribution of the output or revenues (if output is monetized)” (Wolff, 2016, p.4). For instance, Mondragón Cooperative Corporation is a group of worker-owned enterprises in the Basque region of Spain, where “worker-owners retain meaningful democratic control over the broad strategies of the individual firms and the larger corporation, and in this respect function very differently from capitalist corporations” (Wright, 2010, p.171).

Tombalek is an example of a Singapore company which runs on social economy principles. (Screenshot from Tombalek website, taken on 26 June 2020.)

Some home-grown companies also operate on social economy principles. Tombalek conducts classes on wood-work, runs a “maker-space” or technical workshop, and retails materials and tools for wood production. Aiming to develop, sustain, and promote craft work in Singapore, the company differentiates itself from other carpentry companies or more conventional businesses in terms of how members/staff are expected to take risks and develop their own craft. Founder-director Kung Guangjun recognises that staff development is intrinsically tied to company growth and profitability, and staff support each other in progressing and discovering new disciplines, carry out new organisational activities, and in the process develop new areas of business.

Similarly, OneMaker Group (OMG) is a community centric enterprise that seeks to promote and develop a “DIY culture”. It manages technical and technology resource centres, provides product design and prototyping services, and conducts educational and corporate development programmes. According to founder-director William Hooi, the company relies on the reciprocity of “kindness and goodwill of many people”, and this community of “makers” has helped to build and sustain OMG over the years, creating new business opportunities, and enabling it to survive difficult times like the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Business closures due to the pandemic offer a chance for workers to take over employers’ business operations. Home-grown chains Home-Fix and Ministry of Food may still offer resources—such as workers’ experience, skills, knowledge, and expertise, business networks and customer base— that could be turned into new social economy enterprises, like central kitchens, technical resource centres or training centres. New entities could be incorporated as enterprises directly owned by workers, and linked to other employee-owned businesses, with arrangements to make contributions to a pooled investment fund, and an operating capital fund that runs a collective or shared business function. The government could offer critical investment funds and supporting services like research and development, training, and business development. This could not only save jobs but also create entrepreneurial opportunities and a chance to experiment with new economic/business models.


For skills development to deliver on its social and economic impacts, it needs to be liberated from the dominant technocratic discourses of industrial planning and a supply-side policy agenda aimed at coordinating, intensifying, and maximising capital and labour inputs.  With the pandemic likely upending traditional sources of globalised market demand, creating uncertainty about what an effective supply-side policy would be, the time is ripe for experimenting with alternate business models. These of necessity must be based on society’s major resource—its labour and skills.

Workers need to be part of the picture in re-thinking and re-doing the economy. This would require a concept of labour and training akin to jazz—the modality of creativity, adaptation, and open-endedness; a democratic sensibility; opportunities to participate in the economy. It means helping or facilitating workers to make business decisions, and to innovate, improvise, collaborate, and respond to changing needs and times. Workers will have to learn how to use their skills and knowledge as resources for “democratic power” i.e. to participate in decision making about the directions of organisations, economy, and society.

Although the pandemic has accelerated existing problems under capitalism, there is a real opportunity created. A skills development initiative could empower workers by and enable new ways of doing business, and by extension give people a greater say in the kind of economy and society they live in. Beyond this, more is needed for fundamental economic transformation, such as a wider social safety net encompassing basic income, universal health care, pension, and other social benefits. These will not only make it easier for workers to establish self-managed enterprises but also create the conditions for social economy principles of democracy and equality to function.


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Carl Trocki, “Development of Labour Organisation in Singapore, 1800-1960”, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 47(1): 115-129, (2001)

David Ashton, Francis Green, Johnny Sung amd Donna James, “The evolution of education and training strategies in Singapore, Taiwan and S. Korea: a development model of skill formation”, Journal of Education and Work, 15(1): 5-30 (2002)

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