Automating Singapore’s workplace: To fear or not to fear?

With 658 robots per 10,000 human workers, Singapore already boasts the world’s second-highest robot density. In coping with Industry 4.0, the rise of robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), the Singaporean workforce faces an increasingly volatile future.

By Maegan Liew

Technological innovations brought about by the fourth industrial revolution are transforming the economy in radical ways. The autonomous economy is becoming a reality. Advancements in AI, robotics and the Internet of things (IoT) are ushering in a new age of automation.

Workplace automation in Singapore is expected to double within three years to cover 29% of all work done by companies, up from 14% in 2018. This could mean unemployment for at least 5% of full-time workers in Singapore.

To avoid being left behind, Singapore must adopt new strategies to keep pace with global technological advancements. Automation of the economy will be critical to driving Singapore’s growth and competitiveness. McKinsey Global Institute estimates that automation could raise global productivity growth by up to 1.4% annually. But for the Singaporean workforce, automation could introduce serious challenges and disruptions to existing jobs and skillsets of today.

Photo: Sara Starkweather

Singapore’s workplace faces a future of extensive automation

Automation enables businesses to achieve breakthroughs in performance and productivity by reducing error rates and raising efficiency. The ‘Robot Revolution’ offers a promising solution to Singapore’s impending labour shortages resulting from the country’s ageing population and shrinking workforce.

For example, by March next year, 300 cleaning robots developed by local robotics firm LionsBot International will be deployed across the city-state.

But workplace automation goes beyond robotics. Fundamentally, automation is about substituting human labour for machine labour for the execution of repetitive tasks. As technology becomes more sophisticated this remit is expanding. Machine learning and AI are making new forms of ‘smart’ automation for higher-order tasks possible, further increasing the role of machines in the workplace and reducing the responsibilities of human employees.  

Automation will alter the nature of job roles in the financial services industry, for example. A study by Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and the Institute of Banking and Finance (IBF) found that one-third of jobs in Singapore’s financial services industry could become merged or redundant in the next three to five years from automation developments.

Automation doesn’t mean replacement

According to a report by McKinsey Global Institute, almost all jobs currently occupied by humans can be at least partially automated with currently demonstrated technologies. But occupations that are vulnerable to full automation stands at only 5%.

Workers in Singapore’s Chinatown
Photo: Digitalpimp

This shows automation does not equate to the replacement of jobs. Each occupation rests on more than one type of activity, and different kinds of activities present varying potential for automaton, but the complete substitution of human labour is still an improbable development for now.

Physical labour in predictable and controlled environments is most prone to automation. On the other hand, work that involves the management or development of people and creative work are the hardest tasks to automate.

As automation transforms work processes, new jobs will emerge that complement and oversee machines, changing the skillsets demanded of the Singaporean workforce.

The Singapore government is investing in efforts to help both businesses and workers cope with automation

The Singapore government has invested capital to help companies defray costs incurred by the move towards automation. Early this year, Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat announced the extension of the Automation Support Package (ASP) by another two years in a bid to encourage more companies to adopt automation in their operations and raise productivity.

First introduced at Budget 2016, the Automation Support Package (ASP) aims to assist companies in the large-scale deployment of automated solutions through grant, tax and loan support. Up to 50% of qualifying costs incurred by businesses in the adoption of automation solutions can be covered by grant support under the Enterprise Development Grant, with a grant cap of S$1 million (US$733,275). More than 300 companies have benefited from the ASP since its launch.

At the same time, the Republic is working to ensure that the benefits of industry and enterprise transformation are also passed on to its workers. Ensuring positive outcomes for employees is set to become a criterion in applications for Enterprise Singapore’s Enterprise Development Grant from April next year.

Efforts have also been invested in developing the capabilities of Singapore’s workforce to adapt to the age of automation. These efforts, taking the form of Adapt and Grow initiatives and continuing education and training, amounted to more than S$1.1 billion (US$810 million) in the 2017 financial year. Nearly half of the Singaporean labour force has participated in upskilling and reskilling trainings.

The key to realising the age of automation is to empower the people in it

The Singaporean government has introduced Industry Transformation Maps to support both employers and employees in the pursuit of digital transformation. Under the S$4.5 billion (US$3.3 billion) Industry Transformation Programme, 23 industries will see the development of individual roadmaps that will address specific challenges within each industry and deepen partnerships between the government, firms, industries, trade associations and chambers.

The Skills Framework has also been rolled out as an integral component of the Industry Transformation Maps. The framework provides information industry-specific information on job roles and future skill demands to facilitate career and skills development and support employment and employability.

The government has provided the necessary resources to guide employers and workers into an automated future. But the future of an automated workplace will lie principally on the shoulders of those in it. Both employers and employees must view education and workforce strategies in a new light.

At its core, automation seeks to address menial, repetitive tasks and free-up employees’ time to focus on value-added activities that technologies fall short on. Companies must recognise the importance of equipping their workers with the skillsets that match the shifting needs of the industry. Their ability to leverage new technologies in Industry 4.0 will depend on the cultivation of a robust, capable and adaptable workforce.