Japan, U.S. support Singapore's future work centre that prepares Asean workforce for new opportunities

15, Oct. 2020

Eiji Hisatomi, managing director of JETRO Singapore, said Japanese companies will be able to do business more easily if the skills of Asean workers are improved. This picture shows a promotional event for an online store, one of the activities of JETRO in Singapore. In May this year, JETRO launched a digital transformation platform with Asean-based start-ups to help accelerate the digital transformation of Japanese enterprises in the region. Photo by Celine Chen.
Eiji Hisatomi, managing director of JETRO Singapore, said Japanese companies will be able to do business more easily if the skills of Asean workers are improved. This picture shows a promotional event for an online store, one of the activities of JETRO in Singapore. In May this year, JETRO launched a digital transformation platform with Asean-based start-ups to help accelerate the digital transformation of Japanese enterprises in the region. Photo by Celine Chen.

By Celine Chen

Having mooted the idea last year for a regional centre to help Southeast Asia prepare its people for the changing nature of work, Singapore finally launched it last month (Sep. 29) as the region emerged cautiously from the throes of the coronavirus pandemic.

When Asean member-states gave their stamp of approval for the centre last year, their economies were still flourishing and attracting investments.

But the world turned upside down when the COVID-19 contagion struck, forcing unprecedented country and travel shutdowns which resulted in the worst recession in decades for many countries, and the loss of millions of jobs and businesses.

Shifting into top gear, the setting up of the Regional Centre for the Future of Work (RCFW) has now become part of an urgent comprehensive plan to help stricken countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) recover from the devastating impact of the crisis and band even closer together to boost the resilience of their economies for possibly the long haul.

Focusing on three areas, the centre will help workers embrace technology for inclusive growth, enhance workplace safety and health for sustainable work, and pursue tripartism with the involvement of governments, businesses and workers to ensure active implementation of these plans.

When launching the centre last month, Singapore's manpower minister Josephine Teo said it had become more dire for the three groups to come together to prepare for the future of work.

"Prior to COVID-19, the world of work was already transforming due to technological advances and shifts in global supply chains, among other drivers of change. The pandemic has accelerated this transformation," she said.

Teo said the centre will institutionalise regional efforts to seize emerging opportunities and tackle challenges, especially during the ongoing pandemic.

Highlighting the rapidly worsening impact on livelihoods in the region, she said, "In Asia and the Pacific alone, the total loss in working hours for the second quarter of 2020 was equivalent to 235 million full-time jobs. Vulnerable workers in informal and low-wage work were among the hardest hit."

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that a staggering 35 million full-time jobs had vanished in Southeast Asia in the second quarter.

The centre has three advisers, including Asean secretary-general Lim Jock Hoi. It will be staffed by a team from Singapore's manpower ministry.

As a start, tripartite panels and regional participants discussed labour market challenges resulting from COVID-19 at a conference held last month when the centre was launched.

Singapore proposed the centre idea as a regional initiative to Asean leaders and International Labour Organisation representatives at the Singapore Conference on the Future of Work held in April last year.

At the conference, Asean labour ministers adopted an inaugural Asean joint statement on the 'Future of Work', which Teo had said the centre would support.

The ministers pledged their commitment to raise education standards, increase labour force participation, and help businesses use technology to create better jobs, among other things.

Last month, Asean ministers reaffirmed their commitment, but on a more urgent note after seeing how the region had to depend heavily on the digital economy to cope with challenges during the pandemic.

They stressed the need to assist people and businesses affected by the COVID-19 impact, especially the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), start-ups and vulnerable groups by facilitating their integration into the digital economy and enabling them to maintain operations.

The ministers also reaffirmed continuing support for future initiatives to prepare MSMEs for the demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and more innovations to sharpen the region’s long-term competitiveness.

The flurry of meetings among Asean members via video-conferences in September also saw a renewal of strategic partnerships in many areas, from trade to security, with key countries and groupings from around the world.

Chief among them are the United States and Japan, two long-standing Asean partners who have given their commitment to support skills development for existing industries and future businesses in the region.

Expressing confidence in Singapore's role in the region, CEO Hsien-Hsien Lei of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Singapore, told NNA, "Singapore will emerge stronger from crises as long as there is continued focus on upskilling workers and welcoming talent from around the world to service markets globally."

"With a strong talent pool qualified to carry out the work required by regional and global headquarters, Singapore’s status as an international hub will grow stronger," she added.

Reiterating that AmCham member companies represent the best of American business values, she said they are committed to nurturing innovation and boosting careers through job creation and training, among other things.

AmCham has introduced a year-long 'Next-Generation Upgrade' program to train more locals for leadership positions as it helps companies to create a "future-ready" workforce.

CEO Lei said, "Challenges confronting leaders have never been more complex, including digital transformation, COVID-19, economic recession, trade, and other prevailing issues. To withstand this uncertain business climate, NextGen Upgrade aims to strategically leverage industry expertise and the experience of our business community to support the growth of the next generation of leaders."

Asean also looked to Japan for expertise in digitization, electronics and automation, with a view to developing regional strengths in these areas.

In May this year, Japan's external trade organization (JETRO), launched a digital transformation platform with Asean-based start-ups to help accelerate the digital transformation of Japanese enterprises in the region and train employees including locals.

Earlier on Wednesday this week (Oct. 13), JETRO implemented a corporate innovation program on the platform for selected Japanese companies to train them on overcoming business challenges.

Welcoming the establishment of the regional skills centre, Eiji Hisatomi, managing director of JETRO Singapore, said Japanese companies will be able to go local more easily if the skills of Asean workers are brushed up further.

He told NNA, "The companies said it is not easy to find suitable workers, especially for management level. Although Japanese factories in Asean use automated machines, they are still managed and operated by humans. And while many consumers enjoy shopping on e-commerce, most of them still want the human touch too - to be treated carefully and politely. To provide better services to their customers, Japanese companies, both manufactures and sellers, will want to hire trained workers with such capabilities and skills."

While it is better for workers to be familiar with digital technology, the more important thing is to have good communication skills, said Hisatomi, adding that good managers can cultivate such qualities regardless of their nationality.

Asean is predicted to become the fourth-largest economy in the world by 2030, after the United States, China, and the European Union, according to analysts.

The region has a growing educated and young workforce, and an emerging middle class with about 60 percent of its population aged below 35, strong factors that Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong had noted.

Before the pandemic struck, it was also home to four of the world's fastest growing economies, including Singapore, in recent years.

On the importance of Asean to Japanese companies, Hisatomi said they see the region not only as a manufacturing base which is "almost equal to China, but as a promising consumer market too."

In fact, Japan's direct investments in Asean have jumped by leaps and bounds over the decades, from $7 billion in 2009 to $34.7 billion in 2019, far exceeding its investments in China for the most part of that period. Japan's investment in China was $14.3 billion last year.

However, Japanese companies still harbor the hope that Asean countries deregulate industries as widely as possible, and make their rules clear and transparent, said Hisatomi.

"It would also be better if the rules are uniform across Asean countries like how it is in the European Union because Japanese companies do business not only in a certain country but across the region," he added.

Established in1967, Asean has expanded over the years to include more states in Southeast Asia. Its10 members today are Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Asean is now appraising Timor-Leste's request to join the grouping as its 11th member.