Technological developments and advancements are not new to the human race. The world has not looked back since the industrial revolution that changed manufacturing and the lives of the workers. These changes boasted better productivity, profits for the companies and wages for the workers. Countries embraced these changes wholeheartedly. It led to better quality of life for much of humanity. Yet there were some downsides to these changes. The automation and routinisation of work led, in some cases, to the decline of workers’ well-being and morale. This generated an industry of research and ultimately to solutions that companies can adopt to help boost workers’ morale without undermining the gains from automation. The disruptive effects of new technologies and processes are here to stay.
Today we are seeing another technological revolution brought about by the rapid changes in the info-communications and technology sector. New technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), 5G, Internet of Things, robotics, autonomous vehicles and many others are changing our way of life. Several countries, including Singapore, are looking towards harnessing the power of these technologies to bring about changes to the economy and many other facets of human life. These changes promise more efficient and better way of organising human life. For example, because of more reliable and efficient connectivity, information can be shared easily leading to, for example, shorter queues at service counters. Transport information can be shared easily leading to better management of our time. Transportation options can be made readily available allowing commuters to make decisions based on personal choices.
These new technologies are also disrupting the way we work. From retail to transportation, these industries and many others are being disrupted by new applications and technologies. New ways of doing things are causing traditional businesses to either adapt quickly or be made redundant. New ways of transferring money over the internet has caused some banks to lose some business. Travellers now can plan their travel itinerary without the need for travel companies. Disintermediation is the new normal. Travellers can also source for room and car rentals on one platform. Aggregation of different needs over one platform is the new way of doing things.
Companies can either be disrupted or be the disruptor. Some traditional banks have taken the challenge from digital and data-savvy players head on by disrupting their own business models in order to stay ahead. Car sharing applications have caused traditional taxi companies to change their business models. Many more examples can be cited. What is clear is that these disruptions have created better choices for customers and consumers. Given this, some countries, like Singapore, are also disrupting sectors of the economy and society in a controlled manner. Government services are being transformed using technology to allow better citizens’ experience. From the filing of taxes, to getting a place in a school for your children or starting a new business, the processes have been digitalised to make it easier for everyone to use. The same can also be said for the private sector. Given the global challenge to stay ahead, companies are also changing their business models. While disruption is not new, what is new is the rate at which disruption is taking place. And this is because technology is growing exponentially. This creates a very different picture of the future which is not easily understood.
The upside of these changes are there for everyone to see. It is a lot easier now to use government services. Banking and money transfers have become easier and safer to do even from the comfort of your home using your smartphone. I will not belabour the positive benefits of these changes . What I worry about is whether the Malay/Muslim community is ready to take advantages of these changes and whether we are ready to deal with the downside of these changes.
The Singapore government has recognised the potential disruptive effects of technology and hence has put in place a digital readiness blueprint. It has also worked with the trade unions and associations to make available training programmes for workers, of all ages and professions, to learn new skills or even transit to new jobs created by the digitalisation process. More importantly, the government has also helped Singaporeans to make the transition to a digital world whenever it digitalises its services. When we decided to switch off the television analogue signals and start digital television services, the government ensured that enough information and support were made available to all households in Singapore. Similarly when the telecommunication companies wanted to switch off 2G signals and migrate users to 3G devices and services, the government worked hand-in-hand with the companies in this transition. Digital inclusion is at the centre of everything that we do here in Singapore.
New jobs are being created in place of existing jobs. New skill sets are required for almost every job that we can imagine. A recent report in The New York Times spoke about how Liverpool football club has engaged a data scientist for their team. It will not change the game, but those managing it will have new information to help their team win every game. Universities are grappling with outdated curriculum. University graduates need new skill sets and knowledge in a technologically driven world. Engineers of the future will not only need the knowledge of engineering but will need to be able to fuse this knowledge with insights from data collected. Engineering education, like other fields, will become a lifelong education and even just-in-time knowledge done online. It is a very different world. Are we ready for this future? Is the Singapore Malay/Muslim community ready for this future?
In 1999, the PAP Malay MPs organised a conference on the knowledge-based economy (KBE). Prior to that conference, there were several engagement sessions involving various stakeholders such as our workers, families, youths and community leaders. The political leadership recognised the changes taking place in the economy and felt that it was important to inform and educate our community about these changes. And more importantly, to understand how the community could prepare for these changes. I am of the opinion that the technological changes taking place now and into the future are a lot more disruptive and would require a concerted effort by all in the community to be ready for it. Some of our mature workers will have difficulties in keeping their existing jobs. Our students need to understand this new world and be ready for it. Families need to grasp the implications of this new world and its effects on their daily lives.
Apart from being disrupted, it is also important that we seize the opportunities created by the new economy. We can play the role of the disruptor so that our community can benefit from these changes. We must embrace these technologies for the benefits that it will bring to our lives and community. Technology is merely an enabler. It requires a creative mind to use that technology to bring benefits to the users. Consider the internet for a moment. What started out as a platform for researchers to connect and share ideas has become a global platform where almost everything and anything can be shared and marketed. People venturing into new businesses can crowdsource for funding via the internet. Entrepreneurs can sell their products across the world. The potential to share and trade over the internet is huge including unsavoury items such as child pornography and extremist ideologies.Notwithstanding the downsides of the internet, the potential for good should be harnessed for mankind’s benefit.
There have been several responses from our community to the changes taking place. Yayasan MENDAKI (YM) created a Future Ready Unit (FRU) to help our students in tertiary institutions make sense of the emerging jobs and career options in the new economy. Through the Community Leaders Forum (CLF), YM presented to community leaders and Malay/Muslim organisations the benefits of a digitally ready organisation. And funds are made available for organisations keen to embark on the digital journey. YM has also embarked on digital transformation for its services. AMP created space for Malay/Muslim startups. I have been involved with YM in creating a regular networking environment for our startup community. Thus far, four sessions have been held to bring the community together and introduce to them personalities who have been successful in creating new businesses.
While these efforts are commendable, I believe there is a need for our community to be more purposeful in this endeavour. In this regard it is useful to examine the state of readiness and ability to disrupt across different segments of our community. Our startup community is nascent but growing. Most young Malay/Muslims are digitally savvy and some have taken the plunge to start a business for themselves . Getting them plugged, if they are not transformation for its services. AMP created space for Malay/Muslim startups. I have been involved with YM in creating a regular networking environment for our startup community. Thus far, four sessions have been held to bring the community together and introduce to them personalities who have been successful in creating new businesses.
While these efforts are commendable, I believe there is a need for our community to be more purposeful in this endeavour. In this regard it is useful to examine the state of readiness and ability to disrupt across different segments of our community. Our startup community is nascent but growing. Most young Malay/Muslims are digitally savvy and some have taken the plunge to start a business for themselves . Getting them plugged, if they are not already, into the wider startup space and supporting network at the national level would be of great help to them. Our students will be part of the digital revolution. My worry will be for our mid-career workers who may face difficulties in transiting to new career paths. The CLF was created, among other things, to help our workers. I strongly urge YM to look into this as our workers are an important part of our community. YM together with Mendaki SENSE must work with government agencies to help our workers, both blue-collar and PMETs, make this transition.
On the flip side is the purposeful disruption that we want to see in our community. For example, how can leverage on technology so that our organisations servicing the community can do a better job? For a start, I would support any effort to improve the organisations’ use of data. Consider the example of residential homes. Data for these organisations could be meshed to generate better insights into conditions and factors common among first offenders. Organisations can also use data analytics tools to identify factors leading to successful rehabilitation. The bottom line is the greater use of data in our community organisations. Some organisations, such as YM, have taken the initiative to institute a requirement for employment where every staff must attend a data analytics course. I would welcome such capabilities within community organisations.
The disruption for our community organisations does not mean their demise, but in their transformation to become more effective in the services they offer. One of our government’s aim is to develop anticipatory digital services. What this means is government’s ability to know what citizens need at key stages of their lives. And this can happen if government is able to crunch and mesh different streams of data across stages of our citizens’ lives. I believe this is something for some of our organisations, such as those dealing with the poor and needy families, to have as they can then better serve their clients and catch these clients so that they don’t fall through the cracks.
Our institutions also need to adopt digital solutions to better serve their clients. Our Syariah Court has embarked on making the rather painful process of divorce as seamless as possible for their clients. Our mosques can also look into embarking on changes that can lead to a more welcoming environment for the congregants. By leveraging on technology our mosques can help to enhance the spiritual experience of the congregants. Again, it is important to constantly remind ourselves that technology is only an enabler. And that we must use it, only if it leads to better outcomes for our target audience. It is about using technology to improve the quality of life for our people.
Quite apart from these changes to jobs and the labour market, these new technologies raise concerns that require global attention. For example, the ethical use of AI has become a global concern. AI and AI-r elated technologies can be misused. For example, killer robots or lethal autonomous weapon systems are not science fiction. Whose responsibility is it to decide on such systems? A more mundane example but with profound implications comes from things like automated hiring where applicants are judged by AI based on historical data. Discrimination can be hard coded into the system. Now we hear of deep fakes where racial recognition technology and AI can be combined to create almost if not replica of human faces. Should these uses be regulated? These are hard questions confronting the global community. To me this is no different from climate change, where some form of global consensus is needed on these technologies. The European Union (EU) has taken the lead to issue guidelines on the use of AI. As a community what can we contribute to this debate and to forming a global consensus on these technologies?
In short, I believe there are many steps we need to take to be ready for this future. The last few months I have engaged many young people conversant with this new world. I am not worried about them. I am more worried about our workers, businesses, organisations and institutions. Changes brought about by technology are coming very fast. The pressure comes from our nation’s desire to remain competitive and be among the leading nations to use technology in every aspect of our nation’s life. While national efforts are in place to help our nation transit to a different world, these are not sufficient. Our community needs to understand these changes and have an appropriate response to these changes. Our workers need to be aware that their jobs are not immune to these changes. And that they need to consider the variety of options available at the national level. Our businesses need to understand the benefits these changes can bring to their businesses. And the steps they can take to adopt technologies which are appropriate and meaningful to their operations. Our community organisations and institutions should consider all available technologies and adopt those that can help them to do a better job.
Apart from merely reacting to these changes, it is also important to seize the opportunities created by these technologies. Many young Malay /Muslims are looking into new businesses using these technologies. They should be encouraged in this endeavour. Yet it is also important for existing businesses to explore opportunities made available by these changes. One clear example is e-commerce. If it makes sense to move to the internet, then do so by all means. E-commerce opens up new markets for our businesses. In fact, now there is a growing presence of individuals such as religious clerics, property agents and others making their presence in the internet space. By leveraging on the internet, a whole new world opens to the businesses and individuals creating new opportunities. Of course, there will be challenges in moving into the internet space. But it is a space ready to be exploited if it makes sense to do so for all parties concerned.
Yet another dimension that warrants our attention is how our community can play a role in helping to shape the agenda. Emerging issues of privacy and security of data to the ethical use of new technologies such as AI, affect all of us. I do not think as a community we can afford to remain passive. These are global issues affecting this generation and beyond. Our voice matters as our future is at stake. Hence, I hope there will emerge groups and individuals from our community cognisant of these issues who contribute to a meaningful debate on these issues. These technologies, if used correctly, can help the global community. We need to contribute to a debate that leads to a constructive use of these technologies while preserving the dignity of the human race.
Hence, I am in favour of more purposeful and directed efforts at confronting these changes taking place now. In so doing a new Malay/Muslim community will emerge, one that is unafraid to confront the future head on, changing and adapting constantly as new ideas and technologies arise, and reshaping constantly our hopes and dreams of a better future for all. ⬛
Prof Dr Yaacob Ibrahim is currently the Advisor to the President of the Singapore Institute of Technology. He served in the Singapore Cabinet for 16 years helming several ministries, the last of which was the Ministry of Communications and Information. He is on the board of governors for SGTECH, an industry association for ICT companies, and also advisor for an industry group on the ethical use of AI. He is currently a Member of Parliament for Jalan Besar GRC.