Singapore’s iconic public housing scheme is undergoing pivotal changes for greater inclusivity and equity. But Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent National Day Rally also touched on another vision: We need to empower more Singaporeans to build our digital domain to forge our economic future.

For most Singaporeans, investing in a Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat is tantamount to securing a financial safety net for retirement, a means of owning an appreciating asset class, and a stake in the long-term future of the nation.

In our globalized, capital-driven economy, it’s evident that salaries often lag the gains seen in capital investments. From 2017 to 2022, the median monthly household income of employed resident households saw a real increase of just 0.6 percent per annum. However, a silver lining exists for Singaporeans: around 90 percent are property owners and around 80 percent own their HDB flats. Their HDB properties, appreciating in tandem with the nation’s economic growth, stand as robust assets that bolster their financial security.

Furthermore, their appreciation isn’t solely a product of market dynamics. Government initiatives, such as the introduction of new amenities, MRT line extensions, and other developments, amplify their worth. When juxtaposed against skyrocketing real estate prices in other major cities, Singaporeans are assured of access to these flats that hover on average at around only 4.5 times the median annual income. This isn’t merely an economic transaction; it symbolizes a reciprocal pact between the state and its citizens, built by the government, on land owned by the government.

At this year’s National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the next evolution in Singapore’s public housing system: a new classification framework making access to HDBs more equitable, fair, and integrated with prime locations across the city-state. This resonates deeply with many Singaporeans because more than bricks and mortar; it’s a cherished piece of the Singaporean social compact.

But while our homes anchor us, they’re just a chapter in our larger, unfolding Singapore story. Another one is unfolding – one that’s written in code, not concrete.

A new playbook for talents to build Singapore’s digital domain

The rapid digitization of the world is not a distant headline; it’s Singapore’s new heartland. The World Bank notes that the digital economy contributes over 15 percent to the global GDP, growing at a rate 2.5 times faster than the physical economy in the past decade. Additionally, the World Economic Forum anticipates that, with the swift digital transformation of the global economy, around 70 percent of the new value in the upcoming decade will stem from digital platform business models. While we’ve made great strides in physical infrastructure, our next task is to bridge digital divides.

Singapore’s Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo underscored that, even amidst global political uncertainties and the lingering effects of the pandemic, technology remains a cornerstone of economic growth. She further highlights the rising demand for tech-savvy professionals not just in traditional tech areas, but also in sectors like banking, hospitality, supply chain, and retail. As Singapore becomes a digital economy, this talent gap becomes more critical. With both local businesses and government bodies ramping up their digital initiatives, the need for skilled tech professionals is more pronounced than ever.

While announcing these shifts in Singapore’s HDB policy, PM Lee spoke about opportunities and challenges in the digital domain, emphasizing at the National Day Rally that while technology offers new opportunities, it also presents the potential risk of job displacement due to AI and automation. He acknowledged the difficulties many may encounter when trying to reskill and transition to new professions, especially amidst financial burdens and familial obligations. In response, the government intends to roll out short-term financial aid for those seeking to upskill after layoffs, he announced. So, what might these career transition paths look like?

In April 2021, Temasek, in strategic partnership with UST, established Temus, a digital transformation services firm to help public and private sector organizations become ready to thrive in an AI and digitally-driven future. Temus’ flagship digital career conversion program, Step IT Up, has successfully ‘placed and trained’ two successful cohorts. Launched last year, Step IT Up’s training not only imparts technical competencies but also paves the way for good career advancement. Imagine individuals, who just a few months prior had no formal background in IT, transforming into proficient software developers and digital business analysts within merely three to four months.

The growing anticipation for Step IT Up’s forthcoming third batch speaks volumes about the initiative’s profound influence on Singapore’s broader effort to help more people have a stake in the nation’s digital future. Since its inception, approximately 40 graduates – affectionately dubbed in the firm as ‘Temus Transformers’ – have benefited from Step IT Up.

Among them are brothers, Christopher and Eric Tan. While Christopher formerly practiced optometry, Eric was engaged as an offshore marine research engineer. Their simultaneous enrollment in the program was serendipitous. At 38, Christopher, having previously supported his siblings’ university education, found in Step IT Up the perfect avenue to realize his aspiration of transitioning to a tech-centric role, one that not only offered a competitive stipend but also assured a permanent coding position post-completion. Presently, the siblings are contributing to distinct projects within the insurance and healthcare domains.

Another notable alumnus is Soh Wen Ming, a Berklee College of Music graduate, who transitioned from being a session musician and seasoned operations manager to exploring the tech realm. As a father to two young children, Wen Ming perceived the expansive growth opportunities in tech, undeterred by the potential challenges of switching careers midway. During his graduation, he was honored with a class award, a recognition of his embodiment of core values centered around collaboration and empowerment. After graduation, Wen Ming became a key member of Temus’ low-code team, making impactful contributions to major Singapore-based enterprises, such as Starhub.

Today, Temus Transformers are at the forefront of solving technical challenges, steering digital projects for Temus’ clientele across diverse sectors, from environmental intelligence to digital telcos, PE investments to insurance and healthcare. But the central appeal of Step IT Up lies in its ethos of inclusivity: Whether you’re a platform delivery rider or a chef, there’s room for you in Singapore’s digital future.

Building Singapore by both Bricks and Bytes

In a recent podcast, Professor Karim Lakhani, co-founder and chair of Harvard’s Digital, Data, and Design (D^3) Institute, along with Srijay Ghosh, a founding member of Temus, delved into the essence of a genuinely digital company. They described it as “digital to the core” and “human on the edge,” emphasizing fully automated processes powered by digital machines, all of which are conceptualized, programmed, and governed by humans.

As the push for digital transformation intensifies, it’s essential to remember the value of staying “human on the edge.” At this critical juncture in Singapore’s history, a dual narrative emerges. One highlights our unwavering commitment to enduring values, reinforcing pillars such as public housing that have been our society’s bedrock. Concurrently, we need to boldly prepare and empower locals to lead Singapore’s digital journey, ensuring wider participation in our digital workforce.

Having a stake in building Singapore’s digital future isn’t just for a select group of tech trailblazers or policymakers. Taking Singapore forward is a shared mission involving employers, individuals, and the government. Echoing PM Lee’s clarion call, let us remember that every Singaporean holds a key role in molding our digital domain and unlocking value in our economic and societal future.

Marcus Loh is a director of Temus, a digital transformation services firm established by Temasek and global services firm, UST.

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