Saturday, November 05, 2016

Is Singapore entering a lost decade ?

First, a personal update.

Sick and tired of sending resumes to law firms and getting roundly ignored, I did something unusual and spent the week chatting up legal startups to see if I can get an unpaid internship for December. I managed to get a positive reply within a matter of hours with my resume and within 24 hours managed to gain some access to a couple of startup founders.

In a short 2-3 years out of the IT industry, the hiring process for IT guys have almost completely changed. The hirers are more interested in my account than my resume. Fortunately, I actually have a portfolio of projects from the last time I did my Data Science specialization and I could even showcase the Portfolio Simulator I wrote in R to these companies.

In the face of difficult employment conditions, the question I want to pose to readers is whether Singapore is entering its own lost decade. A pal who returned from Taiwan came back with conspiracy theories hatched in the Taiwanese media about how China intends to plot Singapore's destruction with the Kra Canal and the One Belt One Road initiative.

One of the things Singapore is doing right is the Smart Cities project.

Regardless of how it pans out, we will be able to benefit immensely from the project but not from the jobs it would create. We should see Smart Cities not as a vehicle for job creation but as a vehicle to make income inequality tolerable. What smart cities should ideally eliminate is consumption inequality. In a Smart City, a blue-collar non-degree male Singaporean can gain access to cheap sources of games and media download and can entertain himself in a virtual reality space for at least 30 hours a week and experience high life satisfaction. A combination of Steam, Netflix and Amazon can make this a reality. Smart Cities allows Singapore to tolerate (but not avoid) a decade of structural unemployment and deflation.

So here's a nub of my thesis for this article. We are entering our Lost Decade because Smart Cities will net-net destroy jobs.

Governments face this thing called an employment trilemma according to The Wealth of Humans by Ryan Avent.

Singapore can have an economy with jobs which meets 2 out of 3 following conditions :

a) Jobs with high productivity and wages
b) Jobs that are resistance to automation from robots or AI.
c) Jobs that employ a lot of people and can scale across the economy.

If you follow government propaganda, the emphasis is on (a) and possibly (b) in the light of driverless cars and the emphasis on Block 71. This automatically means that such jobs being promoted are not scaleable across the economy. Not even IT professionals in my generation has the statistics foundation to cope with the rise of AI and Deep Learning.

Think about it, driverless cars will make all taxi drivers obsolete. Tray return systems will reduce the need for F&B staff. The initial job losses will be absorbed by foreign immigrants we took in in the past but locals will not be spared from these technological advancements. The Uber drivers are not going to be repurposed as Natural Language Processing experts or Deep Learning gurus overnight.

If you actually want to useful in a Smart City :

a) You should immediately look into the concept of micro-credentials such as a nanodegree from Udacity. Quickie degrees which take about 3 months tops that arms you with the tools to create the systems which can disrupt the economy.
b) Achieve a clean break with your current skills and learn something which will be relevant in the future.

Unfortunately for everyone these are hard skills which go beyond what most ITE and non-university bound Poly diploma  students can attain. I say this with some authority as I have seen their performances in various hackathons in my previous life.

[ It would have been reason for Lawyers to be a little cocky in light of these developments until I realised that legal work can hardly be made more productive, can't scale in Singapore, and there are serious efforts in the technology space to at least reduce the dependence on lawyers in the finance industry. ]


  1. Chris,

    That passage is hilarious: "can gain access to cheap sources of games and media download and can entertain himself in a virtual reality space for at least 30 hours a week and experience high life satisfaction"

    Is that your definition of life satisfaction?

    I concur with the rest of your post.

    Sustainable GDP-growth can only be achieved through productivity gains or population growth. That's it. Which one is Singapore's stronger discipline?

  2. Andy, I did not make this up. Social science research on non-degree males in the US flagged high levels of self satisfaction if they play about 30 hours of computer games every week.

    Income inequality is tolerable if there is consumption equality which is what Smart Cities are all about.

  3. Hi Chris,

    Any insight on how tutors will fare in this lost decade? Haha

  4. That's a stunning research finding then. At least for me who never really played that much computer games.
    Is self satisfaction = life satisfaction?

  5. La Papillon,

    There is good news for tutors, nurses and civil servants. These are the three sectors which does not need productivity improvements to have wage increases.



    Yes, this is an overall life satisfaction measure. Unemployed men without degrees are very happy playing computer games day in and day out.

    Maybe you should install Civilisation 6 on your PC.


  6. Hi Chris, how do you prepare your kids for the new economy?can share?

    I'm basically learning android programming ,XML and Java from scratch just in case I'm retrenched or at least I can teach my son.

    Also bought him a Lego mindstorm to spark his interest in controlling robots and programming .

    I concur with what u say and to la paillion. I think as people become less grade conscious and as employers look less at qualification but at actual produced results such as shown in github ..people will have less demand..but maybe not in your (mine)generation ...

    It's really disruptive

  7. ThinkOutOfTheBox,

    I think I am too relaxed with kids right now lah. My daughter seems to have some designers DNA but I don't really want to interfere with her life happiness and shoehorn her into a miniature version of me.


  8. For me , i am very much aware of the on-going changes to our economy and the danger of technology ( AI and automation) which will eventually affect nearly all jobs

    right now what i am doing is focused on saving and investment ( value investing and personal finance ) by reading books and blogs on a daily basis and preparing for the financial armageddon . 31 this year and hope to attain financial freedom with zero debt by 45 . by then i can be slightly more relaxed like u , can study other areas of interest and branch out

  9. You have plenty of time, starmaster !

  10. Thought u said u regretted joining the public sector for work life balance..but here u said civil servants has no worries about productivity against wages increases. Does this mean that for a person who like to chiak Liao bee, joining civil service will have no regrets?

  11. A lot of people thrive in the public sector. I just happen not to be one of them.