Two Uncommon Agendas of Singapore’s Continuing Education & Training System

Almost every country has its own national education system.  Most countries’ national education systems are limited to the pre-employment training (PET) sector, while more developed countries would also have their lifelong learning or continuing education & training (CET) systems.  While the roles of PET are rather obvious, we are seeing interesting developments in the CET system of Singapore, which presents some uncommon agendas.

PET is usually seen as an entitlement that any government has to provide for the respective nationals, as the social and economic impacts of education to any population is irrefutably significant.  PET serves to form the philosophical, psychological and even political DNA of the nation.  Hence justifying several percentage points of GDP to PET is normally easy for governments to get the mandate of the people.

CET, on the other hand, is a luxurious commodity that only the more developed economies can afford.  While learning is an individual enterprise, and lifelong learning occurs in everyone albeit in informal or non-formal manner, having a national formal CET system requires the government to have foresight, dedication and financial capability.  Why is there the need for a national CET system, when much resource had gone into PET, and that individuals and economic enterprises should be responsible for their own training journeys?

Shortening Knowledge Cycle

In the computing world since 1970, there is the well-known Moore’s Law that states that the number of transistors in a CPU (the brain of the computer) doubles every two years, which crudely translates into doubling of the CPU speed every year. This is made possible by micro-electronics and VLSI (very large scale integration) technologies that pack more transistors into ever smaller wafers. With the advent of nano-technology, even this long-standing Moore’s Law is facing the threat of demise.  Quantum computing, which relies not on transistors but on particles to perform calculations much more quickly, might result in “many orders of magnitude improvement on each generation, rather than the 2X or 5X that we typically see in classical computing,” D-Wave Systems president and CEO Vern Brownell said.

As the cycle of computing power shortens, we can also see that happening with many aspects of knowledge and skills.  In order to stay at the neck of the knowledge frontiers, the ability to learn and relearn becomes imperative.  Staying relevant, and hence valuable, is not a luxury but a necessity.  An important role of the CET system is therefore to proactively and predictively engage the workforce to ride the ebbs and flows of the economic and technological waves.  The individual needs to develop a learning mindset to continual refresh his or her skills and knowledge, and builds a network of skills-base with peers to augment his or her areas of weakness.  Such skills and knowledge-based motivation of CET is the common agenda.

Unpredictable Economic Shocks

The past two decades had tossed Singapore’s economy like a small canoe in a rough ocean.  In 1994 we witnessed the Mexican peso crisis that even affected a small first-time forex investor like me when I was in university!  Then came the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 that badly bruised Singapore’s financial markets.  This was followed by the burst of the bubble at the turn of the millennium; Sars global epidemic in 2003; and the all-time fearsome US subprime mortgage financial crisis that saw tens of billions of Singapore dollars erased from our stock markets in minutes, and resulted in the global recession.  The ensuing financial and monetary policies undertaken by various countries to mitigate wide-spread banking collapses caused severe uncertainties.  The crisis impact on the STI is shown in Chart 1.

crisis impact on the STI

At the depths of the global recession in 2009, the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA), introduced the SPUR (Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience) programme.  SPUR capitalized on the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualification (WSQ) national credentialing system, which was birthed in 2005, to encourage companies to retain their workers by sending them for training instead of retrenching them, with the government covering almost all the course fees and salaries of the workers.  SPUR caused the government hundreds of millions of dollars, but it worked magic and achieved the following remarkable outcomes:

  • redundant workers who were undergoing training were not considered unemployed and did not add to unemployment figures.  Hence at the peak of the global recession, Singapore’s unemployment reached a maximum of only 5.4%!
  • workers undergoing training were psychologically more engaged and this reduced potential social and political tensions that we see in many other countries with high unemployment figures
  • companies that were able to retain their workers through training also managed to maintain their productivity when the economy rebounded sharply in 2010

SPUR was terminated in 2011, but it was very obvious that the experiment of using the CET system to buffer and buttress the workforce had given birth to a startling new social support phenomenon.  That was SPUR 1.0.  With Singapore’s economy back on track in 2011, WDA spared no efforts to enhance this new social safety structure by strengthening the CET system with the building of two huge CET campuses, and enlarging the scope and coverage of WSQ to many more industries.

The fiscal and monetary policy uncertainties of the US government necessitated the development of SPUR 2.0, to weather potential impending shocks to our economy and the sustainability of our workforce.  While SPUR 1.0 relied solely on the WSQ system, which can be deemed as the national human capital grid of Singapore, SPUR 2.0 saw the introduction of a powerful scheme to encourage companies to build their own power generators.  In 2013, WDA introduced the Enterprise Training Support (ETS) scheme that funds the in-house training and human resource development capabilities of companies.  With in-house training capability, companies can formalise workplace and work-based trainings, resulting in more sustainable and scalable productivity enhancements.  Furthermore, the ETS also encourages the participating companies to plug their in-house training generator into the WSQ national grid, which collectively provides a more robust social safety system buttressed by the CET system.  No other countries in the world have, or could afford, such a system.  This is the first uncommon agenda of the Singapore’s CET system.

Widening Income Gap

Despite all the efforts of income redistribution and progressive taxation policies, Singapore is still witnessing relentlessly high income gap between the rich and the poor.  This is evident in Chart 2, which shows the Gini coefficient, a measure of extent of income gap.

Income Gap

A significant number of the low wage workers come from the cleaning, security and landscape industries.  The voluntary progressive wage model first introduced by the Labour Movement in 2012 will be made mandatory to the cleaning industry in September 2014, and the security and landscape industries subsequently.  Other than the minimum basic wage of S$1000 for such workers, the key component is that workers who have undergone skills training will be paid higher salaries.  According to NTUC Secretary General Lim Swee Say, the reason why Singapore can implement this method of wage structure through re-skilling and upgrading of workers is due to the following: the system of workfare supplements to support the workers undergoing training to reach the next step of the wage ladder; the presence of a comprehensive CET framework; and the government’s financial capacity to pay for such training programmes.  This is the other uncommon agenda of Singapore’s CET system.


Singapore has evolved its own distinctive continuing education and training system.  It is popularly known that lifelong learning systems are meant for skills and knowledge upgrading which are necessary in staying relevant in the fast globalizing and technologically advancing economies of the world.  Singapore’s CET system has two other uncommon agendas: its role as a social safety net for the workforce during a national or sectoral downturn; as well as a system to support the implementation of the progressive wage model for low wage workers in the hope of mitigating the stubbornly high income gap.




Anderson Tan

Anderson Tan | Director, biipmi Pte Ltd

Anderson is passionate about Lifelong Learning for lifelong employability. He believes it pays to invest in gaining, retaining and regaining employment through marketing innovations. Hence biipmi. Anderson has a distinction in M.Arts in Lifelong Learning from Institute of Education, M.Eng and 1st Class Hon. Degree from NUS. He is an employability solutionist and an entrepreneur.

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