Singapore can learn from Swiss in training, education: Tharman

July 13, 20169:19 am337 views
Singapore can learn from Swiss in training, education: Tharman
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. (TODAY file photo)

SINGAPORE: While the Republic “cannot become Swiss”, it can move towards the Swiss model of training and education where skills are learnt first and qualifications are attained later, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Tuesday (Jul 12).

“You can’t change it completely – because you can’t change culture completely and you certainly can’t change it quickly – but you can move in that direction.”

Mr Tharman, who is also Singapore’s Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, was speaking at the Switzerland-Singapore Business Forum, entitled Developing a Future Ready Workforce.

He said Singapore faces two key challenges – a tight labour force and constant changes in the skill sets required.

To deal with these, the whole system of training and the model of education must evolve and there must also be a structured continuum of learning both before employment and during an individual’s career.

But before this can happen, the culture of education must also evolve, the Deputy Prime Minister said, adding that this is one area where the Republic can learn from the Swiss.

Getting employers to take ownership in training their workers and ensuring that everyone feels they can improve continuously is key, Mr Tharman said.

“That dual culture – employers taking ownership and individuals feeling that they can all become masters of their trade – is, I think, what defines the Swiss culture. It is what we must aspire towards,” he said.

“We need this virtuous cycle where individuals feel their employers care for their development … And individuals decide to stay with their employers so their skills can move up in the same trade. We need that virtuous cycle – employers taking responsibility and employees upgrading themselves. We do not quite have it yet, but it can be developed,” he added.

The Deputy Prime Minister said it is also important to incorporate elements of vocational training in the education system.

“We have to move in that direction, by making it possible for people – regardless if they are Institute of Technical Education students, polytechnic students or university students – making it possible for them to encounter the real world early. Infuse practical learning into academic learning early, reduce the barrier between pre- and post-employment training … and encourage people through the reality of the workforce that it does pay to follow the skills path,” said Mr Tharman.


Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann, who was at the forum as part of his first state visit to Singapore, explained that about two-thirds of Swiss go through vocational training as part of their formal education after compulsory school. Vocational training is the “backbone” of the education system and the economy as the skills acquired through vocational training are those that are demanded by the labour market, he added.

Through the Swiss model of vocational training, theoretical learning in school is complemented by practical application in apprenticeships, Mr Schneider-Ammann added.

“The public authorities do have a complementary role, but the heart of the dual vocational education and training (VET) system resides in the companies. This direct link to the economy, this feeling of ownership of the VET system by the private sector is, in my opinion, the main key,” he said.

“Building up this support, changing the way people think about education and training, is hard and takes time, but with the right arguments and good success stories, I think it is possible … The companies must believe that it is in their interest to engage in training young people; they must see the benefit,” he added.


Before the VET model can be implemented in Singapore, however, the Singapore National Employers Federation’s (SNEF) president, Dr Robert Yap, said companies must be equipped to impart the necessary skills.

He said the companies may be willing to do so but lack the knowledge required. This is where trade associations and even SNEF come in to help companies develop their curriculum and prepare them to provide training for their employees.

“If you bring in somebody to do (training) and you are not prepared for it, the person comes like a transient guest. You learn nothing. So you need to create the environment to be conducive,” he said.

Meanwhile, chairman of Swiss company ABB Peter Voser said vocational training has contributed significantly to the company’s operations, and hopes Singaporean firms can adopt a similar model of education and “invest youngsters for the future”.

“(This) will actually help them be successful in a world which is much more driven by different places, models, innovations in the future,” he said.

This year is the first time the Switzerland-Singapore Business Forum, which brings together stakeholders and experts from both countries to discuss the importance of learning at every stage of an individual’s career, was held in Singapore. It was attended by about 200 Swiss and Singapore representatives, including policymakers, industry representatives, unions and academics.

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