Getting Ready for Future Singapore

Ms Janet Ang, the new Chairperson of NUS-ISS and Vice President of Industry Solutions, Systems of Engagement & Smarter Cities at IBM Asia Pacific, shares her insights on the urgency of reskilling the workforce, deepening industry rapport and rekindling the hunger in industries to stay relevant in order to fulfil and advance Singapore’s ambitious digital agenda.

Q: What are your thoughts on being the new Chairperson and your immediate tasks?  

It’s truly a great honour to be the first industry professional to take the Chair of NUS-ISS Board, especially at such a crucial period when Singapore is embarking on the journey to become the world’s first smart nation. While Professor Christopher Chia has left an enormous pair of shoes for me to fill, he has also left behind a brilliant team of forward thinkers and an excellent set of directional plans, which I am pleased to have had a hand in developing with my fellow directors. 

Five key thrusts were outlined for the integrated development of NUS-ISS as a continuing learning institute that can fully support Singapore’s economic plans. The first focus area is to understand and harness the digital driving forces that are reshaping industries and economies today. 

To achieve that, we have to excel in developing the next generation of infocomm and digital business leaders and in supporting business transformation through sector-specific integrative programmes. Enabling the future economy of Singapore will also require all-rounded and tech-savvy professionals who can apply ICT successfully at every level of the economic value chain, and agile and tech-savvy SMEs and start-ups that can drive the value of ICT through the economy. 

These directions are consistent with the national smart nation agenda and I intend to build on them to make NUS-ISS the anchor institute for continuing learning and the centre of excellence for all things tech and digital in Singapore.  

Q: That is quite a tall order you have set for yourself and your team. How does NUS-ISS plan to take on the ‘anchor institute’ role?  

NUS-ISS is long-standing institute specialising in continuing education and skills development for ICT. We have more than 100,000 alumni today in the ICT fraternity bearing testimonies to the effectiveness of our programmes, and the capacity and resources to support SkillsFuture comprehensively. I dare say that NUS-ISS is in the best position, with its unique advantages, to support the government in the realisation of its technical skill acceleration initiatives that will underpin the next phase of economic development.  

Let me elaborate. NUS-ISS is an integral part of the world-class National University of Singapore with a strong practice orientation that has proven beneficial to our students in acquiring first-hand experience from real-world applications of knowledge and ideas. We actively engage the industries in areas such as research studies, industrial assignments and ICT consultancy, and in the process, the interaction has allowed us to keep our curricula current and the lessons relevant to business needs. 

NUS-ISS is widely regarded for its global perspective and regional influence through ongoing efforts that include the eGovernment Leadership Centre, the Smart Health Leadership Centre and the Masters programmes. These are strengths and capabilities that we can apply to the reskilling of the workforce, the preparation and grooming of technology leaders, and the strengthening of the ICT ecosystem to enable Future Singapore. 

I also hope to leverage my 30-over years of industry experience to steer the institute towards playing a more active role in shaping the ICT landscape and catalysing business transformation in Singapore.

Q: This sounds both exciting and challenging. What will be a key priority to get the ball rolling?

There are many things we have to do well and one of them is in the alignment of interest among the different stakeholders. This will require better and more open communication among the stakeholders to quickly iron out issues and seek common grounds of interest for collaboration. Let me put this into context. 

Future Singapore is a whole-of-nation transformation that requires the reskilling of the entire workforce at every level and in every industry to get everyone on the same footing to support the economic transformation. It is an epic task that requires everyone in the infocomm, government and business sectors to work closely together to speed up ICT literacy and adoption.

Within the university, this would mean closer inter-faculty cooperation to incorporate technology into all the modules and curricula. Externally, we will continue to engage the industry partners to identify opportunities for collaboration in ICT continuing education, technology adoption and business transformation. 

Then there are our SMEs, the backbone of our economy. SMEs typically lack resources to pursue technological innovation initiatives, although they can benefit tremendously from ICT transformation. We need to help SME business leaders to lead the conscious efforts to embrace game-changing innovation through techskills acceleration and industry transformation at the sectoral level. 

This presents an opportunity for us to engage and show them how to shift gear if they have the motivation to make the change. And I suspect a large part of this motivation would come only if we can help them comprehend the opportunities and threats that disruptive technology could present to their businesses. We have to find ways to reignite the hunger of business leaders to seek innovation and growth.

Q: You mentioned about reskilling the workforce earlier. How does NUS-ISS plan to overcome the current ICT skills gap to meet both present and future needs?

Urgently, I hope! 

Today’s uberfied landscape is characterised by disruption. New ideas, technology, application and business models are emerging every day. It is a good thing to have so many talented minds and resources working towards improving the world. But the rapid transformation of industries is a real concern for businesses. It’s moving too fast for most companies and rendering strategies ineffective as everyone tries to catch up and decipher the business risks in the wake of the waves of disruption.

As a small nation with no natural resources, Singapore’s knowledge-led economy will easily become vulnerable if she is unable to keep up with the pace of change and the industries become uncompetitive as they fall behind. There is a great imperative to develop ICT skillset and knowledge in every industry sector and quickly. This will be nothing short of a herculean task.

Making NUS-ISS an anchor institute for everything ICT will go some way to support the re-skilling of the workforce. We are already engaging the industries, business chambers and government authorities, including iDA, WDA, SCS, SiTF and SBF, to identify specific areas of ICT needs that will be incorporated into our training programmes and short-term courses, and to provide opportunities for job emplacement and project assignments to our students. 

While we are building breadth to cover new ICT fields, we are also developing depth in each discipline to hone our students from ICT apprenticeship to digital mastery. There is a lot to be done. We will just have to raise the game and lead the change. 

The encouraging thing is: We have done it before!  

Some of us might know that NUS-ISS and IBM go back a long way. Back in 1981 when Dr Tony Tan was the Education Minister, he visited top organisations to seek global partners who could establish learning facilities in Singapore to reskill the workforce and transform the manufacturing-led economy to a knowledge-driven one. At that time, there were just 800 IT professionals in Singapore when the Civil Service Computerisation Project alone would have required several thousands. They were also mostly system administrators. 

Upon returning to Singapore, Dr Tan directed NUS and the then National Computer Board to partner with IBM to set up NUS-ISS. Through joint efforts and intensive industry engagement over the years, the ICT industry flourished and it now has more than 150,000  infocomm professionals with a wide variety of skills and talents. 

Maybe the global scene has changed and become significantly more complex today, but I honestly believe that if we can all come together and rediscover our hunger for relevance, we can do it again!

About Janet Ang

Janet has been a member of the NUS-ISS Board since 2012. She took over from Professor Christopher Chia as the Chairperson of NUS-ISS Board on 15 April 2016. Janet started her career with IBM Singapore in 1982 and rose rapidly through the ranks to assume key management appointments in IBM. In recognition of her achievements, Janet was awarded the NUS Business School Eminent Alumni Award in 2014 and the NUS Distinguished Alumni Service Award in 2015.  

Read her full bio at NUS-ISS website here