Singapore minister on coronavirus pandemic effect on white-collar jobs

SINGAPORE — Competition for white-collar jobs will become more intense after the coronavirus pandemic showed that a lot of work can be done over the internet, Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said on Thursday.

“In the past, people think that the blue-collar workers are the ones at risk and that’s because their jobs can be replaced by robots and automation. To some extent, that is true,” Chan said during a panel discussion moderated by CNBC’s Nancy Hungerford at the virtual Singapore Summit.

“But increasingly, I think the world is realizing that competition is even tougher for the white-collar jobs that can be done over the internet,” he said. “The jobs that can be done over the internet can be done anywhere in the world and because of this, white-collar jobs will no longer have the geographical insulation it used to have.”

Singapore, an open and trade-dependent Southeast Asian economy, has been hit hard by global uncertainties resulting from the pandemic and reduced activity during a partial lockdown to contain Covid-19. That led Singapore’s economy to shrink by a record 13.2% in the second quarter this year compared to a year ago.

To support the economy, the government has dug into its reserves to fund fiscal stimulus worth close to 100 billion Singapore dollars ($73.68 billion), or around 20% of gross domestic product. Much of the government’s focus is on preserving and creating jobs in industries with good growth prospects, said Chan.

The jobs that can be done over the internet can be done anywhere in the world and because of this, white-collar jobs will no longer have the geographical insulation it used to have.

Chan Chun Sing

Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry

But that’s a difficult task for many governments which face political pressure to subsidize companies that may not have good prospects, said Fleur Pellerin, founder and managing partner of venture capital and private equity firm Korelya Capital, who also spoke on the panel.

“I think from a public point of view, it’s a very difficult topic to handle because we see that the new economy creates jobs, but probably not enough jobs to replace all the jobs that would become obsolete because of automation, artificial intelligence et cetera,” she said.

She said one of the biggest challenges facing governments in the coming years is anticipating shifts in the labor market over a five- to 10-year horizon that could come from advancement in technology or changes in the global environment. Then, governments have to prepare their people to transition into those new jobs, she added.

Before founding her company, Pellerin held various positions in the French government, including minister overseeing small- and medium-sized enterprises, innovation and the digital economy.

Not waiting for pandemic to ‘blow over’ 

Singapore — governed by the same political party since its independence in 1965 — is known for its ability to plan for the long term.

Chan said the government is not waiting for the pandemic to be over to ramp up its economic recovery effort. But he noted that a worsening spread of Covid-19 in other parts of the world could hurt the global economy, with knock-on effort on Singapore.  

“We expect to progressively recover for the last two quarters of this year but whether we will be in the clear by next year will very much depends on the global economic performance,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Friday.

“We will continue to diversify our markets and pivot into new products and services. So we’re not waiting for the pandemic to blow over.”

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