SINGAPORE — Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Tuesday (Feb 27) cautioned Workers’ Party (WP) Members of Parliament (MPs) against being “pessimistic” over the low take-up rate of the SkillsFuture scheme, and asked them to make “good, specific” suggestions to improve the situation instead.

Mr Heng briefly crossed swords with Mr Gerald Giam and Associate Professor Jamus Lim of WP on the second day of the Budget debate, when the two MPs asked about what can be done to improve the take-up rate of the national skills upgrading scheme.

Their questions came after Mr Heng delivered a speech lasting for over half an hour about the wide-ranging steps that the Government has taken over the years to grow the economy, and how it plans to continue doing so.

One aspect of this was job transformation and how workers are upgrading their skills in tandem. Mr Heng is also Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies.

“Some 192,000 Singaporeans utilised their SkillsFuture credit in 2022 for self-initiated learning. This is encouraging,” he said, adding how Budget 2024 has also introduced measures to enhance the SkillsFuture scheme.

Mr Giam, MP for Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC), said that seven in 10 Singaporeans have not used their SkillsFuture credit. 

CNA reported last year that the take-up rate was even weaker among youths — with eight in 10 of eligible adults under 30 yet to use the credits.

Given this, Mr Giam asked if Mr Heng would find it useful to expand the use of SkillsFuture credits to not just subsidise courses, but to “give all students and workers more opportunities for hands-on practice with deep tech tools like AI (artificial intelligence)”.

Mr Heng said that there is a wide range of courses available already, and added that while it is good that workers take ownership of their training, “the impact will be even greater if they work together with their companies”.

“The reskilling of workers has to be done in an integrated way and not in bits and pieces,” said Mr Heng.

While he said that he does not disagree with the potential benefits of the SkillsFuture scheme, Assoc Prof Lim asked how the Government can ensure that the scheme’s take-up rates will improve and achieve its objectives of reskilling.

“Or is it revealing that perhaps that there is a continued scepticism among our workers of the benefits of the scheme?” asked the Sengkang GRC MP.

Mr Heng said he hoped Assoc Prof Lim “is not a pessimist”, adding that the situation can be looked at as a glass half-empty or half-full.

He lauded the progress made by the Government in getting the buy-in of the labour movement and business communities in its push for retraining.

“And in fact, instead of saying that, ‘Oh no, I am sceptical, I am pessimistic’… play a constructive role  — because with your professorship, you will know this well, right? Play a constructive role, be part of the team,” said Mr Heng.

Assoc Prof Lim responded by saying that he has already made suggestions in Parliament on the issue, and that he and his party colleagues would be happy to participate in further discussions with the various ministries if invited to do so.

Mr Giam clarified that he had called for the broader use of SkillsFuture credits beyond subsidising courses because “workers need hands-on practice” to acquire skills. This was on top of the fact that the take up rate of the scheme was still low.

“Only three in 10 have used their SkillsFuture credit, and so the glass is not even half-full in that respect,” he said.

Mr Heng said the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Manpower would be happy to consider any “specific, good suggestions” on how to expand use of the credits.

Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua said that aside from formal training, there are many free courses out there that do not require citizens to tap on SkillsFuture credits to enrol in.

“Let’s not get too hung up about the adoption of the SkillsFuture credit because there are indeed many courses that are free for now,” said Ms Phua, who is also Mayor of Central Singapore District .

Rounding up the exchanges, Mr Heng said that what’s important is one’s willingness to learn, regardless of where or how the learning is done.

“In short, it is really about an attitude towards learning. That we must inculcate this interest and passion to learn and learn throughout your life. It is not about the take up rate, not about the courses.”

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