SINGAPORE - The actions of young Singaporeans over the next 50 years will determine the country's trajectory - whether it remains successful like San Jose in the Silicon Valley, or goes the way of the once-great city of Detroit which has descended into bankruptcy.
Using the two American cities to make his point, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat on Friday painted a sobering picture of how fortunes can transform dramatically due to the twin forces of globalisation and technology.
Detroit, once the centre of America's car industry, had a median household income of about US$44,000 in 1960. Last year, this had fallen by about half, to US$26,000 (S$33,000).
For San Jose, located about 3,300km away and the heart of the country's information technology industry, the corresponding figures were about US$6,900 and US$80,700.
To further illustrate how drastically fates have changed, Mr Heng noted that just a decade ago, there were countries aspiring to be like Detroit, though today that carries a very different meaning.
Throughout much of the last decade, for instance, Thailand's booming car industry had been labelled the "Detroit of the East".
"You may ask why these American developments matter to Singapore.
It matters because what drives the changing fortunes of these towns are the very changes that are driving changes around the world," Mr Heng told some 300 university undergraduates and guests on Friday at the annual Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum.
"Jobs will move across cities, across nations, and the nature of jobs will change."
Showing a map which highlighted cities in a 3,300km radius around Singapore - including Bangalore and Chennai in India, Chongqing and Guangzhou in China, and Yangon in Myanmar - he said: "Every one of these cities has ambitions to be the next Silicon Valley."
And the stakes of success and failure are even higher here, added Mr Heng. Large countries like the United States can afford to have cities fall while others rise in their place and the population redistributes and the country rejuvenates itself. "But if you are a city and state, we don't have that luxury.
If the city fails, the country fails. And if the country fails, our future will be very bleak."
He warned that even though unemployment levels remain low, Singaporeans cannot take it for granted that the economy will always be a " great job creation machine".
He said the dire youth unemployment situation in Europe - where even a country like Finland with an admirable education system is seeing double-digit jobless figures - shows the changing dynamics around the world.
The nature of jobs is also changing, with workers now needing vastly different skill-sets to succeed.
These include being open to ideas and engaging in lifelong learning, having values like responsibility and respect that will lead to trust in the Singaporean worker, and being able to relate to people across different cultures.
Using the analogy of a travel adapter which can be used in any country, Mr Heng said he hoped that Singaporeans would be able to "plug in anywhere", draw energy and make contributions around the world. "Our ability to have that cultural sensitivity and global awareness is going to be an essential attribute."
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