In the next 10 to 20 years, the proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI) will lead to the widespread elimination of jobs performed by humans. With such predictions occupying column inches in the media, we are confronted with the unavoidable question of just how valuable human input is to the scheme of things.
At the National University of Singapore (NUS), much thought and effort has gone into meeting the challenges of this new era. Ranked top in Asia by the 2017 edition of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, it comes in 24th internationally in the same survey and is the much-vaunted cornerstone of Singapore’s tertiary education system.
In 2015, a new initiative christened the Centre for Future-ready Graduates (CFG) was launched. As the name suggests, its purpose is to prepare all students of NUS for the future. This is achieved through training that takes a hands-on approach to building soft skills such as mindfulness and resilience. Although some top universities in Europe offer similar electives in their curriculum, NUS has taken the unprecedented step of making it a essential modular component.
PSLE: Deciding the future of 12-year-olds
As the director of CFG, Crystal Lim oversaw the establishment of the CFG and led the planning of its curriculum. Here, she sheds some light on how she came to join NUS and her journey with the CFG.
She recalls her first meeting with the Provost of the university, who said, ‘Our grades are up here. But our students, when they go out to the real world, some employers complain that despite their amazing grades, the students find it hard to operate."
“He was hearing feedback from employers that Singaporean students are, in general, not great at problem-solving. They need instructions – which way to go, they don’t want to break the rules, they want permission, they don’t want to take risks.
In terms of hard skills, we’re already number one; but in terms of soft skills, we’re not there.
So, he asked me if I was brave enough to take on the challenge of preparing our youth for the future by putting in the other half of the equation – soft skills.”
From Singapore’s infancy, the efficient distribution and use of its limited manpower has been a chief concern. Consequently, the local education system has traditionally focused on discipline, practicality and efficiency, culminating in a standardized test for academic aptitude for all schoolchildren aged twelve.
The results of this examination can determine the life trajectory of a child – such as whether he or she will go on to receive a university education or otherwise.
Although this system has produced individuals armed with sterling academic credentials and other assorted hard skills, it has also created a shortfall of labour that possess the soft skills and mental agility capable of navigating the real world. While a cause for concern, this phenomenon is hardly unique to Singapore. Parallels can be drawn with the cases of Japan and South Korea where there is a similar focus on academic achievement.
A woman at the helm at 35
Born and bred in Singapore, Lim won a scholarship to study law at Durham University in the United Kingdom. Upon graduation, she entered the finance industry as an analyst at an investment bank.
She married her first husband at 24, giving birth to a boy and girl in her late twenties. As a working mother, she balanced her parental responsibilities with the demands of her role in the highly competitive world of investment banking, travelling extensively throughout Asia. However, the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis would be a turning point.
“My ex-husband was also an investment banker. When the crisis happened, we decided it was a good time to take the [exit] package. We sold everything in Singapore – the house, the car, everything – and moved to Australia. We bought a small farm and a vineyard, led a simple life, spent time with the children because we had gotten so busy in investment banking.”
During Lim’s time in Australia, she decided to start her own business. It tailored bespoke holistic retreat programmes to the needs of her primarily well-heeled, mature clients. This would prove to be a crucial step towards her future involvement in building the CFG at NUS:
“How I got into the university is a very funny story. I was running a retreat in Bhutan and we were sitting on the side of a mountain meditating. There was a guy who happened to be the global chairman of a well respected executive search firm.
“After meditating, he said to me, ‘This work you’re doing is really special. But there’s only old people here. Why not teach it to people who’re younger with more untapped potential? If you’re sincere [about helping people] and put your intention out there, the universe will find a way.’
Two or three weeks later, he introduced me to the lady who headed the Singapore branch of the firm. I Skyped with her from Australia and it turned out she had just lunched with the Provost of the National University of Singapore the very same day.”
From serendipity to opportunity
This is how Lim came to spearhead an initiative that was a world first at the age of 35. This year has turned out to be a year of change and fresh challenges in both professional and private capacities for her.
Shortly after the successful establishment of the CFG and the implementation of its curriculum, she took another chance at happiness by marrying a colleague, Dr. Gregor Lange.
Dr. Lange was previously a member of the Department of Psychology at NUS and involved in the founding of the CFG. Together, they have founded a new consultancy firm, Forest Wolf.
Forest Wolf aims to expand the possibilities of the human touch through providing scientifically grounded training designed to enhance soft skills to its diverse clientele of individuals and businesses.
It already counts an alliance of globally recognised pharmaceutical firms amongst alumni of its leadership training programme – heartening success stories are already beginning to emerge.
As I quizzed Lim about her life and career trajectory, the Planned Happenstance Theory came to mind.
A theory propounded by Professor John D. Krumboltz of Stanford University, I happened upon it as a university student pondering my own career options. It argues that careers can be shaped greatly by serendipitous events.
By actively seizing these coincidences and responding optimally to them, one may advance his/her career. The importance of knowing how to turn serendipity into opportunity can be seen from the life-changing decisions Lim has made thus far.
The instincts guiding this decision-making process are uniquely human and their centrality to our future cannot be overstated. What began as a leap of faith in the value of human potential in the age of technology and AI may become the key to determining whether Singapore’s mature economy continues to prosper.
Story by Mana Ogawa,
translation by Eunice Lee
Link to Forbes Japan article: