Why is Singapore Going Robotics?


Emma is a masseuse at a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic. She specialises in back and knee massages, tending to her clients with a therapeutic touch that is equal parts precision and gentleness.

(Image Source: NTU website)


Edgar is witty, imaginative and, thanks to his keen knowledge of Singapore, can tell you where to get the best chicken rice. He was also one of the hosts of the 2017 National Day Parade. With such impressive credentials, he is an ideal candidate to front major events, serve as a guide at attractions or man service counters.

(Image Source: NTU website)
But Emma and Edgar are not human. They are among a rising fleet of robots designed and created in Singapore, and already put to work in the country. Welcome to Singapore’s robotic age where automation has moved beyond mere machines to human-like technologies.


Robotics as part of Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative

The nation’s interest in robotics is part of its effort to become a knowledge-based, innovative, smart nation. An early adopter of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Republic has established itself as an AI hub. Today, it is the second most automated country in the world, behind South Korea. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), Singapore has 488 robot workers per 10,000 human employees, far ahead of the global average of 74. Singapore’s robot labour force is expected to double by 2021.


Robotics as a solution to population and labour woes

Leading the charge in robotics is a strategic move on the part of the country to solve looming problems.


Ageing population

Like many industrialised nations, Singapore is ageing. Residents 65 and above account for 13.7% of the population in 2018, up from 13% the previous year. This has placed the island-state as the second-fastest ageing population in the world after South Korea based on United Nation figures.


Declining birth rates

Compounding the issue is the country’s persistently low birth rates. It takes 2.1 babies per woman to renew a population. Singapore recorded only 1.16 births per woman in 2017, a further dip compared to 2016’s 1.2. The country is now one of the least fertile countries in the world, ranking 197th out of 200 in fertility.


Increasing longevity

Meanwhile, the population is living longer. Life expectancy has been on the rise. Singaporeans can now expect to live to 83.1 years, up from 83 in 2016. Nearly two decades before in 2000, it was 80. A generation ago in 1980, it was barely 75.


Labour shortage

The population trend means that Singapore is rapidly becoming a nation that cannot renew its labour force. As workers age out of the market and retire, the country will not have enough younger people entering the workforce to replace them. It faces a real danger of labour shortage.

With the seniors living longer and a decreasing pool of working adults, those capable of providing economic support to the elderly will shrink accordingly as well. Nearly 30 years ago in 1990, there were 10.5 workers supporting one elderly. By 2018, the number had shrunken to just 4.8 workers. The strain on the Singapore worker will only increase.


Labour gaps

Singaporeans are among the most educated and skilled workers in the world. In 2018, it was named the best country for developing human capital by the World Bank, topping 157 global economies.

Accordingly, its people are also fussy about what they want to work in. Manual, menial labour is shunned; PMET (Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians) jobs are preferred. The service industry, in particular, is feeling the squeeze with positions no local wants to take up.


Foreign labour challenges

Opening doors to foreign manpower to fill the labour gap created new problems for the government. Locals, unhappy with the increased competition from foreigners for jobs, housing and transport, made their discontent clear. In the 2011 General Election, the ruling political party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), saw its lowest win – 60.14% – since Singapore became independent. The result forced the government to rethink its foreign labour policy.


Non-human workers present Singapore a way to overcome these population and labour woes, doing work the country no longer has workers to do or which its workers refuse to do.


Robotics as a response to changing landscape

Singapore is a forward-thinking nation. It is always keen to stay in step with advances and strengthen its global position. There is no denying or escaping smart automation and Singapore intends to harness it to sharpen its competitive edge.


Improve productivity and efficiency

Singapore may not have much but it excels in optimising what it has. It may not have many workers but it can make its workers more productive and the work more efficient. It may not have many workers but it can ensure its processes are flawless. Robotics offers an excellent way to achieve all this.

Industrial robots can work tirelessly with precision and consistency, delivering quality every time. Their efficiency also means reduced material wastage while improving productivity and safety.

In addition, they relieve workers of strenuous, repetitive tasks, freeing them to perform higher-value functions. Many hospitals in the country use cobots or collaborative robots that work alongside human workers to pick, pack and deliver medicine so their human colleagues can concentrate on the patients.


Draw economic benefits

Contrary to common belief, the rise of robotics has not led to a loss of jobs but to the creation of new ones. Worldwide, robotics is expected to create up to two million jobs from 2017 to 2020. New jobs sustain economic growth. Singapore understands this well and robotics is one of the ways it is driving development.


Manage a changing workforce

Millennials – those born between 1980 and 2000 – make up one in five of Singapore’s workers. Often called the strawberry generation – easily bruised like the fruit, unable to manage pressure or commit to hard work – their expectations of work are vastly different from those of their parents’. They want flexibility and eschew routine. Using robots to do the more mundane jobs allows employers to meet the expectations of the Millennial worker.


Meet expectations of customers

Consumers are getting more sophisticated and the Singapore consumer is no exception. A 2017 Accenture survey showed that Singaporeans welcome AI, with 35% ready for hyper-personalised services. To be a thriving business hub, Singapore needs to transform customer experience.

Local bank, DBS, is among the first to do this. It has ventured into conversational AI with the creation of a chatbot that interacts with customers on mobile, web and Facebook Messenger. The chatbot provides information on products and services and doling out advice on spending in very much the same way people use social media.


Man has long envisioned a world where humans leverage robots to enhance and optimise their lives. We have crossed the threshold of this dream and Singapore has every intention of being in the forefront of man-machine interaction.