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WEF in Singapore

Mind the digital gap in Asia's post-COVID economy: Davos panelists

Singapore minister and others stress workforce upskilling for 'inclusive growth'

Migrants take shelter at a construction site in Ahmedabad, India, during the coronavirus crisis. Experts warn the pandemic could lead to greater inequality, as workers who cannot adapt to telework are left behind.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Technology and telecommuting are transforming the way industries work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But governments must ensure the new era does not widen the economic divide between the digitally skilled and unskilled, prominent figures from Asia cautioned in this week's online Davos Agenda meetings.

"You've got to ensure that that doesn't lead to a greater inequality, between the knowledge professionals and others who can easily adapt to remote work, and the blue collar workers and others who really need to be at work," warned Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore's senior minister and former deputy prime minister, in a panel discussion on Monday titled "Restoring Economic Growth."

Shanmugaratnam said many businesses will not revert to the old style centered on face-to-face interactions, and that a sort of "hybrid economy" is taking shape in which people sometimes meet in person but remote work is here to stay.

"Adapting a whole workforce to the use of digital technologies, to be able to make the most of their own jobs with these technologies is extremely important," he stressed. Governments' task, he added, is to work with businesses to help the workforce adjust -- enabling "a new phase of inclusive growth."

Economic recovery from the pandemic is a key theme at the World Economic Forum's virtual sessions, which run through Friday ahead of a planned in-person summit in Singapore in May. Smriti Zubin Irani, India's minister of textiles, women and child development, shared a perspective from her South Asian country, home to hundreds of millions of rural residents who tend to lack access to digital tools.

"We have to be diligent to ensure that those who don't have the technological skills are not dispossessed of opportunities," she said. The Indian government has what it calls Common Service Centers, which she said have reached every rural block in the country and provide a range of e-government services while also expanding digital literacy.

Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda, also on the panel, pointed out that the digitalization of businesses and education should be encouraged to provide "impetus to further economic growth and development."

In a report released on Monday by Oxfam, a U.K. nongovernmental organization, 87% of 295 economists surveyed across 79 countries think the coronavirus will lead to an increase or a major increase in income inequality in their nation.

Tharman Shanmugaratnam, top center, Singapore's senior minister; Smriti Zubin Irani, top right, India's minister of textiles, women and child development; and Haruhiko Kuroda, bottom left, the Bank of Japan's governor, participate in an online discussion on Jan. 25.

Generally, Asia has had more success in containing the coronavirus than the West, allowing quicker economic comebacks and promising faster growth in 2021. Government spending, central banks' monetary policy and gradual vaccinations of citizens are all supporting the recoveries.

Upskilling of workforces would not only reduce the inequality gap but also spur further growth in the post-pandemic era -- especially in Asia, with its numerous emerging economies.

A report issued by the WEF ahead of the Davos Agenda meetings said upskilling could boost the Asia-Pacific region's gross domestic product by 6.1% by 2030. That is higher than the 2.5% estimate for Western Europe and 3.6% for North America.

"The benefits of upskilling [in the Asia-Pacific] ... will be facilitated when emerging Asian economies move into higher, value-added sectors that require the most productive use of skills," the report noted.

During Monday's panel discussion, Singapore's Shanmugaratnam did not mention the physical WEF meeting the city-state is due to host in a few months. But he stressed that countries "must shore up the multilateral system" and "rebuild some forms of cooperative internationalism" so that they can invest more in the global public good.

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