“Disruption” seems to be the catchword for anyone invested in the future of any industry nowadays as it defines new rules in the society. Its ubiquity stems from “disruptive innovation,” the main concept from Clayton Christensen that has intensified the demand to grow the overall intellectual bandwidth of academia. Three years ago, Christensen and Michelle Weise visualised the future of higher education and saw traditional brick-and-mortar institutions in the shadow of a veritable tsunami of online, competency-based education models. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) emerged eventually as traditional institutions struggled to innovate from within. MOOCs stood out in the end as it not only centres on definite learning outcomes and tailored support, but also underscored identifiable skillsets that are portable to employers. This has now put the traditional schools in danger as millennials, educators and companies are beginning to see the established higher education systems as an inefficient, inadequate and expensive option for some career paths. Thus, how can schools provide a holistic soft skills development to keep millennials on top of their technical skills?

The role of higher education

While universities prepare students well for academia, memorising, position writing and the sciences, the education system has, however, effectively failed in preparing students to be career-ready. For instance, Mariels Winhoffer, vice president of global business partners at IBM Asia Pacific, noticed that there is a huge skills gap in terms of the ability to utilise and translate available tools into the job market. This is due to the traditional business models implemented by the education institutions. The universities remain imprecise in aligning their programmes and majors to the needs of the truly globally-connected world. Inevitably, students are starting to question about the return on their higher education investments due to the rising costs of a university degree. The gap continues to widen between degree holders and the jobs available today as employers are demanding more academic credentials for every kind of job yet also increasingly vocal about their discontent with the difference in the quality of degree holders. Therefore, what should matter to the higher education decision makers the most is that they themselves should not and must not forget the fundamental cause for the existence of universities in the first place: to nurture young people to be ready to face challenges in the future!

Universities, therefore, become vital to enhance a profound perception of the Renaissance as a manifesto to embrace the arrival of neo-Renaissance. Unlike the days of the Renaissance, intellectual activities light up at a much faster rate nowadays – from one end of the supercontinent like Asia and Europe to the other. In such a world, higher educators should deeply embed intellectual courage into the mindset of students. In the end, the fundamental contribution of universities is an improvement of the quality of life for all of humanity. The benefits to humanity would not be feasible without sustainable higher education development. In this case, we can clearly see that direct government control of research universities is absolutely not helpful in the intellectual, cultural and economic contributions. To be more effective, higher education institutions need to work with public and private sectors to enhance skills such as critical thinking, insight and analysis capabilities. Only then will higher educators be able to produce more millennials who possess a humanistic outlook, can take on greater responsibilities and confront global problems with a fearless can-do attitude.

Case study: ASEAN

ASEAN would be an ideal case study to illustrate the role of higher education institutions in improving the quality of life for all the humanity as its regional GDP growth has consistently transcended any other region in the world over the last decade. In addition, millennials consist of more than half of ASEAN’s population. This youthful demographic profile is now demonstrating a great desire to embrace new technology and the new industrial revolution.

However, disruptive technology has begun to show some negative effects in many industries that are important to ASEAN. For instance, information and communications technology (ICT), tourism, electronic manufacturing and financial services industries were adversely affected, people being unable to catch up and understand the rapid changes in technology. Given the unequal distribution of economic prosperity and institutional capacity in ASEAN, the higher education and training institutions, perhaps to a lesser extent in Singapore, have not been able to equip graduates adequately with skills that the growth industries need. Higher education in ASEAN is still very much geared towards utility and studying to get the skills to be financially successful. The low competency levels in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and the shortage of workers with sufficient technical and engineering skills, in particular, could distress the ambitious industrial development plans and the move towards a more technology and knowledge-intensive economy. Therefore, a new balance has to be struck between practical and theoretical applications in higher education programmes.

Not only that, there is inadequate focus on teaching soft skills despite Singapore focusing on innovation and workforce adaptability as the drivers of future economic growth. The SkillsFuture movement, in particular, has tended to focus on hard skills, paying inadequate attention to skills that may be used across jobs. In addition, Singapore’s heavy reliance on foreign workers and its low productivity growth trigger an “urgent need to re-orientate the education and training policy and to moderate the pace of industrial policy change”. Thus, Singapore’s higher education institutions’ orientation and pedagogy would need to continuously evolve to keep up with the demands of an innovation-driven economy.

Although Malaysia and Thailand aspire to break out of the middle-income trap, they face similar challenges in equipping millennials with the necessary science and engineering skills and in broadening the appeal of technical education to a wider segment of the student population around universities. While Indonesia and the Philippines enjoy a strong comparative advantage in low-skilled industries in manufacturing and services, both countries are facing tremendous pressure to prepare millennials in picking up STEM skills. The poorest countries, such as Laos and Cambodia, still struggle to provide even basic infrastructure for higher education.

Against this backdrop, raising higher educational standards and skill levels among millennials ought to be central to ASEAN’s growth prospects. The curriculum should not be narrowly developed but instead emphasise on critical thinking and problem-solving skills among millennials. According to the report from OECD and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), it will be imperative to allow millennials to choose either the academic or vocational track for education. By equipping the relevant skillsets, Southeast Asia will be able to stimulate the launch of new and advanced technologies to produce higher value-added goods and services. This can position ASEAN as the hub of innovation and industrial growth in global markets.

Due to the rapidly evolving technological environment, the millennials must bear heavy and profound responsibilities for their own talent development through a commitment to lifelong learning and reskilling. The millennials not only need to have right technical skillsets, but also the right mindset – one that is at once curious, creative, collaborative, adaptable and willing to take risks. To adapt to the rapidly changing demands of modern work, millennials also need agility – the ability to change circumstances and to sense and respond new contexts. This, in turn, has implications for the universities in terms of its readiness and adaptability to meet demand in the digital economy.

Solution – regional level

The solution to the soft skills development problem will require outstanding leadership and a future-oriented vision, but they are certainly not impossible. The Prime Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Najib Razak mentioned during his keynote address at the World Economic Forum (WEF) on ASEAN last year that, “ We need a transformation of rules, procedures and habits. But we also need a transformation of the mind, as we learn to think of ourselves more as ASEAN, act as ASEAN, and then reap the benefits of being ASEAN.” As digital technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous, it is crucial to have governments and business act together for a new education and employment ecosystem, one that is pre-emptively designed for a more integrated ASEAN economy. Policymakers and employers must find new ways to develop a skilled but flexible workforce that accepts the need for continuous and lifelong learning. The public sector, for instance, could act as an effective facilitator to coordinate the skill development efforts of the private sector and other stakeholders to meet the demand of more dynamic labour markets and a more globalised world. In addition, employers should be given a much bigger role in higher education and training as they can respond more quickly than the public sector in respect to the skills demands. Getting employers more involved in shaping curricula and programmes would also ensure that higher education programmes are agile and stay relevant amid rapid changes in technology.

Universities also should integrate new media literacy and leverage their intellectual power to absorb and comprehend latest trends. This is the new intellectual bandwidth that a modern university requires in order to be successful, if not merely to survive, in the 21st century. In short, there is an urgent need to strengthen the multi-sector partnerships among the government, businesses, and higher education institutions to implement scalable solutions to future skills challenges in ASEAN. Collaboration between governments and business will be one crucial move for ensuring that the millennials are well-equipped with the necessary skills and for the ASEAN regional economy to prosper.


In a nutshell, creating a great higher education system takes not only resources, but also sustained visionary leadership and patience. With its majority youth demographics, ASEAN urgently needs to bring major reform in higher education curricula. To succeed in the coming decades, having the ability to envision the future and even take steps to bring the future into being is essential to succeeding and thriving in the coming decades. As a result, collaboration and empathy are important criteria for the millennials to subsequently inculcate a constant learning mode. For ASEAN to manage the challenges posed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the region has to transform its higher education ideology so that millennials can actively sharpen and extending new skills for the new technologies and emerging jobs on a daily basis.  To implement scalable solutions to future skills challenges, strategic measures within companies, and within and across industries, including collaborations with public and private sectors are also needed. Only then, millennials can fully develop their soft skills and make a positive impact on all that they do.


Amanda Yeo is a graduate in MSc in International Relations in S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and served as Vice-President (Students) for RSIS Student Board 2016/2017. She also takes an active role in the TEDx community such as TEDxNTU and TEDxYouth@KL. She is on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Amantaakatah)  and tweets @yanyinyeo.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.