Staying ahead via ‘unmanned’ sector
Jamari Mohtar 
ON a recent trip to Singapore, everyone I met with spoke of a café where you can partake of delicious food without any chef or waiter to tend to your culinary needs.

My curiosity “bud”, just like my taste buds, went on overdrive, wondering what in heaven’s name were these Singaporeans talking about.

Much later did I realise that this talk-of-the-town stuff is not so much about eating but rather a big bread-and-butter issue that will have a long-term repercussion on the Singapore economy.

It is about the city-state coming out with a brilliant solution to an economic challenge that could impede the sustainability of its long-term growth. That solution involves creating an “unmanned” sector in its economy as a new engine of growth.

You won’t find this novel concept of unmanned sector in any standard textbook on economics. Nor would you find it in any country’s official economic report, including Singapore’s. But the concept was often mentioned in the speeches of its leaders such as during this year’s May Day Rally.

This concept of an unmanned sector arises out of the need to manage the twin challenge of shrinking population growth and the import of foreign workers and talents.

The same challenge of shrinking population growth is also faced by Japan, but the Japanese solve this problem with robots.

Everything in Japan now is about robots – from a hotel entirely manned by robots to a robotic domestic worker to assist in household chores, right to ahem, a robot that you can be “married” to because it can act and function like a spouse!

There is a good reason why Singapore is using robots sparingly though it is going big on robotics. This has to do with the secret recipe of the city-state’s success since the time of its founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

And this success can be encapsulated in the following words:

Singapore is not and will never be ashamed to learn from anyone – be it the developed West, developing countries, backward Africa and even neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia.

However, come implementation time, the city-state will never implement 100% of what it has learnt from them. It will creatively adjust and modify what it has learnt to the Singapore context, and this new thing soon becomes a uniquely Singaporean invention, which others are bound to imitate.

The unmanned cafe in Singapore is one such example, which I suppose was borrowed from the Japanese but without the robots!

Dubbed as VendCafe, it is a pilot project launched by the republic’s Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in August last year. A food and beverage company, JR Vending, operates the café, with government agencies Spring Singapore and the Housing Development Board (HDB) jointly facilitating the project.

Located at the void deck of a HDB block of flats in Sengkang, VendCafe serves a variety of hot meals, snacks and beverages in bento-style containers from an array of six vending machines. The meals cost between S$3.50 and S$5.

Tharman, who is also the Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, alluded to the manpower shortage in the F&B sector as the driving force behind the project.

“The F&B sector takes up almost 5% of our total workforce, and it’s still growing, but we can’t keep growing manpower, in particular foreign manpower. So we have to find ways of using technology without compromising consumers’ desire for taste, health, nutrition and convenience,” he was reported as saying.

The so-called Chef-In-Box machines dispense hot meals in under three minutes, offering Western and local dishes by using a technology that freezes the pre-cooked food and begins to heat it up when cash or cashless payment starts to roll in. The food has no preservatives or additives. There are a lot of behind-the-scene stages before the food is brought into the machine to ensure that tasty and nutritious food is served.

A second Chef-in-Box VendCafe was opened on June 13 at the Ang Mo Kio MRT Station – a first at an MRT station, which represents a new emphasis on crowded places and away from places that lack amenities like the first café in Sengkang. On June 22, a second VendCafe at an MRT station was opened at Lakeside – double the size of the first at Ang Mo Kio.

In a May Day Rally this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned other elements of an unmanned sector. These are:

▶ Automated storage and caddy pick system at the new distribution centre of Singapore’s premier supermarket, NTUC FairPrice, where robots carry the pallets and deliver them to the bay. The pallets are then wrapped up automatically before going out of the warehouse.

▶ Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are being tested at the port terminals at Pasir Panjang. The AGVs move around in the container yard by themselves with no driver’s cabin and driver to collect containers. The crane picks up the container from the ship, lowers it carefully onto the AGV and off it goes. By the time the mega port in Tuas is built in 2021, the turnaround time will be even faster with better versions of AGVs.

▶ Unmanned checkout systems where nearly half of the outlets operated by the three major local supermarket chains have introduced. These allow shoppers to complete the checkout procedure on their own, from scanning items to paying by credit card.

And on July 19, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen offered the Philippines the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones, “to enhance the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities” of the Philippine troops to dislodge Muslim militants still holding up in the southern city of Marawi after nearly three months of fighting.

But drones are not limited to the defence sector. Last October, a SingPost drone was used to deliver mail to Pulau Ubin. Meanwhile local dining establishment Timbre announced plans to deploy waiter drone at its restaurants.

All these efforts contributed to a productivity growth of 1% last year compared to almost zero in the previous three years. This means the government’s strategy of growing the economy sustainably through better productivity rather than manpower growth is on track to succeed.

Jamari Mohtar is a veteran journalist who used to live and work in Singapore. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 246.