Kaya toast lowers Singapore’s productivity, part 2

A set of statistics from the United States Department of Labor says it all.

Singapore is shown to have one of the highest per capita Gross Domestic Products (GDP) and Gross National Incomes (GNI), based on purchasing power parity 2009.  However, topping the second chart isn’t good news.

This is because, in order to achieve that kind of output, Singaporeans work the most hours of all.

As a result, our output per hour (i.e. productivity) is somewhere near the bottom:

There is something very wrong with our economic model.

Before readers jump in, adding comments about low wages and how people have to work overtime or take on two jobs to make ends meet, let me say it’s beside the point.  The charts do NOT show you wages per hour worked. They show you output per hour worked. That output can be in the form of revenue and profit to the company’s bottom line or passed on to workers in the form or wages or pension lay-bys. So don’t even start any discussion about salaries because such would be off-topic.

* * * * *

Let me say at the outset, I don’t have any solid answers why the situation is the way it is. Moreover, my guess is that there is no single factor, but a complex interplay of many factors. I asked around over the last month or two why people thought things are like that in Singapore and I am going to include some of the more interesting responses below as food for thought. I will also add two thoughts of my own.

One of the most interesting observations was that Singaporeans overlay friendships with working relationships. We don’t have many friendships outside our work circles. This is both cause and effect of long working hours; one can easily pinpoint the lack of leisure time as a reason why we find it hard to develop social networks outside of work. But this observer added that as a result of overlaying friendships with work relationships, we spend a significant portion of time at work doing the kind of social communication to cement the relationship; this eats into time doing work itself.

Another observation is that our deference to or obsession with hierarchy undercuts efficiency. This, together with all the rest of the observations, are basically variations on the same theme: communication inadequacies.

In Part 1, there is a comment by YH@2 that described his personal observation. For convenience, let me quote a part of it:

from my own experience working in an MNC – we engineers update our manager so that he can update his manager. We had to do all this in a meeting where each one gives an update in turn. After that, when the big boss had questions, we spent more time explaining things to our manager (who didn’t really get it) so that he can answer his boss.

We could have saved so much time if engineers gave the update to the big boss directly – and field his queries immediately.  .  .  . But of course, doing this will make my manager look ineffective. And he didn’t want the big boss hearing “unfiltered” bad news. He, of course, didn’t dare tell his boss to walk about and look for us.

The deference for or obsession with hierarchy means a lot of time is spent passing messages. And as we all know, every time a message a passed, there is a significant risk that the message is changed. This then leads to miscomprehension and misimplementation at the end of the process.

Another observation given to me (by several people) was that Singaporeans aren’t proud enough of their work to “get it right the first time”. Frankly, I’m not sure how proud of his work the typical American or European is, but I suppose it’s a matter of degree and all it takes are a few degrees short to make a difference nationally. Everyone of us however has numerous anecdotes about shoddy work that need rectification.

Again in Part 1, a comment by ~autolycus referred to this:

A similar thing has occurred in education. Huge chunks of time are taken up by ‘remedial’ work created by bad teaching in the first place. Time and resources invested in improving teaching capability would reduce the time and resources wasted downstream in ‘remedials’ consisting of reteaching the same stuff over and over again.

Some months go, I was doing a photo project as a favour for someone. She asked me why I took so much trouble to adjust the settings on my camera; why couldn’t I go back and photoshop the image instead. I was gentle with her because I didn’t think she knew anything about photoshopping, but I said to her: “It takes me only a few extra seconds to adjust the settings and two to three minutes to get several takes with different settings. If I had an imperfect picture and had to photoshop it, it would take half an hour or more.”

Getting it right the first time is an extremely important attitude for productivity. Unfortunately, the above-mentioned tendency to pass messages here and there before it reaches the person doing it — and sometimes the passing is necessary to “get approval” since another feature of hierarchical social orders is the reluctance to delegate authority — can mean that the chances of miscommunication by the time a message reaches the doer is high. The result is plain: the doer does work that is not exactly what was intended/desired in the first place.

Anyone who has ever dealt with contractors and subcontractors will have a thousand examples to relate.

More basic is the problem of language. Some years ago, I was involved in a project to automate part of a factory’s assembly line. Expensive new machines were installed. Training sessions were arranged to “upskill” the operators. I had a sinking feeling watching those sessions. The operators were trying to memorise the steps needed to operate the machines, when the machines were designed to self-diagnose and give feedback through a computer terminal. The operators saw their jobs as robots attached to other robots (the machines) when instead they were supposed to monitor the machines’ feedback and modify processes accordingly. First of all, there is the problem of the mindset of lowly workers who had been treated as robots all their lives and cannot all of a sudden become non-robots. But even after their new roles were explained to them (and we eventually succeeded), it gradually dawned on me that it still wasn’t working. And the reason was: Their educational level was poor. They (a) couldn’t always parse the messages the machines put out (it wasn’t easy finding machines giving feedback in Singlish or Mandlish), (b) they hated the “humiliation” of looking up a manual because it only exposed their language weaknesses,  and (c) they might not have quite understood what was going on inside the machines mechanically and electronically.

In other words, the last 30 – 40 years of education policy is now working against us. We never quite educated people. We only trained them to do tasks of that particular era. We never paid attention to communication and learning skills, particularly facility in English; instead our education policy was determined to produce Chinese, Malays and Indians, able to speak Chinese, Malay or Tamil and imbued with social and cultural attitudes suited for a more deferential, low-technology age.

* * * * *

One last observation, from me and probably counter-intuitive:

We tend to think that a widening income gap is a result of low productivity from certain sections of our workforce. If we could invest in re-training and “upgrade” their skills, their productivity would improve and they can earn more — that is the mantra the government puts out.

I’d like readers to ponder for a moment this: A wide income gap causes low productivity. The arrow of causation is the other way around.

It’s like this: One of the more effective measures to raise productivity is cross-tasking. Another is the flattening of organisational structures.

The problem of a wide income gap is that it works against both of these. People use their pay-grade as a mark of social status. Cross-tasking is difficult when you ask someone to do something which he considers beneath his dignity. The wider the income difference between what he does and what he associates with the new task you’re asking him to do, the more he is going to resist taking it on. Also, if you ask someone to do a task that is associated with a pay-grade higher than his usual pay-grade, then those at the higher stratum will feel very threatened and might work to subvert your initiative.

Flattening pay scales and organisational structures make such initiatives easier. The latter, as noted earlier, also makes communication more effective.

You see the effect thus, in a statement by People’s Action Party member of parliament Lim Wee Kiak, in Zaobao newspaper:

If the annual salary of the Minister of Information, Communication and and Arts is only $500,000, it may pose some problems when he discusses policies with media CEOs who earn millions of dollars because they need not listen to the minister’s ideas and proposals, hence a reasonable payout will help to maintain a bit of dignity.

Source (in Chinese)

(Lim has issued a statement saying it was “taken out of context” but did not deny it. If you can read Chinese or do a Google Translate, you can judge for yourself from the source whether it was out of context.)

(Update, 27 May 2011: Lim has withdrawn the above remarks. In a note posted on his Facebook Profile, he said: “On further reflection, I agree that the example I quoted regarding a MICA minister meeting the heads of telcos and saying that there may be some loss of face if the minister’s salary is low is inappropriate and incorrect. I withdraw those remarks and apologise for making them. Dignity cannot be and must not be measured purely in monetary terms.” Good of him.)

No doubt some will slam this is the typical elitist attitude of the PAP. But it’s an attitude that is really quite pervasive in Singapore. People feel it is beneath their dignity to engage/communicate with, or take suggestions or criticism from those beneath their social level. It must stand to reason then that the wider the gaps in social strata (as deduced from pay-grade), the more dysfunctional is communication within that society, and the harder it is to redesign work practices that mix-and-match tasks for greater efficiency.

High wage differentials also lead to supervisors hoarding their approval authority, inhibiting delegation of authority. With a heightened consciousness of social status comes a greater readiness to defend that privilege, among which is the right to approve or not approve a certain work proposal.

* * * * *

But, as I said at the outset, I don’t have answers to the productivity question. All I have are curious thoughts, but I think it is important that we begin a conversation that is wider and more searching than the simplistic one rolled out by a government that knows only the “solution” of throwing money at problems, talking about retraining as a panacea, to the exclusion of everything else.

57 Responses to “Kaya toast lowers Singapore’s productivity, part 2”

  1. 1 mint 26 May 2011 at 17:04

    hi , interesting to read this. on some counts you are right in some observation which is the part when ‘sporeans are not proud of their work to get it right the first time’ .often they also view that their superiors will need to be the ones to ‘supervise’ their work, and hence, they dont need to get it right the first time. 2ndly, sometimes taking responsibility for own actions or own thoughts are penalised heavily in a big organisation as it deviates from the ‘culture’. this is pervasive. will take a while before we can fine tune our communication.

  2. 2 suggestion 26 May 2011 at 17:45

    There is AN EXPLORATORY PAPER in 2008 dealing with the issue:

    A summary is:


    1. Over Hiring During Boom Time

    2. Shifts Towards Greater Knowledge and Skill Work: Difference in Knowledge vs Manual Worker Productivity
    In Drucker’s (1991) opinion, 6 factors determine knowledge worker productivity:

    A. Unclear definition of task. Manual tasks are very clearly defined, while knowledge
    work tends to be more open-ended and its scope is often left to the individual worker.

    B. Autonomy to self-manage. Given the nature of knowledge work, productivity can only
    be optimized if the worker is given the autonomy to manage his own work.

    C. Continuous innovation. The nature of knowledge work demands that the worker
    innovate continuously to be effective. This is unlike manual work where strict adherence to
    stipulated standards or procedure is more important than innovation.

    D. Continuous learning and teaching. Knowledge work requires continuous learning on
    the part of the knowledge worker to ensure that his skill and knowledge remain current and
    relevant, as new technology and new challenges evolve rapidly. To ensure that his knowledge is
    internalized and adds to the company’s overall productivity, it is also his responsibility to teach
    continuously. A manual worker only has to learn his task once and hone his skill via repetition.

    E. Aim to maximize quality first, not quantity. Productivity of knowledge work aims
    first to attain maximum quality. To maximize quantity is secondary. In manufacturing, though
    quality is important too, the aim is to maximize quantity within a minimum quality standard. In
    knowledge work, quality is not a minimum; it is the “essence of the output”6.

    F Consider the worker as an asset, not a cost. A manual worker is seen as a cost by his
    employer. As such, the aim is to amortize this cost over a larger base of output. Basically,
    manual workers are “costs that need to be controlled and reduce”.7 In contrast, a knowledge
    worker is “an asset which needs to be made to grow”.6

    2.2 Impact on Organizational Structure

    2.3 Impact on Management and Human Resource Programs

    2.4 Impact on Technological Investment

    3 Inadequate Attention to System Designs

    4 Lagging Effect of Technological Investments

    CONCLUSION: Although short term factors impact Singapore’s labour productivity, its continuous
    decline since 2004 suggests that more deep rooted causes may be present. Some of these
    possible causes are discussed in this paper; however, to address the issue, further research and
    dialogue with the business community is needed.


  3. 3 Poker Player 26 May 2011 at 17:48

    This may help. I work in a US-based MNC.

    A phrase used by American colleagues but never by Singaporean colleagues: “busy work”.


    A phrase used by Singaporean colleagues but never by American colleagues: “sensitive issue”.

  4. 4 suggestion 26 May 2011 at 17:55

    Real GDP per hour worked, by country, 1960–2009 Table 3a. Converted to U.S. dollars using 2009 PPPs (2009 U.S. dollars)

    Alex, you should add table 3a because:

    1. It shows Singapore has very low absolute labour productivities is relative to other high income advanced countries are in 2009

    2. It shows how little absolute labour productivities of Singapore have failed to catch up to developing countries.

    3. In addition, the absolute gap seems to have widened from 1995 onwards when compared to the US.

    4. Singapore in 2009 less productive than US and Norway in 1979.

  5. 5 ~autolycus 26 May 2011 at 18:02

    I think that the problem is not the density of useful knowledge and skills taught at levels below Secondary 2; after all, some foundation (even if it may be unnecessarily thick) is a good thing for further education. Where I think you have hit the nail on its head is the kind of approach in terms of productivity.

    That is, instead of thinking of complex delivery to teach complex ways of using a student’s solid foundation, the approach is to just make them do things until they get it right, or to game the system (i.e. work out answers that will get them grades) and teach them how it is gamed. A lot of bright students will disagree, but on closer inspection, they disagree because they either ignore their teachers or are bright enough to apply filters automatically and figure the game out for themselves.

    In some independent schools, I suspect that the brighter students are actually substituting for about 40% of the work the teachers ought to be doing. There is a fair amount of research evidence to suggest this is so. And don’t get me started on the evidence for tuition as a crutch…

    • 6 superciliousme 31 May 2011 at 17:47

      @~autolycus: thank you for your comment on the education system and I hope you’re a Singaporean. You said exactly the same things as what I’ve been saying over and over again to many people around me. Unfortunately some people take it as an insult to the Singapore education system simply because I’m not Singaporean.

      I too think that many teachers here, while well-meaning and thoroughly dedicated in their job, simply don’t bother explaining the WHY. Instead they go through every single step of every single problem that may possibly be asked in exams.

      Oh how often had I been told not to worry about where this or that formula come from because “IT WON’T BE TESTED” or “IT’S NOT PART OF THE SYLLABUS”.

      For the most part, as you said and while not intending to brag, I simply worked them out myself. That way I could remain pretty independent of formula-sheets and mindlessly doing endless questions from past-year papers. I.e. I can think independently on my own to solve questions based on my understanding of the concepts.

      I also noticed that some very bright classmates of mine chose to simply sleep in class or do their own things. Or they passed around snacks of raw baby carrots (don’t ask me why), or vandalize the plastic tables with their sharp metal rulers. Unfortunately.

      And why did I even bother complaining about all these at all? Because prior to moving here, that’s how I was taught – so I know it’s possible to do things differently. My teachers would always start with the fundamentals. Then branch out to give ONE or TWO examples. They didn’t waste a lot of time going through question after question after question from your homework / tutorial / etc, unless it’s particularly problematic. School is for learning. Homework / tutorial exercises are for applying concepts you’ve learnt in school. UNLESS school is taking up too much of your time to be effective – as was how I felt.

      Even now I still feel strongly about it because I thought it’s such a waste, seeing as there are so many smart & hardworking students here (yes the hardworking part particularly impressed me considering how they go about their studies).

      Imagine learning more, understanding more, being more fully engaged in school, and yet school’s OVER BY 2PM MAX!!! Not 6.45pm as was the case when I was in JC doing triple science combi. That’s what’s possible with a different teaching & learning method. :)

  6. 7 suggestion 26 May 2011 at 18:07

    1. Sources of Singapore’s GDP and Average Productivity Growth, 1990-2009





    In other words, there is a need to deal with a breakdown with the sources of labour productivity gains across the sectors.

  7. 8 Productivity is a Leadership Problem 26 May 2011 at 18:17

    This is one of the best articles on productivity I’ve ever read.

    I would only add that another productivity problem peculiar to Singapore is this.
    Whenever Singaporean management/leadership finds themselves in a hole, response is inevitably to dig at a faster/cheaper/better rate.
    Never realizing the first step in getting out of the hole is to stop digging first. Have a cup of tea and think. Then maybe figure out how to climb out of the hole.

    Productivity is a failure of leadership. Not a failure by the workers.

    Don’t tell me to be cheaper, better, faster.
    Show and teach me how.

    I once worked for a very large American MNC
    The young American CEO had one simple rule when it came to sending employees for training courses.
    Management including himself must attend the course first.
    If they are satisfied, then the rank and file employees follow.

    His rationale.
    Everyone must speak the same language.

    His mission statement for my department is a single statement containing 6 words.

    Productivity and output was very high.
    Nobody had any doubt about what they were supposed to do.

    The CEO never had to worry about being “quoted out of context.”

  8. 9 Gard 26 May 2011 at 18:17

    I would consider the phrase ‘to the exclusion of everything else’ a bit unfair to the monarchy. If you examine at the Productivity Movement since the 1980s, the focus has always been about changing mindsets, made famous by MM Lee’s quote of Mr Kohei Goshi, ex-President of Japan Productivity Centre: “the transformation of mankind’s way of thinking can be compared to a marathon with no finish line.” (1986)

    Even more interesting is his speech on 18 Sep 1971, to the Singapore Employers Federation:

    “I do see mounting social tensions as the differentials between the Singaporean managerial class (engineers, computer-programmers, accountants) getting up to 70-80% of the salaries of their counterparts in the west, whilst the skilled workers get about 2/3, the semi-skilled one-half and the unskilled 1/3 that of the Japanese worker’s wages. This disparity caused, by the mobility of the professionals and the immobility of the non-professionals, can become a sensitive social issue. The
    workers understand the economic reasons for this. But that does not make them feel any better.”

    It is hard not to admire a statesman who had foreseen the problem of widening income-gap so many years in advance.

    I would encourage readers to read his prescribed solutions.

    “There is no sight without understanding.” – Anonymous

  9. 10 GracieBaby 26 May 2011 at 20:33

    I’m reminded of the cheeky adage: “work expands to fill time”. I see it happening in my workplace, and looking at the second and third graphs, it does seem as if the key to raising productivity is simply to work less. Conceivably, the relationship holds only to a limit: we can’t possibly get any half-decent productivity through absolute idling. Perhaps the key is to shorten our working hours progressively until we hit that optimal number.

  10. 11 gazebo 26 May 2011 at 23:01

    great article YB. it has given me many interesting potential research ideas.

    having lived and worked in both the US and Singapore, i have noticed substantial differences in the way US and Singaporean workers actually work. the typical american is definitely more focused than the average singaporean at work. the american is very clear in separating what is time for work, and what is personal time. and when it is work time, they really work — much more than the average singaporean. however the work still has to be completed of course, whether he is american or singaporean. as a result the singaporean worker typically compensates through overtime, which results in poor productivity. this is of course a completely subjective generalization of my experiences.

    i like to offer another related hypothesis to my observations above. i hypothesize that singapore’s productivity problems are linked to the government’s suppression of human rights. i believe that the average singaporean worker does not have such clear delineations of work and personal time, because unlike the average american, he does not have such great respect (or even awareness) of his fundamental rights as a human being. the singaporean is unable to be plainly professional because his personal and professional spaces are all muddled. this is a direct result of the way PAP has governed. I know i need to prove my case more clearly, but i believe that if singapore’s productivity is to be raised, we must first begin by respecting fundamental human and citizenship rights.

  11. 12 yawningbread 26 May 2011 at 23:31

    Let me take this opportunity to relate an incident that happened about 2 months ago.

    I was in a relatively new restaurant, trying to grab an early dinner. As a new place and it being slightly outside of peak hour, only 3 or 4 out of 25 tables were occupied. There was a manager, 3 servers and 2 cooks.

    I ordered a starter (Thai-style fish cakes), green curry with steamed rice and an iced tea.

    First, the iced tea came.

    Then about 3 minutes later, while I was taking a call on the phone, the green curry came. No rice. I was too busy on the phone to point out the missing rice, in any case I assumed the server would have known.

    One minute later, the server came back, with cutlery and a paper napkin. Still no rice. I was still too busy on the phone.

    2 – 3 minutes later, ending my phone call, still no rice. I waved and got the manager’s attention. “What do you think is missing?” I asked him.


    “Yes, please.”

    He went to the counter, told another server and soon enough a plate of rice came.

    Another 5 minutes later, the starter came.

    On departure, I spoke with the manager. “Did you notice your staff made five trips between the counter and my table, for a simple one-person meal? Why didn’t they bring the cutlery with the iced tea in one move, and the green curry with rice together in another move? Why did the starter come after the main course?”

    He only had an explanation for the starter. “That’s because the 2 cooks specialise. One does starters and desserts and the other does main dishes. So as to when the starter comes out from the kitchen, it has no relationship with the main course, as it depends on how busy the cooks are in their respective area.”

    “Can you think of a simple solution to that problem, particularly with simple starters like fish cakes?” I asked him.

    He couldn’t.

    “Look,” I said. “You had 3 underutilised servers today. Couldn’t one or two have gone into the kitchen to help the first cook if she had a backlog of starters and desserts to prepare?”

    “Especially with something like fish cakes. I’m sure you take the thing out of a refrigerator and pop it into an oven, right?”

    He agreed sheepishly that was the case.

    “How difficult would it be to get a server or two to do that? Or to scoop out some desserts without waiting for the harrassed cook to do it?”

    Then he mumbled something about having to get permission from his superiors otherwise servers weren’t really allowed into the kitchen. To which I said, what about moving some of the simpler starters/deserts out of the kitchen to the bar counter so the servers can deal with them themselves? But I guess that too would need top management decision.

    A typical day in Singapore.

  12. 13 Productivity is a Leadership Problem 26 May 2011 at 23:52

    Dear Alex.
    You bring out a very interesting example about your restaurant encounter.

    Which goes back to the thesis “Productivity is a Leadership Issue”
    It cannot be delegated.

    The restaurant’s top management should be working the front lines every now and then to proactively understand the problems.

    There is a documentary called “Undercover Boss” in Starhub’s History Channel 401. This is where American CEOs work incognito in their own organizations (in USA) doing low level jobs to take the pulse of their organization.

    Somehow though, I can visualize our Ministers living in HDB flats and taking MRT trains to better understand the lives of Singaporeans.

    • 14 yawningbread 27 May 2011 at 00:00

      Ha ha ha. Just last night at a dinner party, a guest was relating the story of a PAP guy who on becoming a member of parliament was told by the PAP to move out of his HDB flat into private property. Guests at the party spent several minutes speculating why such an instruction might have been given! We had great fun.

  13. 15 thecatman 27 May 2011 at 00:51

    I don’t know much about productivity processes and so on, but I have always thought our government’s overly pro-business stance is a significant cause.

    If you look at the the construction industry as an example, we are still heavily reliant on low-cost, high-numbers construction labour. Why? Because this is the cheapest for construction firms to maintain, not some high-tech gizmo or technologies that they need to spend much more money buying or researching.

    Our system (until very recently at least) has no incentive to encourage these companies to move up the productivity chain and rely more on more productive processes. So these firms are allowed to continue using the same noisy machines from decades ago, use hundreds and hundred of workers that of course Singapore do not have enough of (which then creates our foreign labour dependency and social unease problems), and house them in poor conditions that are often discovered too late. Again, because the government shies away from imposing more roadblocks for companies to deal with.

    Contrast that to the Japanese, who can apparently overlay a road in a day, or even tear down and build a small house right smack in the city within a day (which I have read about). They have to, of cos, use more advanced technology and better-trained workers in order to achieve this efficiency. They may not be overly-protected like in Singapore, and thus are ‘forced’ to upgrade in every facet of what they need to do.

    I can think of 2 other examples of this pro-business position that creates the whole myriad of productivity and social problems:

    1. Our taxes indirectly subsidising companies through WorkFare: My simplistic view is that companies can continue to pay low-level workers as little as they wish, cos the govt will just top up these salaries via Workfare, thus keeping their business costs down.

    The workers may get more money, but the businesses do not necessarily think of them as higher-cost labour that can value-add (and therefore use them appropriately as such), but still as cheap manual labour. Which means, no incentive to be properly or better trained.

    2. Allowing companies, or rather evaluating tender submissions based on costs alone. Cleaning services for example. Look at all the poor folks in cleaning jobs, being paid almost next to nothing and little pay rise to speak of. Why, because of the cost-based tender system. If there are other, more complex evaluation parameters, then these cleaning services companies will be ‘forced’ to upgrade their systems, how they do it, and the training they give their workers, instead of just the usual dirty-run shoddy cleaning job that is so typical, e.g. at hawker centres.

  14. 16 Paul 27 May 2011 at 00:57

    “With a heightened consciousness of social status comes a greater readiness to defend that privilege, among which is the right to approve or not approve a certain work proposal.”

    I think you’ve hit on a fundamental issue here, an entrenched attitude or a cultural frame which I would argue is at the heart of several of Singapore’s problems – namely, the reflexive deferral of executive authority to those in power rather than to those with expertise.

    I’m sure others who work in industries like advertising, custom publishing, architecture, design and so on have shared the experience I’ve had working with Singaporean clients (companies, institutions, and especially government bodies), who invariably insist on micromanaging a project and ‘vetting’ every little decision. All too often, the proposals or advice of the professionals or experts commissioned are overridden by those in authority, based on little more than personal whim and fancy, and backed by nothing more than authority itself. (Such clients seem to forget that third parties are often hired precisely because they specialize in a particular area in which the client lacks expertise.)

    This means a lot of time and effort wasted going back and forth for approval, making changes, and in the long run results in and reinforces a culture in which those who are not vested with ‘authority’ but who are actually the executors or experts assume their disempowerment and do not really stand up for the optimal or most efficient solutions.

    As a concrete, real-life example of this: Nat’l Day Parades are ‘vetted’ by a string of political/government appointment holders, not to mention the military officers in charge of it. While one could argue that this type of oversight might be relevant for the political content of the show, the ‘feedback’ given by a presiding minister or army officer can instead pertain to some aspect of the artistic design. And even though the minister or soldier might have absolutely no artistic experience or credentials, and his comment might contradict the vision or better judgment of the artistic professionals commissioned to design the show, the relevant changes are feverishly and slavishly brought about, just because the minister has authority. A lot of time, effort and money can thus be wasted.

    In general, what is worrisome is the effect that such a culture/mindset can have on the way advice or expertise of any kind – on economics, policy, etc. – is received by those in power, whether in a corporation or a government.

  15. 17 Syle 27 May 2011 at 01:02

    It’s bloody crime really, that these discussions are not made public.

    Every look into the current public social-political scene draws my frown and a shake of my head.

  16. 18 James 27 May 2011 at 01:10

    As the notes under Chart 4 explains, the low GDP per hour worked for Singapore is probably due:

    1. the highest average annual hours worked per employed person
    2. the highest employment to population ratio

    I’m sure you will agree that No 2 is a good thing because it infers low unemployment.

    So the issue, in my opinion, is more of the high number of hours worked than being unproductive itself. Put simply, working long hours lowers productivity, and not the other way around (i.e. low productivity necessitates longer working hours). And this is because the number of hours worked per person produces diminishing marginal GDP returns.

    Why do Singaporeans work such long hours? For office workers at least, it’s this need to serve face time. (I once had a senior boss who questioned if those leaving before 6.30pm has insufficient tasks on hand.) It’s a cultural mindset that takes time to eradicate. If everyone knows they can leave promptly at 5.30pm or 6pm, I’m sure their productivity will automatically go up.

    • 19 yawningbread 27 May 2011 at 02:11

      The highest employment to population ratio is not necessarily a good thing.

      1. It is probably related to the fact that a large number of workers are imported labour with no family here. This skews the data for Singapore compared to other countries without the same proportion of imported labour. Is such a high proportion of imported labour a good thing? I suspect different people have different views on that.

      2. If we are referring to Singaporeans only, then such a high ratio of employed to overall number of Singaporeans is probably a bad thing. It suggests that an unbalanced (too high) proportion of people have been drafted into the monetized side of society. I believe a healthier society would have significant numbers of adults as fulltime mother/fathers. It makes for a more sustainable birthrate and better quality raising of children. Note: Fulltime does not mean lifelong. It can mean parents taking 4 – 5 years off work while their children are very young but that’s enough to show up in statistics as a lower ratio of employed adults.

      • 20 suggestion 27 May 2011 at 04:04

        “The highest employment to population ratio is not necessarily a good thing.

        1. It is probably related to the fact that a large number of workers are imported labour with no family here. This skews the data for Singapore compared to other countries without the same proportion of imported labour. Is such a high proportion of imported labour a good thing? I suspect different people have different views on that.”

        You are correct to state the reason for why there is a high employed workforce relative to total population.

        For nation building, it is fraught with potential pitfalls because the skew is due to a large transitory FOREIGN workforce.

        For the economy, it does no harm at least in the near term.
        Net Net, it does signify the Singapore economy is near a peak as it becomes harder to inflate the economy further by increasing the employed workforce further to 65% and 70% relative to its total population.

      • 21 suggestion 27 May 2011 at 04:28

        “Singapore is shown to have one of the highest per capita Gross Domestic Products (GDP) and Gross National Incomes (GNI), based on purchasing power parity 2009. However, topping the second chart isn’t good news.

        This is because, in order to achieve that kind of output, Singaporeans work the most hours of all.”

        There are two factors that inflated the GDP per capita Singapore’s economy:

        1. The first as stated by you is the longer working hours. If one works longer, one has more income. But is that worker really better off at a certain point?

        2. The second reason inflating Singapore’s GDP per capita is its high employment ratio of 60% to its total population. Most high income advanced countries have the ratio at 40-50% with some exceptions like Swziterland.

        If we also factor in that “up to half of Singapore’s GDP is from foreigners” (based on official Singstat data), then Singapore’s official GDP per capita is truly and outrageously over estimating the general well being of Singaporean citizens when compared to the well being of the other advanced high income high GDP per capital countries.

      • 22 Gard 27 May 2011 at 14:16

        Mmm. It took me a while to finally realize it is literary unproductive to type directly to the comment box. I had grown too used to built-in software checking.

        I am so sorry to trouble you. Could you please delete my previous two posts under moderation and put this consolidated one up instead.

        The issue of ‘(1) imported labour’ can be -mitigated- by looking at employed Singapore residents over total resident population. It was 77.1% in 2010 (ref: Report on Labour Force, aged 25-64, Singapore residents)

        The hypothesis of ‘(2) unbalanced proportion’ can be considered by comparing against other countries. OECD stat is a source. Switzerland’s employment/population ratio for aged 25-64 in 2009 was 82.8%; Sweden at 80.9%.

        Now, these two countries’ superior fertility rates have been criticized by the Mr Wong Kan Seng for their, how to put it, ‘immorality.’

        So the monarchy might qualify your statement to be “it makes for a more sustainable *moral* birthrate and better *morals* in raising of children.”

        Humour-aside, you pointed in a post in an earlier article, I shall paraphrase in my own words: numbers in themselves present no objective meaning unless you know the equations and methods on which the numbers are sitting.

        ‘Employed’ figures would include people on paid leave. (Ref: http://www.bls.gov/cps/cps_htgm.htm) So, this point might clear up some air about the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ of employment/population ratio.

        As for city-based comparison, I reserve judgment. Perhaps those who endeavour such adventures should also get at how those figures were derived. Think, for example, about government spending on defense. Is this defense spending somehow decomposable to the protection of just one city?

    • 23 suggestion 27 May 2011 at 03:58

      the low GDP per hour worked for Singapore is probably due:

      1. the highest average annual hours worked per employed person
      2. the highest employment to population ratio

      The first reason is correct.

      However, the second reason you provided does not affect “GDP per hour worked”.

      “GDP per hour worked” is calculated as “GDP per hour worked per employed worker”, and NOT “GDP per hour worked per capita” and not “GDP per hour worked per total workforce”.

      • 24 James 27 May 2011 at 16:37

        Well, first of all, I didn’t come up with these 2 reasons. It was quoted from the statistics website beside the said chart.

        Secondly, if you do the calculations from the figures on their website, GDP per hour worked is calculated from (a) GDP per employed person, divided by (b) Average annual hours worked per employed person. So the higher the ratio of employed person per population, the lower (a) will be.

        I don’t buy the idea that our high employment to population ratio is due to imported labour, at least not without statistics to prove. I just feel that a lot of the reasons quoted here (imported labour, meaningless meetings, etc) happen in other countries as well.

  17. 25 bootlace 27 May 2011 at 01:23

    A lot of our leaders and managers have never cut their teeth working on the shop floor or served counters. They do not really
    know what goes on where the rubber meets the road.

  18. 26 Au-Chen ToShan 27 May 2011 at 01:28

    The gap is even worse if you compare Singapore to other cities, rather than to other countries.

    I’d argue that Singapore should be compared to other cities, and not countries since we are not burdened by the economic disadvantages of subsidising a large hinterland.

    If you stack Singapore up against Oslo instead of Norway, Hamburg/Frankfurt/Munich instead of Germany, NYC/SF/SanJose instead of the US, and Ulsan/Seoul/Busan instead of Korea…then the productivity comparison goes from depressing to outrageous.

    To illustrate. here are the nominal GDP per capita numbers for Singapore, Korea and the Korean city of Ulsan, Germany and the German city of Hamburg.

    Singapore = $43,117
    Korea = $20,591
    Ulsan, Korea = $63, 817
    Germany = $40,631
    Hamburg, Germany = $69,300

    • 27 suggestion 27 May 2011 at 04:10

      Good point.

      Do you have the figures for other port cities for comparision?

      We should compare apples to apples.

      One port city to another port city.

      Ulsan I believe is one major port city of South Korea.

      For better comparisons, it may be better to compare Singapore to US port cities like houston, NY/NJ and Long Beach… rather than Singapore to the whole of the US.

      • 28 Au-Chen ToShan 28 May 2011 at 04:47

        Hamburg and Ulsan are both port cities.

        The economic structure of a major city is very much different from that of the country-side. There are more options for a city simply because of the concentrated pools of talent and capital, the lower per capita costs of building and maintaining infrastructure, and many other economies of scale.

        Based on the data from such countries as the US and UK, it has always been the case that it is the cities such as London/Edinburgh/NYC that has been subsidising the English/Scottish/American rural regions and not vice-versa.

  19. 29 twasher 27 May 2011 at 02:29

    One major barrier to increasing productivity that I saw in my time in a stat board was the following.

    It’s reasonable to expect that one’s first trial at setting up a productive work environment is flawed. This is almost inevitable. But that’s fine, if there’s a feedback mechanism from the workers on the ground to the management so that the work environment can be changed.

    The feedback mechanism in the stat board was very, very broken. First, there was a general fear that offering negative comments on any aspect of the organisation would lead to oneself being ‘marked’ and would thus be bad for one’s career. People didn’t think their superiors would take well to negative comments. So there was a lot of complaining among peers but little made its way up to the higher levels.

    Secondly, top management occasionally held dialogue sessions with selected lower level workers. But at these sessions, top management was almost invariably more interested in pushing their own agenda than in digesting feedback from their subordinates. They would lecture their subordinates on the organisation’s future plans and existing structures. When feedback was provided, employees were often blamed for not being able to overcome certain difficulties, with the top management invariably taking a defensive attitude towards current policies. In short, no indication was given of willingness to change in response to feedback. (We can see this same pattern throughout much of the government and the ruling party’s behaviour.) This perceived lack of willingness filters down to all employees in the organisation, so that everyone accepts (justifiably or not) that providing feedback is futile. So, for example, when I decided to write a substantial report to an important figure in the organisation about systematic problems that I’d observed, supplemented by some suggestions for solutions, most people I talked to laughed at me and dismissed my efforts as futile and idealistic. So perceived bad attitudes at the management level deters employees from offering constructive feedback to improve productivity.

    The next two points aren’t restricted to the stat board I worked in. I believe they apply more generally.

    Firstly, employees in Singapore have very low morale. This may not matter much for low level work such as assembly line work, but it certainly matters a lot for creative work like research. Sadly, many managers in Singapore refuse to take into account employee morale in their productivity calculations. They focus too much on maximising proxies for output, like hours spent at work desk, without considering the side effects these have on morale. I think a lot of work in Singapore could be done in less time if employees had higher morale. Low morale is due to a variety of factors: perception that they are just a ‘digit’ in the economic machine (a phrase that LKY himself used, approvingly), perception that career prospects are dim, lack of intrinsic motivation in work (which brings me to my next point).

    Secondly, the lack of intrinsic motivation in one’s work results in low morale (and thus low productivity) but also is a symptom of misallocation of resources. Basically, Singaporeans worry too much about educating or training themselves for what is ‘practical’ on the job market. They place far less emphasis than people in the ‘West’ do on loving what they do in their career. This may seem ‘pragmatic’ but in the end they are trading off what could be a risky but extremely productive career for a ‘safe’ but unproductive career (for one is always more productive when one does what one loves). By placing too much emphasis on ‘safe’ career paths, I believe Singapore is misallocating its human resources. People who could be talented in one of the more unfashionable career paths are being forced into jobs in which they are unhappy and thus unproductive. Obviously, it is impossible to ignore pragmatic considerations when choosing careers, but I do think that these are overemphasised in Singapore, and productivity could increase if we reduce our emphasis on that. Socio-economic conditions that promote risk aversion in Singapore also need to be changed so that people aren’t obsessed with financial security.

    • 30 yawningbread 27 May 2011 at 10:19

      I think these are excellent points.

    • 31 Chow 27 May 2011 at 13:01

      I agree with twasher. And I may add that it may occur at all other organizations, even privately held since it seems more of a cultural (to me) instinct of ‘not rocking the boat’ or a misheld notion that one should respect/not offend one’s seniors since they often are able to mete out punishments for doing so.

      I, too, know very closely a civil servant at an unnamed institution. The common complaint I hear is as twasher puts it. Furthermore, a top level management change seems to bring with it a change in focus. What was once a focus on, say, improving the lives of people in the XYZ social strata becomes doing research on the effects of policies on the lives of people in XYZ social strata. A major change, which can affect many in the chain especially since not many are research inclined and that for so long the focus was on the former. Yet many do not speak up because of the fear of offending the wrong person or being asked to do extra work to make things ‘right’.

      Another crazy example is the love of following rules. I work in a research setting. Primarily a collaboration between US and local universities but funded locally. There are the usual accountability rules to follow, but because the agreement was that we follow the US system (the Director of the centre is from a US university), we typically decide on the most efficient and quickest way of getting our equipment/consumables even if it means cutting out local vendors or even paying with our personal credit cards and making claims later. Contrast this with a wholly local research centre my friend works in where the have to only buy from local vendors (ostensibly to boost the local businesses), justify down to the point of having to explain the differences in brand X’s electronics vs brand Y’s, and strictly no usage of personal credit cards to purchase because they have to be approved by the immediate superior and all other heads all the way to the director of the research centre itself.

      Of course this can occur anywhere, mine may be just a very happy case of waiting for a time-bomb to explode but there it is. Blind obedience to rules and an unquestioning attitude towards the status quo and authority is really a killer.

  20. 32 TS 27 May 2011 at 02:51

    i agree with you regarding cross-tasking. the boss refuses to do something which may just take him a minute to complete. instead, he prefers to order his subordinate to do it. the poor subordinate has to spend much more time trying to understand what the task is, ending up spending much more time instead. why? because the boss considers it beneath himself to do such tasks, even if it takes him half a minute.

  21. 33 cityhermit 27 May 2011 at 05:27

    Something I can think of, which I have done myself is that we are not really rewarded for being efficient, worse still, indirectly punished. When I was working in an MNC with a local project manager, she will patrol the office at 8.30am and 6pm daily, and “mark” the people who come late and leave “early”. So if I finish the work assigned to me say at 5.30pm (official off time), I don’t want to leave at that time, because I’ll be “marked”. So I might as well take my own sweet time and “try” to finish at 7pm to be safe. Not healthy. So the end result, I’m spending 10 hours in the office completing a task that takes me only 7 hours (and getting it right the first time). The extra 3 hours needed for what? La kopi lor.

    I don’t think the company matters, it’s the mindset of the managers. Physically being there does not mean higher productivity. An effective worker working from home can be more productive if he is able to take care of his personal business (eg. a sick child) as well as work. Rather than being physically in the office and the mind thinking about the personal business he has to take care of.

    PS. I’m one of those who try not to make friends with colleagues, it’s better to draw the line in order to get more work done.

  22. 34 yuenchungkwong 27 May 2011 at 12:25

    there must be millions of articles and books out there on the topic of productivity, which I have not read, but let me say something very simple:

    if I work for a GLC/multinational, why should I work better and help make more money for the owners and help my boss to get promoted? now if they are known to be nice people who take care of me, maybe I would try a little, but even then, since I dont control my work, it is up to my boss to tell me how to work better; in fact, if I try to be clever on my own, I might just get scolded by my boss and colleagues for being disruptive

    I believe an important difference between here and most western countries is entrepreneurship: people who are in business for themselves or work in small companies with a family like atmosphere, are less likely to fall into the mentality I describe above; we often hear stories about hightech startups that grow big, lose there innovative edge and become less nice places to work in; singapore inc grew past that stage long ago

  23. 35 Vernon Voon 27 May 2011 at 13:07

    I can’t seem to access GDP per capita figures for cities easily. Does anybody know where to get them? Another indicator is to compare Singapore with othe financial city centres like New York, London, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

    • 36 Au-Chen ToShan 28 May 2011 at 05:04

      unfortunately, gdp per capita for cities/regions is data collated at a national level rather than a supranational level. So while China collects and publishes GDP per capita data for Chinese cities, and Korea collects and publishes GDP per capita data for Korean cities….there are no organisations that does the same on a global or Asia-wide basis.

      one supranational exception is Eurostat, which compiles data on a city/region basis. While IMF/WB numbers usually puts Singapore in the top 20 wealthiest countries in terms of nominal GDP per capita, Eurostat’s data would show that we won’t even make the top 30 wealthiest city/regions in the EU. Both statements are factually accurate.

  24. 37 Cliff 27 May 2011 at 13:59

    Hi after reading yb post and the discussion so far, I agree that this issue is crucial for Singapore to tackle if we were to ever want to progress even further economically and socially. I believe the attitudes of employees and employers raised in the points above can be due to our education system. Since the introduction of compulsory education in Singapore, a lot emphasis is placed on students learning the syllabus quickly and getting good grades, while teachers’ performance are largely based on the students’ grades. This in combination with a huge amount of topics required to be taught within a short amount of time leaves teachers and students with little room space to explore or go off topic. So the safest and quickest path to take is by rote learning rather than developing the skills necessary which takes more time and harder. Slight improvements have been made to the system in recent years, but the attitudes are still present and underlying. For example the Project Work subject introduced in JC1. Students are required to come up with innovative ideas pertaining to a selected topic but have to get the teacher’s approval. Again. Safe formulas are applied to ensure the students get an easy A.

  25. 38 R 27 May 2011 at 14:23

    I used to work in a bank, and I can say that all the things you pointed out is absolutely true:

    1. we had FOUR-HOUR meetings almost every day, sometimes just before 6pm when we were about to finish work.

    2. The work attitude was: ‘First to arrive, last to leave therefore last to get fired.’ You were valued more if you spent 8hrs in the office to do 1 task to ‘prove’ your value rather than if you finished it in 3hrs. Leaving work early was considered a death knell, even if you *did* finish the work assigned to you. A lot of people were basically ‘seatwarmers’ after they finished the assigned task they didn’t want to go home because it made them look disloyal to the company so they just spent hours mindlessly surfing.

    3. Zero flexibility in schedule. I was very ill for a few days and was at home with M.C when my manager called and ask me to make a powerpoint presentation and send it to her. Being doped up on several cough syrups and antibiotics I didn’t do a good job, and no one was happy. They don’t seem to understand that productivity is tied to the worker’s health, and you can’t produce good work in bad health, and the time taken up to remake the entire presentation would be easily saved if they just let me get well and do a good job in the first place (not to mention how the criticism is for morale).

    4. Finally, I think the biggest problem with Singapore is the ‘plug the hole approach’.

    For instance in 1990s we had the IT/Web boom and suddenly all the papers (Recruit, Education as well as schools) started a giant campaign to put as many Singaporeans as possible into doing Computer Science. Then the boom ended, and many of these grads ended up worked in IT support or needed retraining to get a new job.

    Then the next new thing came up: Biopolis and Biomedical Science (in early 2000), and many of our young intelligent students took basic degrees only to find that the value was nothing and were only regulated into washing test-tubes.

    Then came the lawyer shortage, and the investment banking shortage (which later fell prey to the financial crisis) and just recently animation and graphic design was touted as the ‘Next Big Thing’ (along with Fusionopolis) and I wonder now how many of these kids will graduate to realise that the jobs promised to them don’t exist or are so few that they end up in another sector or in need of retraining. It’s that attitude of ‘Education Command Economy’ that really destroys efficency because the govt. doesn’t realise that you *cannot* CANNOT predict the market 10-20 years down the road and it is better to simply diversify the workforce and let people choose what they will. We end up with massive shortages in one sector and surplus in others, then the govt puts a new initiative and the cycle continues. It’s plainly stupid AND inefficient.

    • 39 Au-Chen ToShan 28 May 2011 at 05:11

      Great point….the ‘Education Command Economy’ is one of my major peeves.

      I’ve seen this PAP government cheerleading my peers into IT just in time for the dot.com crash, and then cheerleading my younger sister’s generation into biotech ten years later….clearly, the government has learnt absolutely nothing!

      For those with kids (like me!), whatever the PAP picks as the NEXT BIG THING to encourage kids into majoring in uni….avoid it like the plague!

  26. 40 valuable leisure time 27 May 2011 at 14:33

    i don’t work in a big company. and i don’t know the work habits of other nationalities. i can only speak on a personal level.

    perhaps the key to productivity on a personal level is to value your leisure time. that way you will find ways to get work done in a shorter time. traits like getting it right the first time, creativity, thinking out of the box, etc will automatically follow.

  27. 41 HardTruth 27 May 2011 at 17:39

    I think the low productivity can be attributed largely to the education system in Singapore. I totally agree with R on his fourth point, the “plug the hole approach” which the Spore government has been adopting all this while. I find it hard to believe that the government would actually dictate which discipline we should study on the premise that it is gonna be the next Big Thing, when more often than not, it turns out to be just a passing fad. And that of course, results in hoards of students left on the lurch when the Big Thing (such as bioscience) failed to take off, for some reason or another.

    I think it will do MOE a lot of good to send a team to study the way countries like Germany or Belgium run their education model. I personally think that the Belgian model (which I am beter acquainted with after living in Europe for a couple of years), is one of the best in discovering the hidden potential in each student.

    Our Singapore education system, as we all know, is simply too rigid. Students are often forced at a young age to make a career choice, for example you have to enrol in the science stream in secondary school in order to get into the science stream in JC or poly. There is hardly any fallback mechanism should a student discover that he/she, is actually more inclined to the arts instead of the sciences, or vice versa. I have a general impression that there is a general disdain for arts and humanities in Spore, and students often take on science subjects to “play safe”, at least that was what I did during my time.

    If you look at the Belgian education model, they have 6 years of secondary school and 4 streams from where students can carve out their niche, namely: the academic, the technical, the profession and the arts stream.

    The academic stream is the equivalent of our junior college, this is where the smartest students would go, and they teach a wide range of subjects there, both humanities and sciences. In fact, students have to learn 4 major languages (Dutch, French, English, German), plus Latin/Greek, and also Geography, History, Maths, Physics/Bio/Chem etc.

    The technical stream is more like our polytechnic.

    The profession stream is for students who are not academically inclined but who work better with their hands, so this is where they train you to be bakers, carpenters, beauticians, automechanics, childcare teachers etc.

    Last but not least, they have the arts stream for budding musicians, artists, dancers etc.

    It is compulsory for each child to study up til 18, 6 years of primary and 6 years of secondary education. And if they dun get their diploma (note that even a butcher needs a diploma), they wont get a job. For instance, if you study to be a baker, you will learn the fine art of baking breads, pastries, and belgian chocolates, and also learn the ropes of running your own business. In fact, one of the highest paid jobs here is to be a baker and run your own bakery in Belgium.

    If you look at Singapore, you can argue that we have Shatec and La Salle, but are we doing enough to ensure students who are better with their hands, can carve out a niche in our economy? I think we are over-reliant on foreign workers for that matter, and that really depresses wages for such jobs.

    My 2 cents’ worth on Singapore’s productivity.

    • 42 Ah Fong 28 May 2011 at 00:55

      The education problem is just as you described. There is limited opportunities in art and design, so many students chose to specialise as home and workplace designers and pick that as their occupations after graduation. However, the market can only sustain a percentage of them.

      Because it is common in Singapore to grow up around a limited circle of acquaintances, family and friends, I also came across fresh business owners who didn’t realise there’re customers who can’t speak English or Mandarin.

      Some of the polytechnic courses are dumping grounds for those who failed to attain better grades. When I accompanied a friend on several trips to one of the polytechnics in early 2000s, I heard from a lecturer the dropout rate was very high.

  28. 43 Fredrick Goh 27 May 2011 at 21:42

    This is just a pun but a real story. Treasure your leisure time remind me of an incident

    It was abt one month aft Resort World opened. There is this young Malaysian girl who boarded my taxi and is heading to Casino. She say she use to take her own sweet time to do work and is very lazy. Aft casino is opened, she finished up her work so quickly and with improved productivity n quality work, her boss instead of sacking her, gave a pay rise…….man I wonder what happen to her by now…productivity indeed.

  29. 45 reservist_cpl 28 May 2011 at 01:45

    A German colleague once told me that she found it strange that Singaporeans walk very quickly when going to work but slowly when leaving.

  30. 46 soon chung 28 May 2011 at 02:57

    What is the effect of the Singapore government on the economy? Could it be possible that the government’s very extensive reach and influence on the economy has direct/ indirect negative effects on morale and productivity?

  31. 47 Hen Lay eggs 28 May 2011 at 09:35

    Productivity in school is low because a lot of time has been taken to do non-teaching task. Hours are spent on record book, meetings, workshop, seminars, learning circle, speech day (up to 5 – 10 rehearsals), Arts festival, family day, CIPs for teachers etc. Only 30% of the teachers’ time is used to prepare lesson and mark students work. (and most of this 30% time is the teachers’ time at home), 70% to 80% time is used to do non-teaching activities and other administrative work. How can students really learn in school, that is why they go for tuition.

  32. 48 El Corregidor 28 May 2011 at 16:41

    Never having lived or worked in Singapore, I can’t really comment on what may or may not be causing the lower productivity indicated by the statistics. I have, however, worked alongside Singaporeans and in places managed by Singaporeans, and I can contrast their approaches to the workplace with those of Australians. It may be somewhat illuminating to share.

    One thing I have noticed about Singaporean managers, is that compared to Australians they seem to “sweat the small stuff” and micromanage. “Rules based micromanagement” would probably be a good descriptor. In one workplace, our office manager was from Singapore. Prior to her arrival, the process for ordering stationery was as follows:

    email the supplier with your order
    CC the office manager

    If your order was urgent, go to the shop and buy it yourself, submit the receipt to the office manager, and be reimbursed.

    The office manager was not interested in approving or rejecting each and every order – he saw his role as monitoring orders, and stepping in if a negative trend was seen.

    As soon as the Singaporean office manager took over, things changed. Each order had to be submitted for prior approval, accompanied by a business case if the item was valued over $10.00. The new manager did not hesitate to knock back requests, and refused to reimburse several claims. Even to the point where I had an order for a box of 500 staples (value: $1.12) knocked back on the grounds that there had been staples on the last order and I should ask around and find someone with spares to share (what a productive activity!)

    Result: increased paperwork. Staff writing a business case as to why they needed a new stapler. Delays in obtaining stationery (bad luck if that presentation was due tomorrow morning) and reduced staff morale. Productivity down, but the stationery bill was halved.

    In another workplace, two of my colleagues were from Singapore and were considered by all to be very hard working people who got a lot of work done. The practice in this workplace (and all that I have worked in here) is for management to ask “Do you have any spare capacity?” when allocating work. If you say yes, you get more work. If you say no, the manager will allocate it to someone else or flag a resource shortfall to be addressed.

    My Singaporean colleagues always said “Yes”. No-one could understand how they were managing to get through the workload. Until, that is, one Friday night. Most of the staff had gone to the pub straight after closing time at 5pm. I returned to the office just after 10pm to retrieve some belongings I had left there, only to find the Singaporeans there on unpaid, unofficial overtime, struggling to finish the extra work they had taken on. I asked them why they were still there. They said they had to finish their tasks, and they could not understand how everyone else got through the work they were given in only eight hours a day. They were surprised when I told them that everyone else was refusing work if they did not have the capacity to do it. It was a revelation to me that they felt they could not say no to management.

    This is of course, anecdotal, and may have nothing to do with the issues at hand. I do wonder whether taking on too much work exacerbates the problem of not doing a proper job the first time around?

  33. 49 pakcik 28 May 2011 at 22:10

    Productivity is a yard stick of diffrent lengths.
    I just recently returned from a long job in Canada. I was in the office several hours before the office drones turn to. I had my documents and measuremnt sheets spread out on a the large table in the conference room. An other engineer showed up from a large project in Mexico. So we were doing the paper work, other than just a few words about the diffrent jobs, we were at our tasks.
    The office drones show up and for the first hour or so , its social hour, the noise level got to be so much I got up and closed the door rather loudly. I remarked to the other engineer that I wished we had the liesure time to BS for several hours when we were on a project.
    In the mean time the office drones came to find out why I closed the door, So I told them point blank I had work to do , I don’t have time to socialize. And yet they are always in a panic at the end of the month to get the billing done so the numbers look good , and then complain how over worked they. So more office drones are added to lighten the load.
    I always tell my customers who complain about the high rates that are charged for me, ” I am not really that good, I just have a lot of mouths to feed in the office”

  34. 50 ec 29 May 2011 at 14:28

    Nice read – both article and the thought-provoking comments.

    I work in the building industry, which is the industry that hires one of the highest number (if not highest) of foreign labour and PMETs from developing countries. Granted, this is a very labour intensive industry, and all the more we should strive for productivity gains.

    Let me relate my encounter. After becoming self-employed, I have looked for ways in which our overseas counterparts do to improve productivity. And using those methods, I came up with some e-products to be sold over the internet. I offered both types – free and paid version. After sending out numerous introduction emails to my available contacts on launch date, I eagerly waited for response or feedback.

    After several months, the result was disappointing. Based on system tracking, no one from Singapore downloaded the free version. 100% of downloads was from other parts of the world. I sort of expected the outcome, but never thought that it could be so lop-sided.

    My request was simple, that you read up on what I have to offer, download the free version, use it and start to reap the productivity gains by being exposed to this concept, or even go on to produce for your company’s use. There’s no catch at all. And if there is no interest in the paid version, I will just use it for my own work.

    I can’t understand how people would rather download music for listening to while at work, but not willing to download something that can speed up their work and let them enjoy the music at home instead.

    My initial thought is that our education system has produced people who are not keen on productivity concepts. But go on further and you will discover that even if you try to introduce something that is counter-productive, do you think people will say “Arh…that is not productive”? No. They will just say “No lah, we have always done it this way” without even checking out the merits of what you have to offer.

    So I guess it is actually “Change” that we are receptive to.

    [edit by Yawning Bread: I think you meant "not receptive"]

    We attend seminars and training not because they want to learn, but because we want to get away from work and satisfy company guidelines to attend so many hours of training a year. Nothing gets changed once we resume work.

    We panic and change only when we are being forced by circumstances.

    • 51 Ah Fong 30 May 2011 at 13:01

      In SG, many workers are overworked to the point they have to stay back in the office every day. In my previous company, my colleagues didn’t just stay till late from Monday to Friday but they also brought home their workload for Monday to Sunday. Not surprised so many are single. Even on their sick days, they still had to bring home work to do which affected work performance for the rest of the week. What that resulted was people having to pick up their workload.

      They were also unpaid for most of their OT work as the assignments aren’t new. My friends in other companies also suffer from the same problems of low OT pay, excessive workload and no chance to socialise after work. Why I am not surprised if we will soon hear about cases of karoshi, death from overwork?

      Part of the excessive workload stemmed from too much paperwork as our manager was obsessive compulsive about recording every detail. He was pressured by the brass to step up performance but it’s hard to believe they were satisfied with people wasting their time like this.

  35. 53 Dramaqueen 30 May 2011 at 10:46

    I think the contrast between the first chart and the third chart shows us that we are top at wayang-ing in the office. It’s just the Singapore work culture that we have to clock up face time at the work place when a lot of work really can also be done at home.

  36. 54 yawningbread 30 May 2011 at 14:28

    A few comments have segued into “workload” with the assumption that high workload = low productivity.

    In addition to Ah Fong’s comment, there were earlier comments about how teachers nowadays find themselves doing a lot of administrative work and co-curricular activities. . .

    Stop for a while and ask how that translates to low productivity. For example, it is questionable whether *if* teachers only taught, that would raise their productivity. Surely it depends on how you measure productivity in the educational profession? What about inculcating moral and social values which co-curricular activities are better at? Some amount of administrative work can aid productivity, in that it pre-organises and streamlines data which leads to better work planning.

    What we can say is that doing non-work is likely to lead to low productivity, but doing other kinds of work (cross-tasking) is not the same as doing non-work. Let’s not confuse the two.

  37. 55 DetachedObserver 31 May 2011 at 12:01

    Hindsight is always 20/20. Looking back, it is rather obvious that our overwhelming success of the 1970′s and 1980′s hid many problems, amongst them the gaping flaws within our public schooling system, which is – rather amusingly – under great strain.

    The only takeaway from our history is that it is all too easy to hide flaws and problems in success.

  38. 56 SB 31 May 2011 at 13:37

    Here’s a long but rigorous academic academic article about total factor productivity (TFP) by well established economists in the US. A brief summary is in the title of the article itself: ‘Doing less with more in Singapore’.


    • 57 Gard 1 June 2011 at 11:24

      # SB: This is a good article to share. I offer another reference to close the loop:

      “3.1 It bears repetition and emphasis that the basic premise of wage policy in Singapore must be that companies will only do business if they are profitable. They must therefore be allowed to remain so. Indeed, we must try to ensure that companies can be more profitable in Singapore than they can be in other NICs (Newly Industrialised Countries), and even more than in the OECD countries.”
      Source: National Wages Council, 1986 1st Memorandum.

      One of the sources of productivity growth at the national level is the demise of low productivity companies. Hierarchy dies together with any illusions of superiority.

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For an update of the case against me, please see AGC versus me, the 2013 round.




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