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.
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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.
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.
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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.
(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.
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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.