Tuesday, December 01, 2009

PAP's Quick-Fix Mentality will Exacerbate Singapore's Economic Challenges

Earlier this decade, PM Lee Hsien Loong & the PAP faced a problem with Singapore's population economics. With the country's fertility rate way below the replacement rate of 2.1, Singaporeans were not making enough babies to replace themselves. The potential burden of this phenomenon was obvious - amongst other issues, the cost of supporting an aging population would have to be borne by a smaller workforce, and the government did not want to have to sustain this liability in the future.

In order to arrest the problems presented by a resident population failing to replace itself, the PAP has resorted to the quick-fix policy of opening the country's shores to foreigners. A massive influx of immigrants and foreigners has resulted in the rapid increase of Singapore's population. Between 2003 and June 2009, the population increased from an estimated 4.2m to 5m, or an increase of 19 per cent in less than a decade.

While this has, in the short-term, drastically expanded the productive work force, the longer-term impact of the PAP's immigration policy has been to exacerbate the already challenging living conditions which have discouraged Singaporeans from having children. Directly attributable to the Government's immigration policy, are two major side-effects which have made it more difficult for Singaporeans to have children.

Firstly, the cost of living for the majority of Singaporeans has risen. In particular, the escalating cost of housing to unaffordable levels is acting as an obvious hurdle towards family formation. A couple which is unable to afford a roof over their heads will obviously find it very difficult to start a family. After all, the most basic thing parents must provide to their children is a roof over their heads. Yet, instead of bringing down the cost of housing, the combination of a spike in housing demand and stagnation in supply has sent property prices to record levels. (ref. 'PAP MP blames young couples who cannot get flats for not “planning ahead”')

Secondly, labour productivity has declined. Singapore's labour productivity levels have been falling for six consecutive quarters starting in the fourth quarter of 2007. The decline has been worsening each quarter, with the first three months of 2009 seeing the largest drop so far at minus 14.7 percent. (ref. "National focus needed on efforts to boost labour productivity", CNA). Singaporeans are working harder and longer and with less to show for it. Naturally, they have less time and money to spend on their children.

The benefits of productivity on family formation are obvious. Workers who accomplish the same amount of work in shorter periods of time will have more time to spend on their family. Similarly, workers who accomplish more work in the same period of time will be able to earn higher incomes and thus be better able to afford a family. Instead of improving productivity, however, the PAP has chosen an immigration policy which has had a direct impact on this key economic statistic. The large influx of foreign workers in recent years means that each worker doesn’t have to work as hard. It also means that positions are constantly being filled by newbies without experience. (ref. 'Declining productivity here a problem')

The combined effect of housing price inflation and the decline in labour productivity has been to make the real cost of bringing up a child even more expensive, and thus further discourage couples from having children. Meanwhile, little attention is being paid to initiatives which can make a genuine impact on the standard of living.

The solution to the housing affordability problem is simple. Either supply more flats or decrease the demand. The lack of proper planning by the PAP on this issue is quite perplexing, but this issue has been dealt with by other writers and I will not repeat their arguments here. (ref. "Immigration and public housing: Should the govt or the people plan ahead?")

The deeper problem is that of labour productivity.

An improvement in labour productivity does not only require the education & upgrading of the workforce, but a fundamental change in mentality of employers from a low-cost of labour mentality to a higher value-added mentality. Meanwhile, it seems that the only solution that the PAP has to throw at the productivity problem is to point the finger at workers for not upgrading themselves.

While skills upgrading is part of the solution, it is only one side of the productivity equation. Just as important is paying attention to improving the working conditions of employees and protecting workers' rights. Employers in Singapore blame Singaporeans for shunning so-called 'menial' or ‘unskilled’ jobs, yet the only solution they seem to have is to throw cheap foreign labour into these jobs such as construction or frontline retail services. The tougher but more rewarding option of professionalising and dignifying such jobs is thrown to the wayside.

Contrary to what some may think, a career in construction can be a meaningful, dignified one. A construction worker who takes pride in his technical work and who has accumulated experience will certainly be much more productive than a cheap foreign import. When given the right tools and proper working conditions, his higher productivity will also justify a much more respectable salary than the pittance that is currently paid in the industry. Yet, keeping wages low and working conditions poor is a surefire way to make the job disrespectable, and for companies to lose their top performers. (ref. “TOC Special Feature: Is Singapore really slum-free?”, TOC)

Similarly, frontline sales staff in retail can make a significant difference to the bottom line if they are well trained, respectably paid, and given good working conditions. Conversely, untrained foreigners who do not even speak the language of business, are obviously unable to add significant value to a retail operation and sometimes even turn away prospective sales. (ref. “Australian tourist complains about PRC workers in Singapore who cannot speak English!”)

In spite of this simple logic, the government's immigration policy continues to foster a low-cost mentality rather than a value-added mentality by allowing local businesses to import cheap labour, which only serves to keep wages depressed and working conditions lousy. To be fair, enterprises are also to blame for perpetuating their low-cost mentality. But if nobody makes an effort, how will things ever improve?

Labour productivity also improves with innovation & entrepreneurship. A significant improvement in manufacturing techniques can allow a factory to dramatically increase its output given the same number of workers. Meanwhile, technological innovations in engineering or computing allow the formations of new enterprises and the creation of value-added jobs. Yet, the government continues to pursue policies which encourage an iron-rice bowl mentality rather than bold enterprise.

In particular, the scholarship system encourages Singapore's brightest students to pursue a safe (bonded) career in government rather than one in the private sector. It systematically sucks out the brightest minds from innovating in the marketplace, into the ranks of the public service. Instead of finding solutions to scientific problems, bringing new products to market or searching for a cure for cancer, Singapore's top young brains are writing policy papers and goodness knows what else, in 'silent resentment and ultimate dissatisfaction' (ref. the late Dr Allan Ooi).

The PAP argues that the government needs top brains in order to run efficiently and effectively. Yet, the stark reality is that entrepreneurs and innovators such as Olivia Lum, Sim Wong Hoo and Ron Sim have individually created many more jobs for Singaporeans than any government scholar or bureaucrat. Is it no wonder, then, that leaders such as S. Dhanabalan and DPM Jayakumar (ref. "Jayakumar wants Singapore top students to study in local varsities") have recently lamented that allowing top students to go overseas is a bad thing? And, while it may appear that the government is unrolling campaigns encouraging entrepreneurship in schools, such campaigns are but lip service when millions of dollars continue to be thrown at scholarships designed to suck youngsters into government ranks.

The recent housing pains and productivity drops are symptomatic of a quick-fix mentality that can ultimately only exacerbate Singapore's population and economic problems, rather than alleviate them. Until fundamental, structural issues in Singapore's economy are tackled head-on, Singapore will continue to see its fertility rate remain low and its productivity (and competitiveness) slide. At the end of the day, the PAP cannot continue to pump more and more immigrants onto this little island. Sooner or later, Singaporeans need to find a way to return their fertility rate to replacement levels, and make the cost of family formation affordable. Singapore will need to find a way to foster genuine innovation and entrepreneurship and to improve worker productivity.

So far, the PAP doesn't seem to be doing very well in coming up with the right solutions.

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