Recently reported in the press is the news that SMEs in Singapore are complaining about the restrictions on foreign workers and want the government to loosen the restrictions that limit the hiring of foreign workers. A recent business survey indicates that these SMEs are quoting the same excuses that they have using all along - locals shun labour-intensive jobs, and the turnover rate for foreigners is lower. These business also want to hire foreigners because this reduces business costs, or, in other words, because foreign labour is cheap.
These latest results show that Singaporean businesses are heavily dependent on lowering the cost of factor inputs in order to compete in the market, rather than improving factor productivity. The difference between the two is illustrated as follows.
Company A hires Singaporean worker Mr Chan at $15 an hour to produce 10 widgets per hour. Mr Chan manufactures the widgets using equipment Y, which depreciates at $25 per hour. The cost of production per widget is hence $4 per widget: ($15+$25)/10 = $4. Company A can lower the cost of production by either lowering the cost of the factor inputs (labour or capital equipment), or by improving the productivity of these inputs.
Company A chooses to lower the cost of production by reducing the cost of factor inputs. Company A fires Mr Chan and hires Mr Balakrishnan from India who is willing to work for $5 per hour. However, Mr Balakrishnan was previously a farmer and he has only started to learn how to operate the manufacturing equipment, and so he can only produce 8 widgets per hour. Company A's strategy lowers the cost of production from $4 per widget, to $3.75 per widget: ($5 + $25)/8 = $3.75. However the the productivity of Company A has declined. Its production per worker has fallen to 8 widgets per hour, compared to its previous output of 10 widgets per hour.
Company B chooses a different strategy. Company B starts out with the same equipment as Company A, and employs Mr Wong at the same wage as Mr Chan. Company B also invests in research & development to improve the technology of its manufacturing equipment. Because Company B has been investing in research & development, it has a new piece of equipment. This equipment costs more, and has a depreciation rate of $43 an hour,compared to $25 previously. Company B also trains Mr Wong to use this new piece of equipment. The result of this improved manufacturing process is that Mr Wong is now able to produce 16 widgets per hour, compared to 10 widgets previously. At the same time, because of Mr Wong's improved skillset, Company B increases Mr Wong's salary to $17 per hour.
The net result of this is that Company B's cost of production is now $3.75 per widget = ($17+$43)/16. This is the same as Company A's result. However, unlike Mr Chan, Mr Wong not only keeps his job, but also has received a pay raise. Mr Wong is also able to afford another child because of his higher income, and help improve to Singapore's poor fertility rate. Furthermore, the longer term impact of this strategy is that Company B is able to continue lowering the cost of production, because it can continue to invest in R&D. Company A, however, is unable to bring down its costs further, because it is unable to find workers who are willing to work for much less than $5 per hour. Furthermore, Company B is able to expand its production and hire the experienced Mr Chan, who was previously fired by Company A.
The difference between Company A and B is the difference between night and day. Company A has chosen the strategy of lowering the cost of factor inputs, but this strategy rarely results in sustainable competitive advantage. In most cases, this strategy results in price wars and intense competitive rivalry that ultimately kills profitability when such price wars are not accompanied with increases in productivity.
Company B, however, has a sustainable competitive advantage. Its R&D program will continue to produce better equipment and labour productivity gains, and will allow it to lower its cost of production even further. In contrast, Company A cannot reduce its factor costs much further and will soon be put out of business.
Two fundamentally different strategies, two fundamentally different results.
Singaporean businesses are thinking like company A. Instead of focusing on improving productivity, they have chosen to pursue lower factor input costs. They repeatedly complain that Singaporean workers are too expensive and want to hire cheap foreign labour instead. Eventually, like company A, these businesses will be outcompeted by their more innovative counterparts.
In view of these SMEs' mentality, is it surprising at all that Singapore's productivity growth has remained stagnant relative to the US since 1995, as the recent Singapore Competitiveness Report shows? Is it surprising at all that the standard of living for the average working Singaporean has hardly improved in recent years?
Singaporean businesses need to buck up and start innovating. The government also needs to stop feeding this quick-fix mentality with its liberal immigration program.
Quick-fix is ultimately no-fix, and Singaporean businesses must innovate or die.