Labour Perspective on Singapore’s Economic History


I’ve a while back embarked on starting a research on some of the history of the intellectual engine behind Singapore’s growth. There is a general attribution to the government’s brilliance but it is essential to trace these back to institutional roots and the people involved – without understanding the process by which economic progress is made and considering the values that brought about them, our generation risks forfeiting what our forefathers worked to gain. The sort of circumstances that created our forefathers and the system that they created for their subsequent generation was the main focus of my next stage of research.

I foresee it leading on to more interesting stories about manpower in Singapore and narratives about the labour force. While I was on my way to the airport last week for a work trip, I came across a cab driver who looked like he was in his 50s, claimed to have been driving a Comfort cab for over 20 years and couldn’t stop complaining about a variety of different things. I struck a conversation with him which went from one which went from price of print newspapers to the taxi/cab industry in Singapore. Most times, in taxis and where mature Singaporeans congregate, I sense negativity, but conversations which concluded that there wasn’t much to do. Helplessness, lack of choice features a lot. Implicit beliefs about status quo and the difficulty of challenging them, even within ourselves is hardly addressed. The desire for comfort individually is not quite thought about (by the government) in trying to restructure our labour force. Even when the government is promoting jobs creation for Singaporeans overseas, they don’t seem to realise that those who would like to take up jobs overseas are already actively doing so and currently the ones left are people who need a tad bit too much nudging to get out.

The alignment of policies with socio-economic forces are important. That in part determines the success of policies – especially in the case of our early population control measures. Yet today we need increasingly creative solutions to go along with the socio-economic forces and yet steer it towards some longer term vision rather than pure reactive fire-fighting. The labour market is a key market that we still have a little bit more influence over. How we want to manage it will be one key factor for the growth of the country and our culture. I’ve already mentioned a while back that the soft stuff are the hard stuff. The government needs to start getting into the business of handling the soft, non-quantifiable stuff and pulling together the stakeholders who wouldn’t normally come together in the marketplace to make a difference.

Given the current makeup of our workforce and our skill sets; without radical culture change that goes beyond sticks and carrots, we will need to go through a period of convincing people to get out of their comfort zone. We don’t need compensation for the pain we will take. What we need is a vision and motivation, encouragement towards that vision. That vision is absolutely lacking – or poorly communicated if it exists at all. We need to trace our success in creating a labour force that worked and use that to chart a path towards that vision that we will formulate (or is formulated but perhaps too bold to be revealed in its full glory).

And with that, I plan to write a series of 3 articles. One dissecting the culture, the tiny traits that we need to consider and intend a mindset shift when deliberating policies. One pondering over education and skills equipping. Finally one that muses about the needs of the economy that we are shifting towards.