“And with foreign workers, making up about one-third of our current workforce, the question that has inevitably been raised is how well they are performing in relation to Singaporeans” (Can We Compare Local, Foreign Worker Output?, Miss Cheow Xin Yi).
The report “Can We Compare Local, Foreign Worker Output?” (January 21, 2011) by Miss Cheow Xin Yi presents interesting contrasts – to a parliamentary query put forth by Madam Ho Geok Choo – on the possibility of contrasting between local and foreign worker productivity. The variation in perspectives are intriguing, but similarly puts into focus two issues that have been considerably contentious in the previous year: first, on the ministries and administration’s relentless pursuit for heightening worker productivity; second, on the influx of foreign workers and the corresponding concerns.
Should we compare local and foreign worker output? Not the most beneficial proposal. Beyond the technical difficulties with gathering and segregating data, such a differentiation would not yield significant benefits for productivity efforts, and might rouse sentiments from either camp. For instance, if Singaporean workers are purportedly less “productive”, dissatisfaction would erupt from the ground over asserted generalisations and neglect of their dedication and efforts.
Aside from these comparative intricacies, bigger questions should be asked of the administration; that is, whether projected productivity targets have been met, have involved workers genuinely benefited, or if the plethora of initiatives and programmes instituted has been adequately successful? From my point of view, instead of evaluating output contrasts across backgrounds, it makes more sense to aggregate workers’ output – individually or collectively – before and after their participation in the various upgrading courses to gauge the latter’s effectiveness and usefulness. Cross-sector comparisons – for manufacturing, services and construction – would also give an added dimension for review and repositioning, if necessary. These statistical studies would go a long way to extinguish worries that productivity courses may not be yielding the desired results.
More academic efforts should be dedicated to the productivity cause; for economists and bureaucrats to carefully analyse the specific root causes for Singapore’s relative productivity problems. Reports have pointed to the abundance of cheap foreign labour principally in the construction segment – because of low literacy levels and moderately lower levels of education – as a primary raison d’être for the aforementioned. The onus is on the Ministry of Finance (MOF) and the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) to review these factors, and be more targeted and comprehensive with its proposals. Case studies can be drawn from successful policies introduced in an assortment of cities, such as: investment in high-value niche areas, more sincere training and upgrading of workers, improving work-based teamwork and worker cooperation et cetera.
Statistical analysis, if used wisely, can be helpful indicators to gauge the efficacy of policies and new recommendations. MOF and MTI need to step up to recognise these areas of breakdown to review and revise, instead of relying on pedantic “comprehensive” methodologies or rehashing antiquated rhetoric to convince Singaporeans of their strategies. Otherwise, instead of moving with the times, we will be moved by the times.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.