Singapore Workers Can Be More Productive…

Singapore Central Business District off Marina Bay Financial Centre.

While I was looking through my blog entries made way back in 2004, I was bemused by my outrageous attitude to life. Flaming red hair, outright bluntness to others… It was really great to be young and free from judgement!

Yup, I started dyeing my hair after NS; the purpose was simple: I have grey hair prematurely, so if I were to spend money to dye my hair, why not dye it to colours other than black?


Like many other cash-starved students, I started dyeing my hair by myself, but as obviously for frequent dyers, if you are going for lighter, brighter colours, self-dye solution is not going to bring about very good results.  On the contrary, skilled hairdressers can dye the back of the head, which means the colouring over there will be more even. They will also ensure that the scalp will be protected, since they are trained to avoid applying the dye on the scalp.

And then, there is this hassle of residual dye that always stain the towels, when I tried home-dyeing.

In the past, the dyeing process at salon was rather straight forward: put on the dye and leave it on for 40 minutes. If a lighter colour is desired, bleach the hair first.

Over time, the price of colouring dropped from more than $200 to less than $100. However, the process had became more complicated.

For example, there was the after-colour treatment to make sure the colour stayed longer.

And then there is the scalp protection that minimises the damage to hair roots (which is very important for guys! lol).

Over the course of 13 years, the hair dyeing service I received increased in value, both helped by a decrease in price and increase in value-added services. In addition to that, the time taken for the dyeing process actually remained the same.

Why am I raising this?

The hike in water prices in Singapore, as announced in Budget 2017, stirred up quite a debate. A few debates, in fact. Among them were complaints that salaries were not rising (which, according to official statistics, had risen in tandem with inflation).

A business leader was quoted then, as saying, the salaries have been rising more than that of productivity gains, meaning to say, he feels that businesses are now overpaying their employees.

This of course stirred up more unhappy emotions. Many keyboard warriors took that issue up and argued along the lines of: How do we increase productivity when we are already at our maximum? When we are already doing so much OT, how do we do so much OT?

Yes, ever since the financial crisis, PM Lee had repeated, like a broken player, that we must increase of productivity to keep ourselves competitive. Unfortunately, we kept falling short of our 3% target. In fact, this is such an “age old” topic that I had actually talked about this back in 2014! (Link)

If we refer to my old post, I had said that time is not a sole factor of productivity. Given the same task of changing out the railway tracks, the Japanese may be able to complete it overnight (or in a more recent sense, the filling up of a sinkhole), but Singaporeans most likely need to close down the station for a week or more.

How is that so?

Because productivity is actually the value per given input. That input can be time, money, manpower, technology etc. That input can be a combination of those resources. Ultimately, there must be an increase in value per resource input, for a perceived productivity gain.

If we increase output by simply increasing time or manpower, it is a plain increase in output and not being more productive.


Back to the hairdresser’s, they actually managed to provide more value within the same time-frame – from simple dyeing to include scalp treatment and massage service etc. On top of that, they are even charging less for the service, which meant that they also managed to bring the cost down.

In my opinion, the hair salon in the local scene is actually a rather good example of productivity expert.

On the other hand, many office workers in Singapore are just trying to pretend to be productive. If you ask them if they know how to use MS Excel, they will say yes. However, when you test them, they only know how to create, open, save and enter values in the cells – basically what you will learn in the 1st hour of an excel course.

I used to pass information to the branches the expiry dates of the staff. Out of convenience, I sent the information of all staff to all branches, instead of sending each branch details of their staff. I found out that one of the branch IC downstream actually visually went through 500 names to pick out the 100 staff that were under his charge, and then copied and pasted the details, row by row, into his own excel file.

That process took him 3 hours, while I would have taken just 10 minutes max, if I used vlookup function. And sad to say, all of my branch ICs did not know how to use vlookup!

The irony is that Singaporeans, other than thinking that they are productive, they also claimed that they are too busy to upgrade their skills. It is very common hear Singaporean workers complain, “I have to do OT everyday, how am I supposed to find time to go for courses?”. Employees tend to fall into this vicious cycle of not upgrading themselves only to find themselves spending more time working on the same task day-to-day!

And then there was this attitude for training. On many occasions, I came across fellow learners who claimed that they were at the class “for holiday / forced by boss”. According to them, they are already too good at the job and they were only attending the class in order to get themselves certified or to help their companies claim the grants provided by the government.

Yes, such is the arrogance of Singaporean workers!

In my opinion, the downfall of Singapore’s labour market will be due to the workers’ arrogance. On one hand, they resist competition from foreign workers, and on the other hand, they continue to think they are beyond competition.

The only companies who will continue to grow would be those with management that are serious about training, and have systems in place to make sure that knowledge acquired in classrooms would be transferred to the workplace. That means to have supervisors who are not only interested / familiar with what their team members learn in the workplace, but also to follow up on whether they are applying the skills correctly in the workplace. This top-down approach seems counter-intuitive to current trends of “organic growth”, yet it is the best approach to ensure ROI of training.

This sound simple, but it’s a very rare occurrence in Singapore’s labour market.

Therefore, the question we have to ask is, how do we inspire companies to take charge of the learning of their staff?


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