May Day! Repetitious Vicious Circle Ahead!

THE VARIOUS May Day messages from government and labour leaders in the last few years have centred on how Singapore must move quickly towards acquiring new skills, embracing innovation and enhancing productivity.

The mantra is that this will help preserve jobs and create new ones for the people, which, in turn, will help the Singapore economy to chug along. This was the broad message in 2017 as well.

While this is all and well, it has become an old tune. We are reminded of a famous quote that is attributed to Albert Einstein: “Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Now, in Singapore, you can question government policies as long as you do not engage in ad hominem attacks on government officials or misconstrue what they say. If you are a neutral observer that only wants the best for your country, there is no point in doing that. Further, if you question government policies, you must provide alternative ideas to back up your criticisms, because even highly-paid ministers should naturally be open to new ideas. That is the pulse of innovation and change.

Basic Needs

Let’s look individually at each of the three elements—new skills, innovation and productivity.

First, it seems that while leaders always talk about acquiring new skills, the man in the street will instead be thinking about how to put food on the table for his family, or how to pay for the medical treatment that his ailing daughter needs.

He has little or no time to acquire new skills because his immediate imperatives are to run his household the best he can rather than improve his skills.

If he does have the bandwidth to acquire new skills that have the potential to be more lucrative to him and his family in the long run, he has to be reassured that his time will not be wasted and there is a job in place for him. That sort of reassurance typically cannot be given to him under the current global economic and geopolitical uncertainties, and as ongoing restructuring takes place.

Remember that restructuring of companies or economies does not necessarily mean that there will be a positive outcome at the end. So, acquiring new skills is not high on the priority list of the man on the street, especially one that is older.

Gainful Innovation

In the meantime, it should be noted that Singapore has shown a strong capacity for innovation. Asset enhancement of public housing, ERP gantries, Newater and certificates of entitlement (COEs) can all be considered local innovations that have helped Singapore society progress in its own unique way. However, history shows that innovation tends to happen in short, sharp bursts and cannot really be mandated or planned for. It can only be encouraged.

If you look around at Singapore’s innovation landscape, too many interested parties that have nothing to do with innovation are involved in the process. This can stifle innovators that are at the heart of innovation.

Less talk and more money with minimal strings attached would be the ideal path to nurturing innovation.

However, Singapore’s innovation landscape is heading in the other direction, with a lot of talking, intervention by many non-innovative parties, and the injection of money with a host of strings attached.

At the end of the day, innovators would be justified if they start thinking if all their hard work is worth the trouble. It may be better for them to just grab the early money and run, figuratively speaking. Hence, we see many innovation-related start-ups fail.

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Vicious Productivity Circle

The final element, productivity, is a double-edged sword because greater efficiency in production and services can mean a loss of jobs when technological developments, also known as innovation, disrupt the workspace by doing what people have done in the past, but faster and with zero defects. This will be attractive to business owners, but it will ultimately bring up a pertinent existential question for them.

If more and more people are superseded by technology, how are jobless people going to buy the products and services that businesses offer? Businesses will gradually fade away too because they have no customers.

Thus, the issues that Singapore’s government and labour leaders talk about each year, namely, new skills, innovation and productivity, can be viewed as elements of a vicious circle.

The reciprocal cause and effect of the elements intensify and aggravate each other, which leads to a worsening of the situation. That is, more innovation leads to higher productivity, which, in turn, leads to a loss of jobs and the need for people to acquire new skills. Singapore now seems stuck in this circle as the remedies recommended do not offer long-term healing.

Trade Offs?

How can these elements be changed into a virtuous circle instead?

One way of doing that could be to reemphasize the importance of tradesmen and reward such skills the way that developed countries do. It is no secret that plumbers, electricians, bricklayers, tilers, and carpenters are highly paid in developed countries.

In Singapore, such jobs are looked down upon because parents want to send their children to university. So, these jobs go mainly to foreigners, in particular, Malaysians who cross the border from Johor every day.

Tradesmen actually do make things that you can touch and feel. Innovation cannot typically replace them, while their levels of productivity are a function of how well they are paid and treated. This is how things used to be in the real economy, when the three elements were part of a virtuous circle.

Thus It Was Unboxed by One-Five-Four Analytics presents alternative angles to current events. Reach us at

Main Image: Michael D Brown /

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