Do Singaporeans deserve the salaries they are paid?
That was the pointed question posed by a reader responding to a piece I wrote on how median wages had stagnated in recent years despite a growing economy (The Sunday Times, June 16).
He didn't think it was surprising because, to put it bluntly, that's what they deserve.
This was how he put it, which I'm quoting extensively because his perspective is worth airing even if it's painful to hear:
"Singapore's median income of $3,000 per month is fairly high if converted to local currencies of neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, India and China. Does the average Singaporean worker deserve this premium?
"Is he/she really more analytical, creative, articulate and productive than our Asian counterparts let alone those in the developed countries of Switzerland and Germany?
"My experience and that of many of my friends and colleagues who have tried recruiting Singaporeans in this income bracket does not bear this out.
"For a start, many local graduates... have a hard time conversing in good English... Because of this, they generally tend to be poor communicators and lack the confidence to interact in group situations.
"The other weak area is reasoning and critical thinking skills... Many Singaporeans looked great on paper but had great difficulty with case interviews where one needs to think on one's feet.
"The problem is further exacerbated by every local's dream to work in an office job in a nice central location. So, unlike in Australia or the US where people try to pursue their passion and maximise their inherent skills be it as a teacher, welder or nurse, here even someone who has trouble stringing together two sentences sees himself as a marketing manager in a multinational corporation (MNC).
"Singapore is not a developed country in the sense of Japan or Germany or Switzerland where the average worker is well-trained and of high quality...
"The German engineer is behind scores of world-class SMEs that populate various small towns across Germany. Ditto for Japan and Switzerland... The SME boss in Woodlands and Bukit Batok is not competing with SMEs in the US and Japan but with those in China and Vietnam.
"Singapore's high GDP is not because of high-quality local workers and companies but because of the more than 7,000 MNCs that use this as a hub to produce world- class products and services. This crucial difference needs to be kept in mind."
Ouch! That's how I felt, like having cold water splashed after being slapped hard in the face.
The truth hurts especially when it's conveyed by a foreigner who has had more than 10 years' experience working here and is now a citizen.
He isn't alone in making these points.
In the same week I received the e-mail, the head of a German MNC here also raised a similar concern, on the lack of drive of workers here compared with those of other countries. He has worked previously in his home country Germany, in China and now Singapore.
German workers, he said, had made a dramatic turnaround in the last decade, shedding the label they once wore as the sick man of Europe.
That was when they suffered many years of sluggish growth and the weight of a huge national debt incurred from unification with East Germany.
In his view, if there was a hunger index for workers, that of German and Chinese workers would be moving upwards - they were getting hungrier, with the Chinese shooting off the charts.
In contrast, he said, for Singapore workers, the chart was moving in the opposite direction.
In case you think only foreigners hold such views, a friend who owns and runs an SME business here is always complaining to me about how difficult it is to recruit Singaporeans and how disappointed he often is about their work attitude and skill level.
I have heard similar comments from other Singaporean bosses.
Their views cannot be dismissed in any discussion on what sort of wage increases Singaporeans can expect in the years ahead.
What has happened to the much vaunted quality of the local workforce which helped propel the economic transformation of the country?
The fact remains that if Singapore workers didn't possess the skill and ability required, the country wouldn't have made the leap from Third World to the thriving city it is today and attracted all those MNCs to invest their billions here.
If something has indeed changed, it is that the easy years are over.
When the Singapore economy grew from the 1960s to the 1980s, salaries rose rapidly for most workers because they were able to improve their skill levels year after year, from the low base they started at.
The competition then was with the likes of similarly emerging economies making the same kind of rapid progress - Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and others.
Today, with the low-hanging fruits all but plucked, the going will be much slower and tougher.
To make the next leap up the income ladder, Singapore workers will have to be as good as those in Germany and Switzerland.
But as that reader asked, are they as analytical, creative, articulate and productive?
Just by way of comparison, Switzerland, with a population of eight million, boasts more than 20 Nobel Prize laureates and an impressive list of world-class companies such as Nestle, Swatch, Rolex and many others.
The average life span of a Swiss company is 125 years - they've managed to survive by constantly reinventing themselves to stay relevant, supported by a highly educated and skilled workforce.
There are clearly no quick fixes or easy solutions for Singapore.
It will require fundamental changes both in the economy and in the education and training of Singaporeans.
That's why those changes in the schools to make students less obsessed with doing well in exams and better at learning how to acquire skills and knowledge relevant in today's fast changing world are so important.
Learning how to learn, whatever the subject, possessing deep capabilities in the jobs you do, being able to communicate well, having a lively interest and pride in what you're doing - these are the attributes of a successful First World workforce.
If Singapore fails to make the transformation to this next stage of its development, it will have to live with stagnating wages as a fact of life.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 30, 2013
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