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News analysis

Inchcape layoffs send worrying signals

Inchcape has had a history of replacing its Singapore helmsmen with little ceremony. Seats have been swopped after three years. The shortest stint was nine weeks.

Still, news that current chief executive for South Asia Koh Ching Hong is leaving at the end of this month is surprising. Mr Koh has been on the job for nine years - twice as long as the average Fortune 500 CEO - having enjoyed the longest tenure for an Inchcape boss in Singapore.

Mr Koh's exit is part of the London-headquartered motor distribution giant's decision to restructure its Singapore operations. The move involves removing more than one-eighth of staff in Singapore; and "regionalising" functions such as information technology and finance, much of which is currently done in Singapore.

It is a worrying development, and comes on the back of Manpower Ministry figures which reveal that 13,730 workers were laid off in the first nine months of last year - the highest number since the global financial meltdown of 2008 to 2009.

Are companies like Inchcape taking the global economic slowdown as a convenient excuse to squeeze more from their workers? It is one thing for firms to initiate periodic shake-ups to rid themselves of complacency and "dead wood". It is another for them to think they can infinitely do more with less.

Trends such as outsourcing functions to cheaper markets and hot-desking are catching on. Headhunting firms are also reporting clients who call them for contract workers to replace employees they had outplaced just weeks earlier. In the case of Inchcape, its motivation to downsize its key market - carried out a year after Mr Stefan Bomhard became new group CEO - remains questionable.

Vehicle sales here are shaping up to be more stable than they have been, with a quota system that is finally ridding itself of a peak-and-trough pattern. And Singapore is, and has mostly been, Inchcape's most profitable market.

To lay off nearly 15 per cent of your most productive workforce is inexplicable.

It was little wonder then that employees were concerned there may be more cuts on the horizon. Morale and trust had been eroded and there is concern Inchcape's move might ignite an exodus of marketable people. If that happens, then whatever the group hopes to gain from the restructuring will be short-lived, as its talent pool drains and flows to more stable grounds.

Of course, that is provided businesses at large do not take a cue from Inchcape. The real possibility of that is a bigger worry, for Inchcape is unlikely to be the only company that is asking itself if it can trim cost further - no less with a global slowdown looming and interruptions lurking.

Just as businesses are taking stock in an increasingly disruptive economy, it would be unwise for Singapore not to do likewise.

The Republic has worked long and hard to establish itself as a good place to do business in.

It has built up a creditable and dependable infrastructure in this vein - comprehensive transport and logistics, strong legal framework, good security and high transparency and a clean government. Not to mention its status as a leading financial hub. These have helped justify the high cost of firms setting up operations here, relative to other cities.

The question is whether cost has overtaken the perks. Clearly, businesses that are relocating - either entirely or in parts - are realising that good infrastructure may no longer be attractive enough to offset the cost of land, property, vehicles and wages that make Singapore one of the most expensive cities in the world. And as other cities become more business-friendly, Singapore's cost factor will become more glaring.

Real peril thus lurks behind the current wave of downsizing. Is it cyclical, or is it here to stay? Is it the economy, or is it Singapore?

If by slim chance that it is Singapore, what can we do about it? What can we do to retain our shine as a hub? What can our people do to become more employable? Can laws be tightened to prevent indiscriminate and unthinking hire-and-fire strategies?

Perhaps some answers lie with Switzerland, Japan, Norway, South Korea and Germany, which rank highest among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries in job security.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2017, with the headline 'Layoffs send worrying signals'. Print Edition | Subscribe