The Straits Times
Published on Feb 13, 2013

Singapore needs to boost productivity, not population


I QUESTION the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises' call for a higher inflow of low-end foreign workers ("Call to relook curbs on foreign worker inflow"; Feb 4).

Every morning, five foreign workers take approximately two hours to sweep the HDB carpark near my house. Why is there a need for so many foreign workers to do a job that one person can do?

This is not an exceptional case.

In the United States, two staff members at a Starbucks outlet can take customers' orders faster than three to five of their counterparts in Singapore.

Formal studies are even more damning: Singapore's construction industry productivity has been estimated to be half that of Australia's and one-third that of Japan's ("What ails Singapore's building industry?"; March 13, 2010). And Singapore's construction productivity rose an anaemic 0.7 per cent annually from 2000 to 2010.

Since Singapore, Australia and Japan all have access to the same technology, the difference in productivity levels appears to be a case of Singapore's construction sector utilising its labour and capital inputs in an inefficient manner.

At five-star hotels here, foreign wait staff tell me and visiting foreign colleagues that they do not serve Irish coffee, screwdrivers or pina coladas. We had to hunt for a Singaporean bartender to get a properly mixed drink.

At a wedding hosted at a five-star hotel, foreign wait staff poured white wine into guests' glasses that still had red wine in them.

I do not recall such incidents happening when these same hotels employed Singaporean wait staff.

There are many cases where replacing Singaporean workers with foreign staff made both the enterprise, and Singapore itself, less economically efficient. Businesses appear to be so fixated on low wages that many hire foreign staff who are less competent than locals.

Clearly, this 19th century practice of importing cheap, inefficient labour is not working. Singapore needs to boost its productivity, not its population.

Eric J. Brooks