If the economy does not bottom out fairly soon, S'poreans' patience might become sorely taxed.

The myth of the lazy native

The government’s views on the unemployment situation might be too sanguine

With Singapore in the throes of its worst ever downturn, the government seems to have gotten into the habit of implying that Singaporeans are complacent and choosy about employment opportunities, something exemplified by manpower minister Gan Kim Yong’s invocation to young graduates to take any job that is available – even if it happens to be a blue-collared one that they did not train for – several weeks ago.

Such a sentiment is not borne out by statistics.  One indicator is a global survey published in April ranking Singaporeans as being the second-most dissatisfied group of workers worldwide, with just over half claiming to be satisfied with their jobs, which could be an indicator of how undemanding they are about job choice.  A more telling poll conducted by the Institute of Public Study (IPS) in February indicated that 31% would “take any job regardless of pay” if they were jobless, with the respondents saying that they were prepared to take up to a 42% wage cut on average to get a job.

The IPS survey also showed that Singaporeans were anything but complacent: only a small proportion expected to rely on the government (7% of respondents) or welfare agencies (5%) to see them through the bad times, and Singaporeans on average had built up a reserve of 8½ months of savings for such contingencies.

The problem is not one of Singaporeans being choosy, but that jobs are genuinely getting scarce.  The latest data from the manpower ministry show that the unemployment rate (unadjusted) for residents hit a five-year high of 4.4% in March. (Source: MOM). Already, this is almost 5 times the number of immediate job vacancies available at the Employment and Employability Institute.

Furthermore, the figure probably understates the actual economic pain.  For one, it excludes those who have given up “actively” looking for work, which anecdotal accounts suggest could include quite a few older workers who were laid off and effectively forced into early retirement after not being able to secure other jobs.  It also excludes those who are in “retraining” under the gamut of government-sponsored schemes: the prime minister said in his May Day rally that 80,000 workers (which is close to the current number of unemployed residents) from 1,300 companies will be participating in its SPUR retraining programme, which is a fair guide to the degree of under-employment in the economy.

Yet despite the worsening outlook, it seems that Singaporeans know that they should not expect much government help.  82% of the respondents in the IPS survey said that they had to rely on personal initiative rather than the government.  Significantly, 62% said that the government’s measures have had no impact on them; even for those in the lower income groups, which the government was supposedly targeting with its measures, only 4 out of 10 said that they benefited, a figure not much higher than the overall average among all income groups of 3 out of 10.

That might come as a rude shock to a government that had seemed convinced that it was doing a good job of spreading largesse around.  The IPS survey has given a hint of the pain threshold of Singaporeans: on the whole they are currently still cushioned by their savings as well as government re-training programmes, but if the economy does not bottom out fairly soon their patience might become sorely taxed.