PM on workforce “cultural change” – more answers needed

By Ismail Malek

PM Lee delivered a good speech at NDR 2014. It was good to see PM with so much vigour and passion. I liked how he tried to connect with the ground and provide solutions for the issues raised.

There are, of course, opinions which I thought the PM might need deeper thought into, or explain better to us.

PM spent a lot of time on education. He is correct to say that a degree is not necessary the only way to secure good jobs, and gave examples of those who rose without degrees. However, the irony is that these stories are in contrast to Singapore’s growth policies led by foreign direct investment.

The two people he cited as examples are from Keppel, a Singapore company which gave opportunities to Singaporeans. Without that first entry level job, they would not have the chances to progress to where they are now. Isn’t nationality bias the main complaint all these years, that Singaporeans are discriminated against in our own countries?

Singaporean managers whose career needed them to be trained or have experienced overseas markets would have come up against the formidable VISA questions at the country of destination: “Why can’t you hire one of our own?” They would probably have lost that opportunity.

Contrast that to Singapore’s open door policies without reciprocal treaties. PM’s examples serves to remind us that big Singapore companies are still our best hopes for a career.

Back to degrees. While PM seemed to provide compelling examples and also willing to lead by getting the Civil Service to promote by skills, we need to look at the issue in a larger context.

If we look at jobs in Singapore, then PM is right. No country can produce so many jobs for graduates. But when we question whether the Service is for the country or the people, it seems to put the Service into a more difficult situation. Is PM sticking to the fundamental that Singapore is producing graduates only for our own economy? Does this mean that the Singapore graduate is not being promoted as being better and preferred in the rest of the world?

When seen in this context, we begin to question whether this unwillingness to train more graduates reflects the government’s insecurity/inability to produce jobs in Singapore. It also suggests that we are unable to secure reciprocal employment rights against our open door policies.

With the world producing more graduates, should we focus on employment only in Singapore while screaming “globalisation”? Or should we empower our people while negotiating for better employment access to the rest of the world for our better quality labour? Could we be hampering our people’s progress in the globalised world while trying to manage their career with an inwardly looking policy?

PM is also correct to say that economic growth is needed to continue giving the people good jobs and wages. Economic growth can be achieved by two ways. Real growth in productivity and costs cutting. Without knowing how much each contributed to our economic growth in the last 10 years, it is hard to formulate policies to arrest career and wage growth issues.

Looking at “multitasking” and “lean organisation” efforts plus the reported decline in productivity in the last 5-10 years, are we sure our economic growth is not mainly led by costs cutting? This would mean the demise of “careers” for many as senior level positions are siphoned out while skilled labour languished or stagnate in middle management. How can this issue now be solved with “skilled based career” when skills are no longer enough for promotion?

Of course, PM did not explicitly open up the scholar route for competition. It is like opening the doors to an already crowded place while keeping the scholars in an exclusive landed property. Could this become another build up waiting to implode?

Overall good speech by the PM. But the details need more answers.