Singapore’s low productivity growth and overreliance on low-wage migrant labour were some of the key issues discussed by The Workers’ Party (WP) candidates in their second episode of “The Hammer Show” on Thursday night (2 July).
Entrepreneur Yee Jenn Jong highlighted that Singapore’s “founding fathers had repeatedly warned against having too many migrant workers” even in the early years following the nation’s independence.
“At the leadership hand over to the second generation 30 years ago, there were around 300,000 foreign workers. This has jumped to over 1.42 million today — most of them low-wage workers,” said Mr Yee, who is also a former NCMP and a candidate for Marine Parade GRC this year.
He explained that GDP growth is a sum of capital growth, growth in labour force, and productivity growth.
“Singapore’s productivity has been low for most of the recent years, mostly short of the two to three per cent target set by Mr Tharman in the past,” said Mr Yee.
The country has instead resorted to growing its economy by “throwing in more capital and labour”.
Mr Yee cited Singapore’s “economic architect” the late Goh Keng Swee — who used to serve as Deputy Prime Minister — in the 1970s, who warned that relying on low-wage migrant workers to grow the economy is bad and will cause growth to one day come to a grinding halt.
Even the late Lee Kuan Yew said that he was not keen on the PAP’s plan to have a 6.5 million population at the time, saying that it would not work for Singapore as a society, Mr Yee noted.
“Yet, in 2013, the PAP pushed for an even higher 6.9 million population cap by 2030,” he highlighted.
PAP’s unrelenting “growth at all costs” approach, Mr Yee warned, will “lead to unsustainable population growth, depressed wages for the bottom income earners, and vast social problems”.
Many Singaporeans, he said, were “promised the Swiss standard of living” — but many have only received “the Swiss cost of living” instead, said Mr Yee.
More needs to be done to make construction sector more attractive to locals: Entrepreneur and Marine Parade GRC candidate Yee Jenn Jong
Replying to a question from moderator Leon Perera — Youth Wing president and Aljunied GRC candidate — on how Singapore could “localise” sectors presently known to be overrepresented by migrant labour, Mr Yee said that in other developed economies such as Japan, Australia and New Zealand, construction costs are similar of that in Singapore despite their workers being paid higher wages across the board.
“In economies like Japan, they have to built to withstand major earthquakes and other withstand typhoons. Yet the overall final course is about the same as Singapore,” he said.
“Concerted change” on a national scale — involving a multi-ministry effort and across multiple industries — must be put in place to boost productivity growth, said Mr Yee.
“When we look at the workers that they bring in — can we bring in workers who are already more skilled?”
Citing other industries such as nursing or childcare, Mr Yee pointed out how around a decade ago, such fields were not seen by locals as a “viable, long-term industry”.
“Now, after years of effort at the national level, with scholarships with good career opportunities and the image change, the locals have started to go into these industries. So we really need to do that for the construction industry as well,” he said.
Govt should provide loans for expensive equipment to construction companies: WP treasurer and Aljunied GRC candidate Gerald Giam
Treasurer Gerald Giam, who is also a former NCMP and one of WP’s candidates for Aljunied GRC this year, said that Singapore has been focusing too much on upping migrant labour input and neglecting “productivity growth”.
Even across sectors, he said, productivity growth appears to be uneven.
“For example, the construction industry is much less productive than, let’s say, of finance and insurance industries.
“If you compare the construction industry in Singapore with that of other countries, we are only half the as productive as in the US and one third as productive as in Japan,” said Mr Giam.
A huge contributor to low productivity growth, he said, is “the large number of unskilled labour” being brought into Singapore.
Productivity, however, is “not just about putting in more work into the into your workplace, but really about automating”, according to Mr Giam.
Many companies struggle to acquire productivity-enhancing equipment due to high costs, he noted.
Mr Giam proposed that the government provide “loans of these expensive equipment” to construction companies “so that they don’t have to purchase the equipment themselves”.
Companies may still be unable to afford such equipment too expensive even with the available grants, he added.
Policymakers should also make it “more attractive” for more local workers to join the construction sector.
“The jobs become better, the pay becomes better, and people can work more productively with each other because they’re familiar with each other and they are able to cooperate more with each other,” he said.
Deputy Organising Secretary and East Coast GRC candidate Terence Tan said that WP intends to “engage the government” on its promises to help Singapore “emerge stronger” from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and to create better jobs for Singaporeans.
“Long gone are the days where Singapore experienced double digit growth. In 2019, our economy grew a meagre 0.7 per cent,” he said, adding that “a Swiss standard of living remains but a fable for many Singaporeans”.
“Household debt stands at about 64 per cent to GDP. An OCBC survey indicates that seven out of 10 Singaporeans, if they lose their income, can only manage their living expenses for six months,” Mr Tan noted.
Mr Tan cited a visit by the then-Minister for National Development to Australia in 2013, who “praised construction workers in Melbourne who had taken advantage of advanced construction techniques so as to erect a building in about half the usual time”.
“I thought that The Honorable Minister might come back galvanized and look to see how he might encourage and support our entrepreneurs and SMEs by way of tax incentives and grants. To research and develop similarly operative solutions so that all our Industries might be more productive and efficient, and also how our technical schools might be suitably reformed and apprenticeship schemes fully developed so that we might eventually reduce our reliance of foreign labour,” he said.
“We need to look at ways and means of improving productivity for the long-term benefit of our economy. We need to look at how we create job opportunities and put more money in the pockets of our hard-working fellow countrymen,” said Mr Tan.