Singapore resorts to training, higher productivity to counter ageing population

Manik Mehta

It may be Southeast Asia’s highest per capita income nation but beneath its prosperity and development, the tiny city-state of Singapore faces a colossal problem.

On one hand, the island has an ageing population, On the other, a younger and more productive generation fixated in what many Singaporeans privately describe as “just living for the present”.

Stephen Lee, a third generation Singaporean who recently inherited his family business of selling gifts and fashion products, is uninterested in pursuing the business.

He tells Bernama that he has “other ideas” of how to live his future.

“Times are changing. I have gone to school and college while my father and his father were not well-educated and had no choice but to start the family business. I have more options than they had. And why should I not avail of these options? I have a better future pursuing a career as a computer programmer,” he said.

But attitude like that of Lee is pushing Singapore into greater dependency on foreign migrants recruited, mainly, from China.

These migrants, anxious to leave their country in pursuit of the proverbial greener grass elsewhere — despite media reports of an economic boom in China — have, of late, been arriving in large numbers in Singapore.

Nevertheless, as recent measures of the Singaporean Government suggest, these workers are ill-equipped for specialised work.

Also, the English proficiency of these mainland workers leaves much to be desired, especially in a country where the services sector has gained the upper hand over manufacturing and good services matter.

Indeed, many of the shops at Singapore’s Changi International Airport are manned by guest workers from mainland China, and a simple conversation with them will reveal their level of English.

The Singapore Government has, consequently, introduced a requirement that all foreign workers should have, at the least, a “reasonable level” of knowledge of English, besides possessing the tertiary qualifications to work in their respective field of specialisation.

Singapore, which is uncomfortable at the prospect of the island being inundated by foreign guest workers with their different traditions and ways of working, has moved into action to pay greater attention to increasing productivity, lessening the dependency on foreign workers and resorting to atomic energy.

These proposals were mooted by a council headed by the island’s finance minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

However, Singapore’s reaction comes from its experiences with the — still ongoing — global economic crisis and the concern over its ageing population.

Singapore, which is heavily dependent on exports, has faced three recessions in the last decade.

Shanmugaratnam has been arguing that by increasing productivity, Singapore’s economy would also grow and, thus, improve the living standards of the people while reducing the pressure on the national budget.

Pitching itself as a strategic location between the two giant Asian economies of China and India, Singapore is increasingly profiling itself as an intermediary between the East and West, and profit from the boom that both the giant economies are currently having.

Singapore, according to official statistics, has been able to increase its productivity by an average of one per cent annually since 2000.

However, Shanmugaratnam believes this can be raised by 2 to 3 per cent in the present decade — going by his mantra to improve the training skills of workers and investing in new technology and innovation.

But Singapore’s politicians argue that such measures are necessary not just because they yield higher gains but also because they would provide them a leading position in a few years.

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