Productivity drive a marathon without finish line, says PM

Productivity drive a marathon without finish line, says PM
(From right) Labour chief Lim Swee Say, Infinium Robotics’ chief executive Woon Junyang and PM Lee Hsien Loong watch a flying robot waiter in action.

SINGAPORE'S productivity push is for the long haul and faces many challenges, but there are reasons to be optimistic, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

Singapore started promoting productivity more than 30 years ago, but this drive is even more pressing today given Singapore's developed economy and resource constraints, Mr Lee said at the launch of the National Productivity Month.

He laid out a three-pronged approach to the productivity drive.

First, there are incentives and schemes to help firms upgrade.

Second, foreign worker inflows are controlled to put pressure on employers to upgrade workers.

But firms still get enough access to manpower so that they can survive and Singaporean jobs are not lost. "As I said last week, I don't expect any further major measures to tighten our foreign worker numbers. But we will give companies time to adjust to the measures and to retool themselves," he said.

The third prong is making the productivity drive a national effort.

Mr Lee set out the different roles which players should take. For instance, firms must have a "productivity mindset" and dare to change, while workers must hone and improve their skills. Customers also need to embrace new models such as self-service.

The National Productivity Month is organised by the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) and Singapore National Employers' Federation and includes conferences, exhibitions and study trips.

At the event yesterday, Mr Lee also told the audience of 800 businessmen that the economy is reaching a mature stage of development, and is growing at a slower pace of about 3 per cent a year.

There is less free land and the manpower situation is tighter, making the productivity push all the more important. Productivity is important not only for growth, but is also crucial for raising incomes, he added. A tight labour market may make wages rise in the short term, but longer-term rises can be sustained only by higher productivity.

Still, there are challenges, said Mr Lee. Social attitudes that over-value qualifications must change, and some sectors such as construction have been slow to improve.

But there are also encouraging signs, he added. Sectors such as precision engineering are making steady progress. Even in slower sectors such as food and beverage, firms are changing.

"Productivity is a long haul, a marathon without a finish line, but so long as we have confidence and keep working at it together, we will stay in the race and (stay) ahead in the race," he concluded.

Mr Lee was given a brief demonstration of a flying robot waiter, which can deliver food and drinks to patrons automatically.

News of no further major foreign labour curbs is a relief, but "that shouldn't stop us from improving our productivity", said SBF chairman Teo Siong Seng.



"All world-class marathons are designed to test the athlete's endurance and will to win. Flat courses are inevitably followed by 'heartbreak hills' and any good athlete knows that you cannot maintain the same pace throughout the marathon if you expect to win."

- From a 1986 letter by the former chairman of the Japan Productivity Centre, Mr Kohei Goshi, to then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew


"When planning for one year, there's nothing better than planting grains. When planning for 10 years, there's nothing better than planting trees. When planning for a lifetime, there's nothing better than planting men."

- A saying by Chinese philosopher Guanzi, which Mr Goshi quoted in the same letter Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shared both these quotes yesterday for what he noted was "the third time". As Minister for Trade and Industry, he had quoted Mr Goshi at the opening of the 1987 Productivity Month.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew repeated the quotes at the following year's Productivity Month, "because the press hadn't paid attention" the first time.

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