EDITORIAL: No ducking the productivity challenge

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN) - Singapore's progress must not breed a culture of comfort among its employees and employers that numbs them to the need to improve constantly by doing more with the same or, better, with less.

Corresponding with the economic recovery, productivity growth is set to reach about 3 per cent this year. That figure would account for all, or almost all, the economic growth this year. This piece of good news is made even more welcome by the fact that this will be the highest productivity rise since 2010, and a marked improvement from the 1 per cent growth last year. Indeed, given that productivity growth ranged from minus 0.2 per cent to 0.9 per cent from 2012 to 2015, it would appear that Singapore has turned an essential corner. It lies in ensuring that growth is fuelled, and is therefore made sustainable, by efficiency from the proper use of labour, by the availability of higher skills, and by the presence of streamlined processes and rules. Important in themselves, these goals become crucial in an approaching age of economic disruption compounded by cyclical downturns in the global economy.

However, it would appear too soon to celebrate the good productivity results for this year. It is possible for firms, particularly in manufacturing, to increase production without hiring more workers when demand picks up in the early stages of recovery. Whether companies can achieve this growth next year without hiring more people would be an indicator of the genuineness of the productivity rise. Indeed, there are questions about how much of the gains have come from companies turning necessity into virtue - by being forced to respond to the tightened labour inflow. It is virtue that should be a necessity. Companies need to invest sufficiently so as to underpin productivity gains, and make them a sound foundation of economic growth that translates into a rising real median income for Singaporeans.

Of course, workers, too, need to understand and accept what is at stake. It is disturbing that, whereas 91 per cent of global employees consider it to be a personal responsibility to keep up with best work practices through learning and development opportunities, only 83 per cent of employees here are ready to take the initiative to upgrade their skills. Alarmingly, this is so in spite of numerous learning and development programmes available to them, according to a recent survey. Admittedly, the gap between Singapore and the global average is not substantial, but it should not exist at all. Instead, given this country's reliance on globalisation for its economic prospects, workers here should lead others in their awareness of the role that retraining plays in employability.

National competitiveness is a moving goal. Singapore's progress must not breed a culture of comfort among its employees and employers that numbs them to the need to improve constantly by doing more with the same or, better, with less. Jobs that last a lifetime will be dead soon. Workers will need to make careers out of disruption itself. Productivity will be another name for survival.

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