Could Singapore's obsession with productivity be problematic for its future? 

By Larissa Murphy

If you look at the statistics coming out of the US, it is well documented that in the current economic climate, neither increasing productivity nor decreasing cost delivers increased profits. Unfortunately, the productivity equation that worked so well in the industrial era is no longer applicable. 

Since 1965 in the US across all industries, productivity has increased by an aggregate of close to 150%. In industries such as technology and telecoms, labour productivity has grown by more than 800%. Yet in the same timeframe between 1965 and 2015, the Return on Assets for US companies has declined by over 70%.

 Interestingly, 52% of companies that were in the Fortune 500 in 2000 are now extinct, lifespan in the Fortune 500 list has also decreased to around 15-20 years. This phenomenon is being referred to as “The Business Apocalypse” or “Creative Destruction.” 

The companies that are growing and thriving are doing so because of innovation and creativity, not because of productivity and efficiency. 
Singapore seems to have put too many eggs in one basket. You only need to look at the Country Rankings in the World Banks Government Effectiveness Index to see that Singapore comes top and has done so every year for the last seven years.

It has been number one for 19 out of the 26 years for which the index exists, and it leads by a strong margin of more than a quarter of a point in the latest index. Whilst this index measures the effectiveness of the country’s government to achieve this it is apparent that the efficiency of operations plays a big part. 

When it comes to efficiency Singapore has it nailed. Upon gaining independence Singapore embarked on a productivity drive. 

The first productivity performance campaign was launched in 1975 with the slogan “Productivity Is Our Business” and this has been the backbone of Singapore’s Success. It has thrived economically based on productivity.

From 1981 to 1995, 60% of Singapore’s average economic growth of 7.6% came from productivity growth, which averaged 4.5%.

In 1985, Singapore even launched a children’s club called "Teamy, the Productivity Bee." Singapore’s love affair with productivity has endured and continues today, through Enterprise Singapore there are grants for productivity solutions, and the Singapore Productivity Centre runs many initiatives around improving productivity. 

So, it seems that despite the status of the small city-state the aim is to continue the pursuit of productivity to achieve even greater productivity and efficiency. It is understandable why SG is continuing its productivity and efficiency drive. Government effectiveness and efficiency have been significant contributors to the impressive growth in the nation's GDP. 

GDP growth in the city-state has been amongst the world's highest, at an average of 7.7% since independence and topping 9.2% in the first 25 years. These statistics demonstrate just how impressive Singapore’s achievements have been since independence. However, I can’t help wondering if this relentless pursuit may be to the country’s detriment in the future. 

Singapore has an amazing well-educated workforce, the education system here is one of the best in the world, it is accessible to all and the vast majority of Singaporeans in the workforce and those coming into the workforce have excellent academic qualifications. So why then do we constantly hear that companies need to bring in foreign “talent”? 

Why can companies not find the skill sets they need amongst the local population? After all, there is a whole population of well-educated workers brought up on a diet of ambitious productivity. 

I can testify that most Singaporeans I have encountered are exceptionally hard-working, team players who can undertake given tasks with amazing efficiency. 

Therein lies the problem, they can undertake given tasks, and follow instructions effectively, much like teamy the bee, that many were brought up with, they work hard as a collective efficiently and productively doing what they are told.

 When you ask them to think, to be creative, to take initiative on tasks with no instructions or preordained methodology many struggles. 

So, I have started to feel that when organisations talk about the need for imported “talent” what they are talking about is the need for creativity. 

Where does this leave Singapore with its high efficiency and productive workforce which seems low on creativity? 

Singapore seems to have acknowledged the role of innovation in future growth, but there is a tendency to package innovation with productivity as if the purpose of innovation is to enhance productivity or productivity will somehow increase innovation.

 However, productivity does not drive innovation, creativity does, and although innovation can lead to improved productivity, innovation alone is delivering economic returns regardless of productivity. 

Singapore does create a wonderful business ecosystem and great support for startups but is it capable of making a shift in focus away from productivity to deliver creativity? This will require a huge mindset shift. It will require a shift in thinking about everything from education to how, where and even why we work. 

Creativity requires people to think and the ability for both convergent and divergent thinking. It is a rare ability in the adult population globally and I feel it is even more so in Singapore, hence the need for imported creative talent. 

It seems an almost impossible task to move away from the hive mentality and convert a workforce of efficient and productive worker bees to a population of creative problem-solving innovators, who, by nature, would be more individualistic, inconsistent, erratic and beyond the realms of current societal norms. 

Creativity requires greater autonomy, freedom to fail a tendency to break or ignore rules, and taking risks and is certainly less measurable than productivity. 

Could Singapore cope? 

The thing that I admire most about Singapore in the time I have been here is that it is a place where nothing is considered impossible. 

The ability to adapt and embrace change is incredible so too is the appetite to learn and improve. So, I believe that once Singapore realises and embraces the need for greater creativity it can happen. 

The first step will be to overcome the obsession with productivity, that’s holding us back.

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