Analysing Ngiam Tong Dow’s March 2012 speech (Part I)

In Economy, Political economy, Political governance on 15/04/2012 at 6:56 pm

Given that Professor Lim Chong Yah’s “shock therapy” proposal is a variation of what was implemented the early 1980s (until the 1985 recession: neutral article on the recession and one blaming it on the original “shock therapy”), when one Ngiam Tong Dow* was Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Trade and Industry, I thought it would be interesting to reread a speech Ngiam made in March because MTI had once upon a time analysed the problem of severe manpower shortages and the economy’s increasing reliance on lowly paid foreign workers. Its solution was to restructure the economy by raising wages substantially to dampen employers’ demand for lowly paid workers, what Professor Lim is recommending.)  

Rereading Ngiam’s speech, I don’t think he would agree with Dr Lim’s proposal because Ngiam says, “Rising productivity enables workers to be paid more. Inflation sets in only when wages are raised without any increase in productivity.” So productivity comes first, then wages rise as a consequence. Dr Lim would go back to the 1980s plan of raising wages to force up productivity.

(BTW, the government, especially Tharman, keeps “talking the talk” of raising productivity, despite not walking the walk. I’m sceptical of its announced plans to cut the “FTs are betterest” policy until I see how it is being implemented.)

The speech is long and can be divided into an economic analysis of S’pore and a sociopolitical analysis of S’pore,

In this post (Part I), I report and comment on the economic part of the speech**. In Part II (later this week), I will report and comment on the sociopolitical aspects of his speech.


Evolution of the policy of importing cheap foreign labour

“Singaporeans of my generation remember vividly the slums, joblessness, dirt and disease of the 1950s. Through dint of hard work and discipline, we moved rapidly from a labour to a skill-intensive economy. By the early 1970s, we achieved full employment with an unemployment rate of 3 per cent.

‘In the early 1970s when we achieved full employment, some of us in the EDB began to ask the question about the critical size of populations. We did some desktop research and found that there were several industrialised European countries with population size of around 5-6 million. These were Israel, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Our town planners went to work and concluded that Singapore with a land area of 670 square kilometres can comfortably accommodate a population of 5-6 million … we allowed in one million foreigners in the last decade.”

He went on, to give another reason for the FT policy, “As our births fell below replacement levels, we resorted to immigration as an instrument to top up the babies that young Singaporean couples are not having. There are also elements of political re-engineering. Submerged in our immigration policies is the belief that to maintain racial harmony, we need to keep the current population balance constant.”

He challenged the premise that S’pore needs a bigger population pointing out that

– “Singapore is already straining at the seams with a current resident population of five million … The economic assumption is that we can increase our GDP if we can accommodate more people … even doubling our population to 10 million people will not make things better. More likely, a larger population can only make matters worse.”

– “[C]omputer technology has made many manual operations in production obsolete. The key is to produce more with less manpower.”

Knowledge-based economy

“The great challenge … is that we have reached the limits of our skill-based model of growth. Singapore has to move from a skill to a knowledge-based economy. The products and services … are characterised by high technological content. To position ourselves for such an economy, Singapore devotes the greater part of our national budget to education and training.”

“When I was in school in the 1950s, only three out my O level class of 40 went on to university. Today, 30 per cent of a primary school cohort enrol in tertiary education. Raising our average educational level from primary to post-secondary should make a world of difference for our international competitiveness.”

“Our higher education levels and superior infrastructure enable us to compete in knowledge-based industries and services.”


“I observe with some dismay that the manufacturing share of our GDP dropped from a high of 30 per cent in the 1980s to 20 per cent currently.”

“Our total factor productivity should be rising not stagnating. In my view, productivity and real wages of the bottom 20 per cent of our work force have not risen because our labour policies allow employers easy access to low wage foreign labour.”

He explains that for S’pore as a whole, there are costs to this easy access to cheap foreign labour, “If we add the cost of housing, transportation, health and other social services which employers have to provide for their foreign work force, they may be better off training and equipping their Singaporean employees to raise their productivity. Rising productivity enables workers to be paid more. Inflation sets in only when wages are raised without any increase in productivity.”

“Productivity can only be raised when CEOs … take direct charge of the production process. They have to be hands on, not resorting to outsourcing. Productivity should be the key KPI (key performance indicator) for the award of bonuses to CEOs and management.”

“Like any other country in the world, Singapore now competes in a global economy. In such an economy, importing cheap foreign labour is no longer a viable strategy. It is a dead end.”

“We have to grow through raising productivity, not higher headcount. We need to be smart enough to produce more with less. Our higher education levels and superior infrastructure enable us to compete in knowledge-based industries and services. We transformed ourselves in the 1970s from a labour to a skill-intensive economy.”

But he accepted that “raising total factor productivity .. is not easy. A Japanese scholar pointed out … that the optimum rate of productivity increase achieved by [Japan] averaged 4 per cent annually … Japanese are one of the most diligent people in the world.”

Why importing cheap labour is not the solution – it’s a race to the bottom

“Singapore now competes in a global economy. In such an economy, importing cheap foreign labour is no longer a viable strategy.  It is a dead end.”

“In a global economy, you will be competing not only with friends and classmates but with the best and brightest of your generation in India, China, Brazil, Russia and Eastern Europe. University graduates in China and India are willing to work for a tenth of what our young engineers and scientists expect. If we fail to raise our total factor productivity, Singapore would just be an also-ran in the race to be a knowledge-based economy. The window to raise total factor productivity through application of knowledge and training is fast closing with the opening up of India, China and Indonesia. Singapore has lost two decades relying on low-wage, low-skilled foreign labour to drive economic growth.”

What can help

– “Our managers and administrators are among the best paid in the world. They will have to get off their high horse and personally lead the drive for higher productivity. Outsourcing is a bad word in my vocabulary. Companies and government ministries should figure out how to train their staff and redesign jobs and processes to achieve more with less.”

– “[I]nterest free loans should be given to enterprises with clear roadmaps to re-equip and raise the productivity of their workers.

What he is against

“Grants should not be given to management (consultants) to do a job they are already paid to do.”

‘I am against job credits in any form because they are simply wage subsidies which do not raise productivity in any way. My personal observation is that job credits simply add to the bottom line for payment of bonuses to management who do not have to lift a finger to raise the productivity of their enterprises.” Based on this, I suspect he would also be against having a minimum-wage.

“The 2012 budget is politically adroit, replete with spending proposals which basically are income transfers from the taxpayer to the poorly paid, the disadvantaged and the aged. Income transfers are palliatives, temporary reliefs to abate rising social discontent. They do not help to raise productivity.”

Final warning

“We failed to bite the bullet in the 1980s to restructure our economy. There may be no second chance the next time around.”


*Ngiam was in the 1980s one of Lee Kuan Yew’s and Goh Keng Swee’s most trusted civil servants and if anyone, could be called a co-driver of S’pore’s drive from third world to first world, it would be he.

**The quotes are taken from a transcription published in BT.

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  1. [...] – Yawningbread: Softly, softly, will not narrow income gap – Thoughts of a Cynical Investor: Analysing Ngiam Tong Dow’s March 2012 speech (Part I) – Diary of A Singaporean Mind: Breaking out from the cycle of cheap labor and low productivity. – [...]

  2. I dont think it is correct to imply he is against minimum wage based on his objection of jobs credit. I think he is very direct to the point that workfare allows employers to further underpay his low wage earners, and that savings will go straight into their bonus, while the government foots the difference between a minimum viable wage and the actual wage.

    There will be no such savings if a minimum wage is imposed.

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