The Downfall of Singapore: The Draining of Skills

As a grinder, I am fast. Rather fast. By now I am as good as the best South Korean in my company and twice as quick as the other one. Not bad for someone only 5 months into the job - and the trade - as compared to the others who are years into it.

This is not a post to blow a trumpet. During my toilet-ing, I reviewed my situation and recalled my stint in Singapore. By now, none of my ex-workers can hold a candle to my skills with a grinder. If you think about it, it's kinda sad. Someone who hasn't took on physical work in his life to be better and faster than who is considered 'skilled workers' in Singapore in 5 months of training. The sadder part, I am not considered as a skilled worker in Australia as it is.

We used to have skilled workers in Singapore. The real-deal kind. Many of our fathers used to work as one. Electricians, plumbers, carpenters, fitters, mechanics you name it. Our government's insistence to rely on cheap labour has unconsciously caused Singapore to lose their skills.

Let me elaborate more.

You could see the mentality of the bosses in Singapore. Hire a graduate and an 'uneducated' experienced uncle and team them up. The uncle will lead the Bangadeshi workers and the graduate will settle the paper work related to the project. As time goes on, the graduate will learn about the nitty gritty technical things on site and be an experienced engineer himself. 

That's the perfect scenario. Only that it doesn't work.

In the long run, we lose our skills. Why? Have you ever wondered why the graduate that walked the sites for years cannot even handle any machine for a second? The answer is obvious. He hasn't touched the machines before. No matter how many books you have read about swimming or how many videos you have watched, you can't swim until you swim.

The question is, does our project managers need to be hands-on to be good project managers? It depends on your definition of a good project manager. I daresay no project manager in Singapore truly knows how to bring value to his project by cutting costs by providing his workers the correct tools. When I mean correct tools, it doesn't mean the more expensive tools. He couldn't cut manpower costs by teaching his workers the safer and faster method to perform their tasks because he doesn't know how. Using me as an example, I have revised my working methods at least 3 times. By today I am using an entirely different set of working methods to the Koreans to be able to match up to their fine work standard and speed with very much reduced physical demands on myself. 

A graduate project manager will never be able to innovate this way. Worse, they think they can and are doing it. The project will end up with a lot of material wastage, tools wastage and work doesn't get completed fast enough. The project manager will then spam workers on the job. 20 men, 50 men on some simple job. Money is inconsequential. They don't cost much anyway, because the labour laws in Singapore allows us to exploit and pay them $20-$24 for a full day's work. You pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Singapore ended up with projects full of defects and imperfection costing the economy more with longer project duration.

In the long run, these experienced uncles who know half a bucket of work will retire and Singapore will be left with these graduate managers. By then, our skill drain will be truly completed. We are already experiencing it. Workers telling the manager how work should be done, what tools to buy and how much time is required. This is incredulous. A project manager could have saved the company heaps of cash if the project finishes earlier and he is likely to be able to achieve that if he knows his work better. This cheap labour strategy is short sighted. At the end of the day, the savings do not add up.

We have already seen a classic example of this phenomenon. The Youth Olympics. Over thrice over budgeted even with free labour of the SAF and school children behind them. Enough said. The government refused to learn a lesson from this and Vivian "the snake" Balakrishnan insisted it was a 'budget mis-calculation'. In truth, project mis-management. Another moving on, another precious lesson not learnt.

What we will be left is a cheap labour force asking for more. This is not new. In the past, we had workers from Thailand, Malaysia, Sri-Lanka, Pakistan and Indonesia. They are now 'too expensive' to be brought in by today. So we have Bangladesh, India and China workers on the streets now. These group too, complained about low wages during my time managing projects.

When the older generation of China skilled workers retire, China will be in a great shortage of skilled labours as never seen before. Most of their precious offspring, the product of their One Child Policy have been groomed to be a graduate. China will be recalling their skilled workers or importing them the same way as Singapore did. It will happen. In less than a decade or two, PRC labour will not be coming to Singapore. In fact, it is already slowly happening as we speak. What do we do from there? Hire Nigerians?

The government has successfully disarmed vital skills from Singapore with their shallow cheap labour strategy. In the future, the government will realise their mistake, but not admitting it of course and then quietly spend a lot of money to re-train the population for skills. Not surprisingly, they will over-train them numerically and left many with no jobs. And a little too late.

I am not a believer of getting a graduate to take over top roles. It is how nature works. A tree which is planted and groomed will always be sturdier than a transplanted tree. Ask any horticulturist. Everyone has to work from the bottom up so that they can be truly technically competent and possibly innovative. You cannot innovate unless you know the basics. 

Only by doing this, Singapore can continue to offer the world excellent human resource that we used to be renown for. We need to offer the kind of quality that people are willing to pay irrational prices for. (think the way iPhone attracts iDiots buyers) At this rate we are going, Singapore is going into the gutter. With no able workforce to support the country in the near future, the rich will eventually leave the country, exposing the hollow shell behind that glamourous cladding.


  1. you are truly a thinker!

    i thought i was, but i'm no match for you!

  2. You are right. Blue collar worker are truly under appreciated and valued in sinkie by the mass cheap foreign labour. This creates a huge surplus of grads fighting for white collar jobs. We need to have a balance of both in order for the society to function.

  3. Free public transport in Brisbane after rail chaos

    SBSNEL got failure, they should learn from brisbane

  4. Wow. Another well written piece - excellent stuff, you're a great writer!! Hugs from London xxx

  5. I am an undervalued white collar worker.
    I simply don't know how to climb in status and earnings like my cohort;
    I only know how to be my natural best self.
    I'm that foolish not to crave to be a manager, I only seek to have surplus income over frugal expenditure in life for my family.

    I likely won't make it as blue collar.
    I was not an excellent ammunition storeman in national service, even with my A levels!

    Prove me wrong: this red dot has no good place for ordinary people like me.

  6. Hi SingaporeanSON,

    I wonder what was the last straw/s that caused you & your wife to pack up and leave SG?

    1. i duno about my wife. but it got too crowded for me. i dun like crowds

  7. When did it all start? Previously we had prestigious Rhode, Colombo, Queens scholars and then we started having local President and SAF scholars. And who were the first batches of scholars? Made a guess...

    Instant fast track through A-level, armed forces, civil service, politics... and you need a whole tribe so that no one accuse you of nepotism and the like...

    Very soon, the rest followed. Civil service, GLC, uniform services, schools, hospitals and the tribe of instant talents got even bigger.

    You need to keep this tribe going; hence, fast-track paths, lateral transfers, creation of A pocket to B pocket companies, go invest in all parts of the world, super remuneration political positions, pension retirements, etc

    The spider web got bigger, more complicated and interlinked over the years. The spider tribe knows that to break one link is to bring the entire tribe down; and hence, the closed, self protective and incest culture.

    See it happening in your own school, company or industry? Just a case of monkey see, monkey do.

  8. The writer must be a non-graduate. The logic of this article is not robust. Project manager has different role than the ordinary skilled workers. Not all best performed skilled workers can be a project manager. It is in fact an individual's capability issue if a project manager failed to pick up the basic relevant skills after many years of working. But, we should not expect this project manager to learn to be another skilled worker. Simply, the role of project manager is not to work on the project but to manage the people and the resources to make the project successful.

    1. I don't think you quite get what I am trying to say.

    2. Precisely. To be a PMP with PMI, you are examined on management skills and these skills apply across industries.

    3. Anonymous, your views are so narrowed. Do you stay in the frog's well?

      Let me tell u something, i do not give any respect for a project manager who doesnt know any skills i own. And i expect them to know. not as good as i am paid for, but thats how it shud be. In fact a PM who doesnt know the rest of the engineering skills are deemed as a useless piece of skin at the tip of the pole. At the end of the day, he simply do not know how to deliever the job to teh client. If he is being employed just for the PMI skills, then i didnt think the company needed him, i can do his job for him.

  9. Well-written post, very much agreed on the swimming analogy.

    I remember reading something like this before:
    "To understand how far a mile is, you must first walk one."

    It's about being able to lead only if you understand what the hell is going on at the frontline.

  10. This has great implication on the whole singapore inc leadership n management philosophy. Contrast SAF with the israeli defence force. IDF officer candidate selection is creaming and sifting from the boot camp to NCO school and even to arms vocation trade school. Most who shine in IDF NS has decent school career but the system also recognises those who may not be brilliant in the acedemic but display outstanding leadership n fighting qualities during their NS. My experience with SAF during my NS days was that a soldier's A level results and even pedigree take precident over his military performance. Extrapolate this observation to the whole of singapore inc leadership selection and over time this is what has become of singapore. Maybe?

  11. What anonymous said is reasonable. I believe he got your point, but is pointing out to you about the natural process of specializatuon. New ideas and unique ability temd to be more appreciated. For example, tiger woods can certainly mow the greens very well, but he does what he uniquely does better than most others that is, play golf. Everyone strives to do the best for himself or herself ala the incisible hand. Would you dispute that the golfer should be paid more than the caddy or the grass cutter?

    In our society today and this is everywhere, education is a tangible measure of unique abilities. It is an imperfect measure but nonetheless institutionalized. Anonymous is right to claim that a good college graduate engineer would be competent enough to perform, not necessarily master (needs a lot of practice) more hands-on tyoes of tasks. However, because of his education, he can perform relatively more unique tasks. But in today's world of cheap degrees, there inevitably leads to instances that you point out in this post. Is the college grduate worth more than the skilled worker?

    Finally, i would also comment that if you were in a comfortable ' white-collared' job, you would be making a different argument: there is high acquisition cost to be a college graduate, and therefore it signals to the market that i am of higher value and shoukd be paid more.

    1. I agree that a golfer should be paid more than a caddy, based on your reasoning.
      I disagree that said golfer should be paid an insane multiple more than a caddy.
      It implies that meritocracy creates a caste system, in which the elite are uber-humans compared to the rest of us in the masses.

      That is why I have never understood why hotel chicken rice can cost 4 or more times the price of coffee shop chicken rice, when one does not consistently get 4 or more times the portions, or 4 or more times the superior quality and taste, 4 or more times better the excellent service, or any combination of aspects up to always 4 times or more.

      Then consider a government minister getting paid tens of thousands of times monthly for the same duration of work as a typical Singapore worker here, say a train driver.
      If one argues that a minister's work affects the wellbeing of that many locals here, then I ask, what about the train driver working hard daily, across a month, to ensure the safety of similar numbers of hundreds of thousands passengers who board and alight under his care and responsibility?

      A reduced pay factor of tens more would be more equitable then, considering the similar accountability to so many lives.
      Unless, of course, it's considered far less serious to crash and kill off many highly qualified white-collars, and even far more essential blue-collars, all in a string of carriages, in a single unfortunate accident.

      The problem of formalised higher education is not just its imperfect tangible measure of unique abilities, but also that it being 'institutionalised' makes it fail even more badly at capturing the entrepreneurial, spontaneous nature of many unique abilities, all leaked and lost into the 'less educated' population at large.

      I have not come across post-graduate degrees which guarantees highly accurate assessments of a hawker who whips up excellent curry, a singer whose performances moves crowds worldwide, or an unstoppably innovative IT security specialist (perhaps also known as 'white hacker').

      High educational qualifications no longer ensures high-paying careers, in the over-institutionalised world of today, especially for naturally original workers who do not fit obediently and passively into institutions.

      High monthly wages no longer guarantee high quality of life, especially in the crucial intangibles of self-actualisation, daily life balance, true satisfaction — simply put, happiness.

  12. I think the writer's point about dilution of skills is correct. This has been happening since the beginning of foreign workers(not yet FT)import.
    I accepted their import as we were trying to get ourselves further up the food chain.
    The foreign workers came, got trained, contributed and then had to leave when their term is up.
    This cycle repeats and the skills attained are seldom retained in SG. I believe this is still happening.

    On the other hand, I do not agree with the writer that all graduate professionals have to go through the lower end jobs.

    With F1 just starting again in Melbourne this weekend, I would use an F1 analogy. Those F1 car designers may not all have to have been an excellent mechanic to be a good car designer. They may be just someone who has done well in aerodyamics studies or engineering and are good at what they do.
    But what the F1 team needs is a combination of excellent mechanics, engineers, designers and drivers and many others.

    I think the problem with SG now is we are not training our own F1 team. We import them instead. And all we have is a bunch of supposedly very good F1 administrators (or so they claim).

    Unfortunately, I don't think we are now competing in F1. We are only competing on F2 and we are not yet winning!

    But what happens when F2 becomes irrelevant or is discontinued?

    The imported F2 team 'talents' would go home or go elsewhere and all we have left is a bunch of highly educated F2 administrators.

    1. I like your F2 analogy. Singapore is a 2nd rate pretending to be first world, lord over by a 2nd gen tyrant.

  13. This sounds abit related to companies offering management trainee position to groom them to be manager within a year. They wont know the hardwork of the group workers within that one year.

  14. Brilliant piece. There is no job satisfaction or craftsmen in Sincity. Only cheap, cheaper and cheaperest FTs! That's our culture and mindset. Yes, we have our skills in those trades. Locals are only good at driving taxis and selling hawker food! Sad.

  15. Sorry. Shld be we have LOST our skills in those trades ...