This is funny. Because productivity is not a new idea in Singapore. In fact, it is rather old. Back in the 1970s and 80s, productivity was one of our favourite national campaigns (along with the "Speak Mandarin" campaign and the infamous "Stop At Two" family-planning campaign).
Productivity even had its own mascot (known as Teamy the Bee). And it also had its official song that would be aired on radio and TV. The lyrics went something like this:
"Good, better, best,
never let it rest,
If it's good, make it better
If it's better, make it best!"
I still remember it, because I was in primary school then, and it was a simple, catchy tune (the kind that would appeal to young children). By today's standards, the words are very corny. But then the world was a simpler, more innocent sort of place back then.
Anyway, productivity was such a big thing in the 1970s and 80s that it even had its own statutory board. Yes, along with key public institutions such as the HDB, URA, PUB and CPF, we also had .... the NPB! The National Productivity Board.
The purpose of the NPB was to promote practices in Singapore that would lead to increased productivity. A big part of the strategy involved studying the Japanese workforce, who were known for their high standards and productivity.
When did the productivity drive start to dwindle and fade away?
I can't pinpoint an exact date. We know however, that the NPB died in 1996. Parliament repealed the National Productivity Board Act in April that year. From then onwards, the NPB officially ceased to exist.
Around the same time, whether by coincidence or not, Singapore launched its new key strategy for the nation. It was all about getting skilled manpower from overseas to relocate to Singapore. In that same year, the phrase "foreign talent" entered the national vocabulary for the first time.
Well, you know the story from there. As the years passed, "foreign talent" became a looser and looser term.
"Foreign talent" used to mean highly-skilled professionals from overseas, who possessed expertise and knowledge that was scarce in Singapore - people such as cardiac surgeons and university professors.
Then over time, the term "foreign talent" ballooned and expanded. It began to include nurses; engineers; IT system analysts; chefs; soccer players; bus drivers; bankers; construction foremen; salesgirls; junior executives; middle managers; receptionists; photographers, school teachers. Basically every kind of Tom, Dick and Harry. The floodgates were thrown wide open.
In 2006, PM Lee, when making his National Day rally speech, tacitly abandoned the word "talent". He didn't say "foreign talent" anymore; he merely said "foreigners", when referring to the foreigners working and living in Singapore.
It was both honest, and dishonest, of him. Honest, because he was admitting, in his own way, that not all our foreigners were "talented". Many were decidedly mediocre. This was the inevitable result of our strategy of importing as many foreign Toms, Dicks and Harries as we possibly could.
It was dishonest of PM Lee, because he abandoned the word "talent", without expressly pointing out that he was doing so, and without saying why. It was a verbal sleight of hand. Most people didn't spot it. The policy had morphed, from a small-scale initiative to recruit highly-skilled foreigners, to a huge initiative to recruit any foreigner who would put his hand up. PM Lee wanted to admit, and yet not admit, that the policy had changed.
Anyway, the problem with taking too many low-skilled foreigners is that the national productivity goes plummeting straight down. That has happened in Singapore, it has been discussed a lot recently, so I won't go further into it.
Here's to Teamy, our dear old friend. When all else fails, going back to the basics may just work.