Pitfalls of the Singaporean workforce


I’ve had a conversation with a business director (who isn’t local) and spoke with him about what he thinks about the Singaporean workforce – what are some of the unique things he observed about our manpower. What he surfaced was rather thought-provoking.


Singaporeans work only “by the book”.

And they’re incapable of independent thinking and challenging the management.

And it wasn’t a one off comment from him alone. I’ll be honest and say that I’ve heard this one too many times.

Is our culture making us rule-bound… and afraid of failure?

At a conference I attended last week, a foreign business leader highlighted that the bottom-up approach is difficult to implement because there is no (healthy) challenging of existing protocols. Singaporean employees do not provide suggestions to improve operations because things have been done a certain way since the past, and they prefer to stick to the status quo.

I think Singaporeans are too obsessed with ‘Standard Operating Procedures’, or ‘SOPs’ for short. When there are no protocols for some critical situations; we are slow to react. As long as something occurs that is out of the ordinary and out of our SOPs, we are unable to function. Why? Could it be because we do not want to assume responsibility for any mistakes and have our rice bowls on the table edge?

It all boils down to the business environment and control systems. It is not that Singaporeans cannot think; we only CHOOSE not to go way out of the box to challenge incumbent procedures. What for?

To hear our thoughts, companies need to have an interactive control system, where employee feedback is valued and taken into consideration. Employee empowerment is crucial to a company; do not belittle something as simple as a feedback box.
Look no further than Google and its highly-imitated ‘20% time’ which led to the development of AdSense and Gmail. Although the program is no longer in place, the innovative environment it has created in Silicon Valley remains commendable.

In our local business culture, the notion of ‘saving face’ is something expats have to comprehend. We can show you what we think, but be sure that the business environment allows for that.


Singaporeans treat HR management as a ‘hobby’
Human resource is capital. So why aren’t businesses dedicating more resource and energy into boosting this very important department?
I’ve heard that HR managers hired here usually don’t know much about HR, and they only learn the ropes on the job. Surely more professionals should be put to the job instead?

We do have diplomas and majors for HR management in our education system. However, the supply of the well-equipped is insufficient to fill up the positions available. The positions should have attractive wages to generate interest and highlight the importance of HR management.

Singapore companies have to look into training more qualified HR personnel even after hiring them. They are important touch points to all the other employees. Any mishandling of minor issues may eventually escalate into much bigger problems.

The HR team also helps with the recruitment of new blood that can potentially revitalise the company. The importance of HR should be emphasised in every company.


We’ve lost the art of multi-tasking
In many restaurants around the globe, it takes 1 waiter to serve up to 10 tables of customers… In Singapore, it takes 5 waiters to do the same (sometimes you don’t even get their attention; have you encountered such a situation?) I would say that many other countries are with us on this.

I don’t think the problem lies in our capabilities. We are definitely open to doing more – just that our effort varies according to how much we are paid.

When productivity level runs low, so does the profit margin. This inevitably affects payouts. It is the chicken-egg problem. Employees give out higher pay to incentivise employees to be productive. With greater productivity, employers earn more profits which translate into bigger payouts for employees.

Want us to multi-task? Okay, please reward us for it. Do not be stingy to share more of the pie when profits increase. There is no starting point to the cycle; the ongoing synergy is what would help companies as a whole!


There isn’t much excitement and dedication to our skills

There’s an obsession with getting diplomas and degrees yes, but once in a job an employee loses the dedication to sharpen the skills needed to go deeper and wider. Especially soft skills like communications, people management and speaking well. Once a person gets a job – he thinks “that’s it”, he thinks he’s struck gold and he’s happy to be doing that for the rest of his life.

Then 10 years later, this person brags about having “10 years worth of experience” under his belt. But is this type of experience of any value? It is merely 10 years of doing the same thing, hardly the sort of deep expertise that businesses are looking out to pay more for.

All in all, Singaporeans are very good at what they do technically – but when it comes to becoming true professionals of their field…whatever field this is, it is hard to find a person who’s dynamic enough.







  1. Firstly, having an SOP, or a routine, ensures that one does not have to worry what to do when a problem arises. It will be very problematic if the firefighter does not train in their SOP prior to the event of a fire. Whatever that occurs out of the box in the event itslef will actually be easier to deal with, because you already know how to deal with the main problem.

    The reality is that there are businesses in the private sector that do not invest in setting up routines to speed up their processes. In fact, some employees had to start from scratch, and make their own, which takes a considerable amount of time and effort. But these workers are not commended for their contributions, and their time-saving rountines are taken with them when they leave the company.

    The real problem I see them is actually flexibility. When the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem will appear to be a nail. How well-equipped are the average worker, whether it’s by the school they attended in, or the company they work with?

    Secondly, multitasking is overrated. No matter how good a CPU is, it actually slows down the computer. Have you notice how fast the computer runs when unnecessary background processes are closed? So the real challenge is to streamline the work process, and so they should look for people who are good at streamlining instead.

    Lastly, experience is valuable. Without engineers with experience, you’ll end up with frequently train faults resulting in untold costs to the economy. Again, the issue is not how much experience you have, because experience is valuable. The real problem is whether you have this need to keep learning. Any true artist will tell you, there is no end to learning. You will always find yourself visiting the same places to gain new inspiration and seek out new knowledge.

  2. Hi Mendi,
    Totally agree with your post on 9 June, “Pitfalls of Singaporean Workforce”.

    How oblivious can those expat employers get? Their HR are screening out people like me and obstacle to bringing poeple of such mindset to develop organisational distinctiveness.

    Much appreciate if you get in touch with them and prove them wrong.

    My many achievements listed on Linked-In profile comes mostly from breaking SOPs.

    Thank you,

Share your thoughts!

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.