Country Listing

Singapore Table of Contents




Serving up roti canai (Indian pancakes) near Arab Street
Courtesy Ong Tien Kwan

Singaporeans themselves were universally viewed as the nation's best natural resource. In 1989, however, the work force was a shrinking resource (see table 6, Appendix). The high rate of economic growth combined with an increasing number of Singaporeans over the retirement age of fifty-five (nearly 12 percent) and a lower-than-replacement birth rate had resulted in a significant labor shortage. By the end of the century, the labor market was projected to be even tighter. According to the Ministry of Health, the fifteen to twenty-nine age-group would decline 25 percent, from 816,000 in 1985 to 619,000 in the year 2000.

In 1987 and 1988, slightly more than six Singaporeans out of ten were working or looking for work. Men's rate of participation, 79 percent, remained steady. Women, however, responding to job opportunities in the manufacturing and commercial sectors, were increasingly entering the labor market (48 percent in 1988, up from 47 percent in 1987, 40 percent in 1978, and 24.6 percent in 1970). Job-switching was rampant, particularly in manufacturing, where a 1988 survey showed that three out of four new workers quit within the month they were hired. Higher wage and input costs, as well as job-switching, resulted in a decline in the growth of manufacturing productivity (2.4 percent in 1988 compared with 3.7 percent in 1987 and 13.6 in 1986). The labor market, then, was at the center of challenges facing the Singaporean economy. The nature of the concern about the labor market had been almost totally reversed since independence. The early 1960s were a time of labor unrest, and unemployment was still about 10 percent by 1965. By the late 1960s, however, there was substantial industrial peace, which had continued through the 1970s and 1980s. With unemployment at a very manageable 3.3 percent in 1988, the government's attention was focused on other aspects of the labor market.

Data as of December 1989