The Richest Man in MCC

By TAN Kee Wee

(MediaCorp 938LIVE’s Money Talks, Thursday, 17 July 2008, 7.50 am and 7.20 pm)

It’s not just food and fuel prices that are going up. With the additional petrol surcharge from today, taxi fares have also gone up. What this means is that our fixed salaries will buy us less.

What can we do? For a start, we could ask our bosses for higher salaries. If you have such a sympathetic boss, good for you. The funny thing is, if all our bosses are as sympathetic, and raised all our salaries, it may not be a good thing. Let me explain.

In the 1970s, during the last two oil crises, when inflation was also caused by high oil prices, workers in the developed countries demanded, and got higher wages to compensate for their diluted purchasing power.

Or so they thought. Soon after they got higher wages, sellers of goods and services raised prices even further. One fed the other. In the end, workers were no better off. It was like trying to put out a house on fire by pouring petrol on it.

From the experience of the 1970s, the lesson learnt is that one sector of the economy must eventually bear the pain. If, it’s not the business sector, then the burden must fall on consumers and salaried workers, namely, you and I.

To be fair, many businesses have tried not to pass the higher costs to consumers. Presumably, they couldn’t do this for long. In fact, some have come up with novel ways of containing rising costs.

You may have noticed that your prawn noodle soup seller may not be charging you more, but he has been giving you less noodle and prawns for the same price. Supermarkets are doing the same trick. They may not have increased the price of a jar of peanut butter, but the amount of peanut butter in the jar is less than before.

So, what can we poor salaried workers do about it? Actually, we may have been doing something about it already. According to the latest official statistics for the first quarter of this year, Singapore workers got a net salary increase of 3.6%, after adjusting for inflation.

At the same time, workers’ productivity fell 2.8%. If we factor this in, the worker’s net salary increase was not 3.6%, it should be 3.6 plus 2.8, which equals 6.4%.

In other words, the Singapore worker is doing what the seller of a jar of peanut butter is doing. He is giving his employer less work for the same salary.

That may be one cheeky reason why labour productivity fell in the first quarter of the year, and the whole of last year for the matter. Another possible reason may be due to the growing awareness of our health and well being.

About two years’ ago, one of Toyota’s senior car engineers collapsed and died. According to a Japanese labour bureau report on his death, the engineer died from working too many hours.

Apparently, in the two months leading up to his death, he averaged more than 80 hours of overtime per month. Workplace stress is common all over the world. But in Japan, it is an especially serious problem. The Japanese have a term for this “sudden death from overwork” syndrome. They call it “karoshi”. And because of this, nowadays more and more Japanese workers are taking it easy.

In Singapore, there could also be a growing realization that a balanced life is preferable to one bent on chasing after money, car and condo. I call this our national obsession with “M-C-C”, money-car-condo.

This “take-it-easy” attitude may explain why the productivity of Singapore workers has dropped. After all, what’s the point of working so hard if you end up being the richest man in “MCC”, which is short for the “Mandai Crematorium and Columbarium Complex”.