Commentary: Getting back to the future on productivity

Commentary: Getting back to the future on productivity

While Singapore continues its push towards improving productivity, Channel NewsAsia’s Jaime Ho says fundamental changes in mindset may still be needed to achieve results.

SINGAPORE: Every time I drive into the petrol station to fill up the car, I get reminded why talking about productivity in Singapore can become such a downer.

Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say has asked for a “quantum leap” in productivity growth. At the same time, we talk of building the future economy, one that builds on innovation and positions us to ride the waves of opportunity that will come with technology and the global economy.

Lofty stuff.

Then I'm brought back down to earth at the petrol station. I'm reminded of the challenges that still exist in changing mindsets - and not just within the minds of business owners, but in all of us as consumers as well.

I’ll tell you why I choose to talk about petrol stations, and what lessons they may have.


A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, an innovation landed in Singapore. It was the automatic drive-through car-wash.

Children of a certain generation (me included) would remember the awe which greeted each drive through. First, your parents yelled out to make sure the windows were up. Cue laughter. Then the initial drops of water, gathering into a healthy rinse, then the soapy lather, then the brushes which moved up and down, and laterally, as if almost by magic, then another rinse, the blow-dry, and finally, even the drying down. It was magic; VR for the children of the '70s.

Technology had arrived, and with that innovation, one labour-intensive industry naturally suffered.

These were the human car-washers. The men with pails on their bicycles, each with a car park to call his own. Starting first in the city centre, then moving out to public and private neighbourhoods, it’s been estimated that at one time in the '70s, there might have been some 2,000 such car-washers plying their trade in Singapore. We’ll never know for sure.

But in any case, for various reasons, they have since almost vanished. Some still do it, despite the competition, which came first in the form of the automatic car-wash.


At its peak, the automatic drive-throughs were fixtures at most petrol stations. I would hazard to say it became as much a luxury as a novelty rolled into one with the added bonus of convenience.

Then something happened.

Tastes changed. Demands evolved. People started talking about how car-washes left ugly whirly marks, or worse, scratches on paint jobs. Automation had gone wrong. And so, hand-washing slowly made a come-back.

It was sold almost like hand-make cookies, done with so much more care than an error-prone machine that spits out identical and soul-less cookies.

Bit by bit, driven by motorists demanding a bit more TLC for their cars and paint jobs, real hands became the go-to luxury. Automatic brushes and cloths were out, and car-washes began to be hollowed out. The machines were removed, replaced ironically by what must have been cheaper warm bodies within.

At its peak, any one such hand-washing service could have as many as five people involved in cleaning your car: One to collect your money, one to give you the first pre-rinse, another to spray on the lather, another to power-spray it off, and another one (or even two) to dry your car down.

Manual car wash

(Photo: AFP/Justin Sullivan)

It was car-lover heaven. We had come full circle. We didn’t just have one person giving your car a hand-wash, we had many more.

So what happened? Did we so regress in our productivity? How much of it was driven by consumer demand? How much by some sort of perverse supply-induced demand? Or was it a combination of both?

Perhaps a peek at another part of the petrol station...


I’m almost always greeted extremely politely by the old uncles at the few petrol stations that I use.

“Hello sir!”

“Hello. 95, full tank please.”

A smile, and that’s the extent of our interaction. If he’s there when I leave, then a thank you too. I’ve always wondered about his job though. Do I really need someone to fill my tank? I’ve done it a hundred times before, and I’d say sometimes, there’s even something therapeutic about it. Even fun, as I try to get the last drop in to make the final sum a nice round number - like S$80.00. It’s just me, I know. But there is a more serious point to this.

First, I am in no way suggesting that we make the poor uncle redundant, but the fact that the job exists demands some introspection. The act of filling one’s tank is so self-evidently simple, it must raise the question why you need someone to do it for you. And whether when that job is provided to serve that purpose, it best serves the interests of the person doing it for you.

Put it simply: Could the uncle be better deployed, and ultimately, better paid, for a more productive and value-adding job?

Am I also not more productive myself, if I filled up my own tank?

And then it hit me. I know why the uncle is there. The job of filling your tank could be secondary. His main purpose? To get you into the petrol station convenience store.


So we head into the store.

We have three minutes to kill. What do we do? Buy some over-priced soft drinks. Realise that maybe we do need some bread. And oh yes, that latest copy of the magazine I don’t really need. And after everything, we give thanks for how convenient things have become.

In just one location, the petrol station, every need has been met - from a hand-wash, to someone filling your tank for you, and ultimately, to being able to pick up your snacks.

Which is all well and good. Until we ask the question of the manpower that has gone into the process of providing this, and what this all means for productivity. To meet our unquenchable thirst for convenience, the petrol station has now become a heaving hub of manpower: The cashiers, the managers, the stockists, the uncles filling your tanks, the men cleaning your car, and perhaps the odd one or two even giving it a vacuum. Do we need all this?

I, for one, long for the day when petrol stations become entirely self-service.

It’s eminently possible.

From pumping to payment, it’s self-service in many other places. Really need an urgent soft drink or mint? Vending machines.

The car-wash? We have two options: First, bring back the automatic car-washes. And don’t tell me that technology has not improved that we can’t meet the needs of car-owners who want a scratch-free experience. Second, we can do it ourselves. Here, I’m glad to see that self-service power-jet washes and vacuuming are making a quiet entry in estates around Singapore. Let’s see more of them.

In the meantime, as we all look towards improving productivity, small steps can be taken everywhere, in getting back to the future.

I use the petrol station only as an example.

The fact is that we are in an untenable position of still having labour-intensive industries and sectors out there - for example, in retail and F&B - whose complaints are always of manpower shortages.

Consumers have a major role to play in reviewing our own consumption patterns. We can’t have our cake and eat it, in wanting these labour-intensive conveniences, yet decrying low productivity and low wages. Demand ultimately changes supply patterns.

And there’s no reason why we can’t do it.

Jaime Ho is the Chief Editor of Digital News at Channel NewsAsia.

Source: CNA/db