Sunday, 25 January 2015

Victor Mills: More Singaporeans feel that they are owed a living

From "overfussiness" and complacency to an inability to accept criticism, many things about Singaporeans' attitudes to work irk Mr Victor Mills. The Northern Ireland-born Singapore citizen, 55, who took over as chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) last June, speaks his mind to Walter Sim.
The Straits Times, 24 Jan 2015

What was your first impression of Singapore when you arrived 30 years ago?

When I graduated (with a master's in East European Political Science from the University of London), it was during a major recession and there were no jobs.

So I joined an international bank and was first posted to Hong Kong, and then Singapore in 1985.

What really impressed me about Singapore was that it preached good race relations - and actually had them.

This was different when compared to Northern Ireland (which had a lot of political violence at the time due to the Protestant and Catholic conflict) and it was the first thing that struck me about Singapore.

What also struck me, which we have since lost, is that Singapore was much more egalitarian and relaxed back then.

People didn't wear suits. They certainly didn't wear ties - even the Government or businessmen. Anybody could talk to anybody.

How have things changed?

We're now going through a period I saw in Hong Kong in the 1980s.

The level of materialism - what you wear, where you live, what you drive, what you wear on your wrist - has become a key determinant of the value of human life. This is absolute nonsense.

But it's the unintended consequence of the fantastic economic success which we have enjoyed. In our headlong rush for more money, a lot of values seem to have been lost.

The ability to communicate with anybody else is less evident, and people now, generally, want to interact only with people of their own perceived social group.

So we're now a more stratified and polarised society, which is why you hear people longing for the return of the kampung spirit.

What impact does Singapore's success have on workplace attitudes?

There are lots and lots of people - more than before - who feel that life, their employer and the Government owe them a living.

This has manifest itself in an overfussiness or a sense of entitlement which businesses, whether large or small, foreign or local, have been telling me about.

They all say the same thing. The problem may vary in degrees in different sectors, but it exists across all sectors.

But please don't get me wrong. There are hundreds of thousands of my fellow citizens who do a fabulous job, day in and day out.

It takes two to tango, and progress

Government-people relations are key to Singapore's future success. The Government has to handle complex issues, and also understand what citizens consider critical to their lives in those issues.
By David Chan, Published The Straits Times, 24 Jan 2015

AS SINGAPORE gets busy with its Golden Jubilee celebrations, more people are asking questions about the future of the country.

Some questions reflect optimism, aspirations and confidence. Others reflect pessimism, anxieties and angst.

Together, the general question appears to be whether Singapore will progress or regress as a society. The realistic answer has to be "It depends".

Many factors affect Singapore's future. One factor that deserves more attention is the relationship between the people and the government of the day.

Breach in trust

SINGAPORE not only survived but also succeeded in many ways for 50 years. This is partly because the Government and the people worked well together. After all, it takes two to tango.

But the people-government cooperation was not a once-off coordinated dance. Over time, it evolved into a social compact.

An important part of this compact is what behavioural scientists call the psychological contract.

This contract is developed when both parties have formed mutual beliefs and perceptions about each other, and these are then translated into informal obligations and expectations.

The psychological contract is breached when there are unmet expectations. An example is when the people believe that the government has failed to deliver what they perceive was promised.

Research has shown that breaches of the psychological contract by either party lead to disappointment and distrust.

When breaches persist, they breed cynicism, confirmatory bias, counter-productive behaviours and other negative consequences. These can culminate in a decision by one or both parties to dismiss, destroy or discontinue the relationship, as when employees resign, or when voters vote out a government.

Some commentators have written about a trust erosion, even trust crisis, in Singapore. I would characterise the situation differently, as one of "trust-in-transition", rather than a decline in trust.

Chan Chun Sing joins labour movement

PM to announce Cabinet changes after Budget session in March
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 24 Jan 2015

CABINET minister Chan Chun Sing has joined the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), in what is seen as a precursor to him taking over as labour chief.

Mr Chan, 45, Minister for Social and Family Development, will be with NTUC part-time with immediate effect and will be there full-time from April 1, the Prime Minister and labour movement announced yesterday.

He will be appointed NTUC's deputy secretary-general next week, and is slated to run for union elections later this year, moves that signal the start of a leadership transition process in the labour movement.

These make him the likeliest candidate to succeed current labour chief Lim Swee Say.

Mr Lim turns 62 in July next year and will not be able to serve beyond then due to an NTUC rule to encourage leadership renewal.

Mr Chan's surprise move was announced to about 150 union leaders at NTUC Centre yesterday. At the briefing, Mr Lim said that Mr Chan joining the NTUC will beef up its leadership ranks.

Responding, Mr Chan said that he was "humbled" that union leaders welcomed him.

"The priority is to get to know the unions and the people," he told reporters after the briefing.

He added that he will leave the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) "with a tinge of sadness" in a few months' time, but added that he is confident the ministry "will be in good hands".

Focus on welfare, not wages, of foreign workers

Amid the debate in the Forum pages on foreign worker levies and the passage of a new law to license operators of large dormitories for foreign workers, this writer explains why a minimum wage or bidding system for work permits will not work.
By Donald Low, Published The Straits Times, 23 Jan 2015

IN HIS second IPS-Nathan Lecture last November, Mr Ho Kwon Ping suggested channelling the levies that employers pay for the foreign workers they hire into a savings fund, akin to the Central Provident Fund for Singaporeans. These savings would be given to the foreign workers when they leave Singapore.

In response, National University of Singapore economist Ivan Png pointed out that such a scheme, although well-intentioned, is unlikely to help foreign workers much.

He noted that foreign workers already pay, on average, more than $7,000 to work in Singapore. This price mechanism has evolved to allocate the limited number of foreign worker permits. The fees are neither set nor approved by the Ministry of Manpower; they are simply the result of the market responding to a situation where foreign workers' demand for jobs here greatly exceeds the supply of such jobs.

Creating a savings fund would simply increase the demand, raising the fees that foreign workers pay to secure work in Singapore and negating the income increase that the proposed fund would give them.

The likely beneficiaries of the proposed fund would be the middlemen, agents and employers (who respond by cutting wages) - all of whom have more bargaining power than the workers.

The economics of foreign worker policies can often be quite counter-intuitive.

For instance, many of us assume that paying foreign workers lower wages benefits low-skilled Singaporeans. But this is flawed reasoning: If Singaporean workers are paid more than foreign workers doing the same job, why would employers want to hire them?

The foreign worker levy therefore exists to narrow the wage differential between foreign and local workers. But this assumption is also questionable. Since foreign workers have much less bargaining power than employers, the levy is passed on to them in the form of lower wages. This reduces the employer's incentive to hire (more expensive) Singaporean workers or to invest in labour-saving machinery.

Can anything be done?

More renting out entire HDB flats as resale market cools

By Yeo Sam Jo, The Straits Times, 24 Jan 2015

MORE people are renting out their entire Housing Board flats amid a cooling resale market, with many upgrading to private housing.

The number of subletting approvals last year jumped by about a fifth, from 30,074 in 2013 to an all-time high of 36,228 last year, HDB data released yesterday shows.

In the last quarter alone, 10,365 approvals were granted.

There were also 48,120 fully sublet units at the end of last year - a 5.4 per cent increase from the 45,674 units at the end of 2013.

An HDB spokesman told The Straits Times that flat owners' "desire to monetise their flats" and "availability of alternative accommodation" are among factors influencing the rise in subletting approvals.

Property agents and analysts say many flat owners upgrading to private homes are unwilling to sell off their HDB units, partly for investment reasons.

"They are keen to keep a second property for investment," said OrangeTee's director of research Christine Li. "They know that once they let go, they cannot buy back another one."

She was referring to rules introduced in 2010 which do not allow private home owners to buy an HDB flat unless they dispose of their existing private properties.

"This makes sense from an investment angle," said ERA Realty's key executive officer Eugene Lim, noting that the rate of returns for leasing HDB flats is "very attractive" compared to that of condominiums, due to their relatively lower purchase price.

JTC, SPRING plan more launch pads to nurture start-ups

By Tan Weizhen, TODAY, 24 Jan 2015

With the growth in the start-up scene in Singapore gathering rapid momentum, the Government is planning more hotbeds to nurture these entrepreneurs: As the Republic’s mini-version of Silicon Valley — dubbed JTC LaunchPad @ one-north — was officially opened yesterday, a second start-up community is already in the works.

A project by JTC Corp (JTC) and SPRING Singapore, JTC LaunchPad @ one-north provides start-ups less than five years old with a supportive environment, such as more affordable office rentals, networking spaces and opportunities as well as mentorship from incubators located in the same area. Comprising three blocks at Ayer Rajah Crescent, 71, 73 and 79, and another three to be built over 2016 and 2017, the entire 5ha development can house 750 start-ups when completed.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who officiated the opening yesterday, said: “Our part, as the Government, is to try to make your role, your functions, starting up businesses, easier and more hassle-free. For example, not having to run around looking for space to rent, to find mentors or access to financing, so that you can concentrate on building the best product and service and getting your little start-up past that first stage.”

“And so, the Government will have this conducive environment and create the right legal framework, the proper IP (intellectual protection), connect you with the people who can help you, bring you together in a nice environment like this where you can … spark off a new idea,” he added.

SAF announces golden jubilee celebrations

Festivities to mark SAF's golden jubilee
Exhibition, book launch among events to celebrate its journey with S'pore
By Jermyn Chow, Defence Correspondent, The Straits Times, 23 Jan 2015

THE Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is pitching in to celebrate the nation's 50th birthday by launching year-long festivities to commemorate its own golden jubilee.

These include a public exhibition and SAF50 book launch, as well as an open house at the Istana. The events aim to celebrate the SAF's identity and heritage, since it was formed on Aug 9, 1965.

Anchored on the theme, "Our SAF: Giving Strength to our Nation", they are also aimed at paying tribute to servicemen past and present, as well as the public, who have supported the SAF.

Colonel Roland Ng, who is co-organising the SAF's birthday bash, said that while many government agencies, firms and community groups are already doing something to mark Aug 9, very few can "claim that they started the journey together with Singapore".

Col Ng, the director of the Defence Ministry's Total Defence and National Education department Nexus, added: "So every step of the way, the SAF has been with Singapore."

The SAF celebrations kick off on Feb 12, with the SAF50@Vivo exhibition to be held at VivoCity mall.

The four-day show, which will be opened by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, will showcase military equipment from the army, navy and air force.

Singapore tops global liveability index, again

By Rachael Boon, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2015

Singapore remains the most liveable location in Asia and the world, according to the latest data released on Jan 22 by human resources firm ECA International, which publishes location ratings for expatriate living conditions annually.

Perennial rival Hong Kong has fallen to 33rd place from 17th in the global ranking.

"Good air quality, solid infrastructure, decent medical facilities, low crime and health risks have contributed to Singapore maintaining its position at the top of the global ranking for quality of living for Asian assignees," said Mr Lee Quane, ECA's regional director in Asia.

He added that as Singapore constantly tops the charts, the country looks attractive for firms hoping to set up in the region.

This comes at a time when conditions in Hong Kong have been unstable.

ECA looks at the overall quality of living in more than 450 locations worldwide, which helps companies measure employees' allowances or compensation when going on international assignment.


Shanmugam: ‘Clear Markers for Free Speech in Singapore’

'No' to racial and religious agitation: Shanmugam
By Rachel Chang Assistant Political Editor

THE Singapore Government draws clear boundaries around freedom of speech, and that is the approach most of the country's population wants, Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in a panel discussion broadcast online this week.

Defending Singapore's strict laws prohibiting racial and religious agitation - which would have outlawed the publication of cartoons of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo - he said: "You can't run ahead of what our society wants."

"These are not laws, conventions and mores that the Government or the people in power can do anything about. It's got to be what the society is comfortable with," Mr Shanmugam added.

Staff at the French magazine were murdered by terrorists in Paris earlier this month in an incident that shocked the world and sparked debate on the limits to freedom of speech.

The panel discussion, organised by new socio-political website Inconvenient Questions, featured Mr Shanmugam, Nanyang Technological University sociology professor Kwok Kian-Woon and cultural and humanities lecturer Nazry Bahrawi. It was moderated by former Nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan, who founded the site.

Mr Shanmugam noted that every country draws its own boundaries on the extent of free speech, citing how denying the Holocaust is a crime in France. "We all agree across the world... that the attacks were completely unacceptable," he said. "But that does not make what Charlie Hebdo did right. A lot of commentators have come forward and said, How can you gratuitously insult religion?"

He noted that Charlie Hebdo is well-known for being offensive to Christians, and its illustrations would be unacceptable in many places as well.

A lesson in moderation from Germany

By Andrew Sia, Published The Straits Times, 23 Jan 2015

WHENEVER some NGO protests that Muslims in Malaysia are "under threat" from minorities who don't hold the levers of power in this country (the latest one being that K-pop is a "Kristian" conspiracy to undermine Islam), one wonders what the "silent majority" can do.

To answer that, perhaps we can look at what's happening in Germany.

For the past three months, a group there called Pegida (the German acronym for "Patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the West") has had weekly demonstrations against an alleged "Muslim threat" from radicals and refugees. From an initial few hundred protesters, the numbers grew to 25,000 two weeks ago, after the Charlie Hebdo killings.

But... what is amazing is that an estimated 100,000 people throughout Germany staged counter-protests against Pegida. Some of them held brooms in a symbolic gesture to "sweep away" racism and intolerance.

In response to earlier protests, the lights at Cologne's landmark cathedral were switched off as a Pegida rally was due to pass by, as a sign of religious disapproval. And the city's Archbishop Rainer Maria Woelki called on Germans to show compassion, rather than prejudice, towards Muslim refugees.

Similarly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged people, in her New Year speech, not to follow Pegida "for their hearts are cold and often full of prejudice, and even hate".

Last week, at a rally organised by the Central Council of Muslims in Germany at Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate, the Chancellor joined in and said: "Hatred, racism and extremism have no place in this country... Islam belongs to Germany."

German President Joachim Gauck, a former pastor, added during the rally that "Germany has become more diverse through immigration - religiously, culturally and mentally. This diversity has made our country successful, interesting and likeable."

How could such amazingly moderate and multicultural political statements come from a country which, just 70 years ago, was following a Nazi ideology based on German racial supremacy?