Sunday, 15 August 2021

3 challenges for Singapore to tackle: Low Wages, Foreigners and Race & Religion

COVID-19 has strained fault lines in society and brought up difficult issues Singapore needs to deal with, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day message on Sunday. Insight looks at the three issues he cited: lifting the lot of lower-wage workers, addressing anxieties over foreigners, and managing concerns on race and religion.

What more can be done to help lower-wage workers
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 14 Aug 2021

Every day, Madam Foo Saifang takes the bus from her home in Pandan Gardens to the nearby Pandan Loop industrial estate, where she works as a part-time office cleaner.

She is hired on contracts for service, which do not come with statutory benefits such as annual leave.

Her salary a few years ago was around $600 to $1,000 a month. Today, she draws just under $2,000, depending on the number of jobs she takes up.

When asked if she has thought of looking for higher-paying work, the 63-year-old says no.

Her workplace is near where she lives, and she does not spend much on herself, she says. "As long as I can feed and take care of the stray cats in my neighbourhood with the little extra I have, it's ok."

Are there any job-related improvements she would like to see?

More Central Provident Fund savings and some hongbao during Chinese New Year, she says. "Today, we don't get even get $10 in hongbao from the company."

Covid-19 has cast a spotlight on the stresses faced by lower-wage workers like Madam Foo, many of whom have little by way of savings and who struggle if they have to cope with a pay cut or job loss.

Recent years have seen much attention paid to helping lower-wage workers move up the skills, and consequently wage, ladder.

But what more can be done?

What was said

Lower-wage workers have felt the impact of Covid-19 most acutely, finding it harder to cope with reduced incomes and unexpected job losses. In the short term, they have been given more help amid the crisis.

An essential part of inclusive growth is real progress for lower-wage workers, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. And as Singapore becomes an increasingly skills-based economy in the longer term, lower-wage workers will need more sustained support so that they and their children have a chance to move ahead.

A Tripartite Workgroup for Lower-Wage Workers has also been working on proposals to uplift their lives and prospects.

What can be done

Three different wage-based policies for low-income workers have been floated.

The first is the Progressive Wage Model, or PWM, which is currently implemented in the cleaning, security, and landscape sectors.

Local escalator and lift maintenance workers will also be covered under the PWM from next year, and workers in waste management will also come under the scheme next.

The second was mooted by Monetary Authority of Singapore managing director Ravi Menon at a recent lecture. He suggested using the Local Qualifying Salary (LQS) as the de facto minimum wage. The LQS, currently at least $1,400 a month, is the minimum that must be paid to resident workers so that they count towards the firm's total workforce when determining how many foreign Work Permit and S Pass holders it is allowed to hire.

The third approach is an economy-wide minimum wage, which members of the opposition have called for but is something which has not been taken up.

Last month, Senior Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad said the tripartite work group looking into lower-wage workers' issues is considering all possibilities.

He added that it is important to consider if initiatives to help lower-wage workers are sustainable in the long term, or whether they will instead lead to the workers getting displaced.

Singapore Management University associate law professor Eugene Tan says the PWM is sustainable, because it is predicated on skills acquisition and training to achieve higher productivity and pay.

But there is room to further calibrate the minimum salary, given that Singapore's workforce is increasingly better educated and skilled. There should be attempts to "strike some equivalence" with S Pass salaries, says Prof Tan, a former Nominated MP.

The key question is how best to protect the interests of the lowest-paid workers - given that many of them are not only paid poorly, but also occupy marginal jobs characterised by minimal employment benefits, irregular work, and limited opportunities for career or skills progression.

Singapore University of Social Sciences associate professor of economics Walter Theseira, a former Nominated MP, says that by design, neither the PWM nor the LQS fully cover this group.

"By covering defined sectors with employers who are licensed - PWM - or who qualify for dependency ratio ceilings, these are larger employers who tend to be paying more and offering better benefits anyway," he said.

The argument that wage gains in low-wage industries can only be sustained from productivity gains, is also too simplistic, he argues. In reality, some wage gains do spill over from high-productivity industries.

How then can the authorities help harder-to-reach lower-wage workers?

Boosting wages in sectors covered by the PWM and LQS will have a trickle-down effect on wages and conditions for workers who are not covered. This is because they essentially tap the same market of workers.

But there is a lack of peer-reviewed academic research on this indirect effect, and even if it exists, the sense in some quarters is that it is not taking place fast enough.

On balance, working through the PWM and LQS may still be preferable to a blanket minimum wage, as it allows market forces to operate better, explains Prof Theseira.

First, it forces employers to compete to raise wages, or risk losing workers to sectors with LQS or PWM.

Second, it gives flexibility for some firms to continue paying lower wages, if their workers are willing to draw a below-PWM salary in exchange for a shorter commute to and from work.

This, however, assumes that workers know their rights, and have enough information about the available job opportunities in the market.

If all goes according to supply and demand, a worker is able to change jobs easily. But under the PWM, he would stay within the same sector or employer, and scale the skills and wage ladder there.

The issue of whether to apply a minimum wage or PWM continues to be debated in and out of Parliament, and may seem to be polarised even though both approaches have pros and cons. Several ministers have in fact characterised the PWM as a 'minimum wage plus'.

At the same time, the future of lower-wage jobs cannot be divorced from the larger issue of class and social structures. Some Singaporeans believe educational levels, job titles, and pay determine social status and whether one is deserving.

An example Prof Theseira cites is home repair and electrical work. Do people value quality and professional standards enough to pay for it? Or do they prefer to go for the cheapest alternative, which is typically an unlicensed foreign worker?

So long as society remains wedded to the idea that only white collar work merits recognition, there will be a permanent class of low-income workers, as well as a need to import foreign labour to do jobs that Singaporeans find to be beneath them, says SMU's Prof Tan.

"In such a scenario, no minimum wage or even PWM will enable us to keep the number of low-income workers to the barest minimum possible," he added.

Addressing local workers' anxieties over foreigners, while staying open
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 14 Aug 2021

What was said

Turning inwards is against Singapore's fundamental interests, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The country needs to complement its local workforce with talent from around the world. Only then can more firms invest here and create more jobs for Singaporeans.

Naturally, citizens become worried about competition for jobs when the number of work pass holders is large. They may feel unfairly treated when they miss out on being hired or promoted.

The Government is addressing these anxieties, and has to adjust its policies to manage the quality, numbers and concentrations of foreigners here.

What can be done

Legislators have called for better protection for gig economy, lower-wage and mature workers, and stressed the need to strengthen the Singaporean core.

Some of the key moves made recently to ensure Singaporeans get a fair chance at jobs include tightening S Pass and Employment Pass salary requirements, and higher EP salary requirements in the financial services sector - where complaints have recently been more pronounced.

The S Pass dependency ratio ceiling (DRC) in manufacturing will already be reduced in two steps in 2022 and 2023. The DRC was also lowered to reduce the reliance of companies on work permit and S Pass holders in the service sector.

While it has always been government policy to scrutinise employers for discriminatory practices when evaluating their EP and S Pass applications, labour MP and NTUC assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay says MOM is giving such considerations additional emphasis now, given the economic uncertainty.

Last month, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng announced the formation of a tripartite committee comprising representatives from the unions, employers and human resources community to review the framework for workplace fairness in Singapore.

Mr Tay, who is on the committee, calls for the authorities to continue to enhance fair hiring practices, and level the playing field for local PMETs - professionals, managers, as well as those in executive and technical jobs.

This means improving human resources standards and practices, and ensuring companies have enough knowledge of employment legislation and regulations. It also means strengthening enforcement when businesses fall foul of the law, and imposing stiffer penalties for errant companies - a move that requires more resources in order to put in place better investigation and reporting processes.

"Besides revealing or publishing the 'triple weak' watchlist which MOM and Tafep maintain, MOM should review the existing legal and policy framework and give Tafep more teeth through legislating expanded powers of investigation, enforcement, and punishment against companies, employers and even individuals who discriminate in an employment context," adds Mr Tay.

Separately, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) assistant professor Laavanya Kathiravelu says more can be done to encourage skills transfers within organisations and industries, such as incentive schemes rewarding companies which demonstrate investments in training Singaporeans for senior and core roles.

Can the EP review process move beyond looking at the individual applicant's educational qualifications and salary?

Yes, says Mr Tay, if it takes the form of a points system that takes into account three areas: Support from a sectoral tripartite expert committee, whether the employer has been investing in hiring and developing local workers, and diversity of nationalities. This points system can then be used to evaluate and approve EP applications.

Prof Kathiravelu agrees that this could be a more nuanced solution. This is because points are awarded based on the needs of certain sectors, rather than relying on generalisations such as income levels in order to grant EPs.

"In this way, even though a foreign applicant may not meet minimum salary thresholds, if they fill a demonstrated gap in a sector, they could be granted a pass to work in Singapore," she says. This would also discourage salary inflation by employers who want to employ certain foreigners with niche skills for roles where there are no suitable local candidates.

It would, however, have to be a highly dynamic points system that accurately reflects the changing needs of Singapore's economy and society. The move to shore up the Singaporean core must also be seen against the larger effort to remake the economy post-pandemic, and create opportunities in growth sectors.

A slew of skills-related initiatives - from mid-career pathway programmes to enhanced training support packages for firms - have been rolled out. Can they groom locals to bridge critical skills gaps in areas such as digital technology, advanced manufacturing and cutting-edge research?

The Emerging Stronger Taskforce has also got companies to partner with entrepreneurs and agencies to form industry coalitions that can act on key growth areas and seize opportunities.

Political observer Felix Tan from NTU says there are certain fields that the local workforce may lack skills in. Neither do all jobs appeal to locals.

Therefore, Singapore has to balance the needs of its people while attracting multinational companies to base themselves here.

"There can be categories, which can be changed and updated in the future, where there is a severe lack of particular skills amongst Singaporeans and the only way forward is to open the application process globally," he said. "There is a need for clarity on these job scopes."

Strengthening efforts to maintain harmony for a new generation
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 14 Aug 2021


Recent racist incidents illustrate how issues of race and religion can easily divide society. It is helpful to air and acknowledge issues of race and religion in a candid and respectful manner.

It took several generations of sustained effort for Singapore to bring the different races and religions together. The resulting social harmony was the fruit of mutual understanding and compromise by the majority as well as the minorities. The country has to continually adjust this delicate balance to maintain harmony as society evolves.

The Government has a duty to manage issues of race and religion on behalf of Singaporeans, but requires their support and trust.


Racist incidents have come to the fore in recent months. Longstanding policies, such as the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) and CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) model of ethnic classification, have also come under public scrutiny.

Others note that Special Assistance Plan schools place a heavy emphasis on Chinese language and culture, and their students have fewer chances to mix with peers of other races.

The Government has explained that the EIP ensures neighbourhoods remain diverse. It is also looking at measures to ensure that public housing estates stay inclusive over time, more so those in prime locations - such as the Greater Southern Waterfront area.

Earlier this month, Second Minister for National Development Indranee Rajah said Singapore has not yet become a post-racial or race-neutral society.

Today, nearly one in every three Housing Board blocks has reached at least one of the EIP limits, and this is seen across all ethnic groups in mature and younger estates, she said. "What this tells us is that integration is still a work in progress, although we have done well so far."

Mr Leonard Sim, general secretary of advocacy group hash.peace, says it is important to keep an open mind on policy frameworks and approaches such as the CMIO model as the country is much more diverse now than during its early years of independence.

"We should gear towards a more open understanding of what 'Singapore' and 'Singaporean' mean," he says.

Ms Nazhath Faheema, founder and president of hash.peace, says deeper conversations among different communities can take place in neighbourhood estates, and it is the depth and strength of such relations that can make or break social harmony. "I am more inclined to say that systems like EIP may benefit our racial harmony. However, we must evaluate its efficacy... and pay more attention to the grievances of minorities in the purchase and sale of their flats," she says.

Another issue is casual discrimination. Microaggressions can take place daily and often go unreported, as they may not be serious enough cases of harassment. It is hard for the Government to constantly establish new laws or set standards for such incidents; moreover, everyone's threshold is different, says Mr Sim.

This is where civil society can play a part in partnership with the Government - hash.peace, for example, aims to start a care group for those who need an outlet to speak and be heard.

A key risk lies in social media, which has allowed people to speak more freely but not necessarily more responsibly. It also amplifies issues to do with race that crop up, giving them wider publicity.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in his National Day message: "Many more happy inter-racial interactions happen every day, but these seldom go viral."

Mr Sim says it is important to keep an open heart and mind during conversations. He adds: "A person might not be able to communicate their thoughts sensitively, but it does not mean that they have ill intentions or are intentional in their dismissal of others.

"We should also not be hypocritical in our actions, where we speak of education, and learning from each other's experiences and mistakes, yet deny someone (the chance to learn) how to be better just because they made a mistake."

Indeed, the need for better understanding and accommodation, as well as openness to the diversity of views on issues of race and religion, was a key takeaway from several recent forums on the topic, organised separately by The Straits Times and its sister publications.

At a forum on race relations organised by feedback unit REACH and Lianhe Zaobao on July 24, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam noted that antagonism and extremism have crept into discussions on race here, and warned against this tit-for-tat approach.

Expressing sadness at the antagonistic tone of some of the participants' questions, he added: "Have a care in making these points, because it may come across as pushing very hard. And when the Chinese community pushes hard, it's a scary thing for the minorities."

Ms Faheema says having candid and productive talks involves recognising the cumulative effect of direct or indirect racial stereotyping, bias, prejudice and discrimination, especially among minorities. "We have to recognise, acknowledge and identify the truth in this. You do this by asking them what they feel and listening to them."

Policymakers and community and business leaders must do better to reduce people's negative experiences in multiracial and multi-religious settings, she says. "Do compromises (over identities, beliefs or cultures) cause unhappiness that may grow as grievances over time? How can such negativity be handled?"

Answering these questions requires close observation of micro-level settings such as schools, workplaces and neighbourhoods, she says. An example is whether some workplaces have more decorations for Christmas and Chinese New Year than for Hari Raya and Deepavali.

"If so, perhaps we can do more to increase visibility of the festivals celebrated by the minority communities," says Ms Faheema.

"The key performance indicator ought to be the depth and width of knowledge about the different identities we live with."

Time for a new social compact on race
No longer members of a fledgling nation, Singaporeans should be engaged in a national conversation on how they want to forge a national identity comprised of diverse races and cultures
By Mohammad Alami Musa, Published The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2021

The dust from a series of disturbing race-related incidents may have settled but it does not mean that occurrences of racial disharmony will not show up again.

Issues that concern race will always persist but what matters is how quick Singaporeans' reflexes in responding to them are and how the impetus generated is harnessed to further strengthen or renew the social compact on race, given the significant public impact of such incidents.

There have been three kinds of responses to the recent incidents. First, the instinctive reactions, especially in social media postings, to call out racist behaviour; second, reminiscences of the good old "kampong days" to remind Singaporeans that the communal way of living in the past had coalesced them emotionally as one big family; and third, public discourses that seek to make sense of these social disruptions to peaceful race relations, as well as to find a way forward in dealing with the complexities of living in a multiracial society.

Not a racist country

First, the reactions. These had been generally laudable because Singaporeans firmly rejected untoward behaviour towards the racial other. Nevertheless, upon scrutiny, there seemed to be a lack of care in many of these responses.

In dealing with social phenomena, the carelessness lies in generalising from particular occurrences. While it is acknowledged that the reported incidents are racist, one must not generalise that racism exists at the macro level.

Certainly, there are individuals and groups of people who are racist. But to extrapolate from these occurrences of racism and conclude that Singapore is a racist country is erroneous. Such a conclusion is dangerous because if it is repeated and circulated widely, it may be etched as reality in people's minds. Singaporeans then might begin to believe that they live in a racist country. If this happens, then the effect is like igniting a slow-acting "detonator" for the gradual but certain destruction of Singapore.

Racism is a strong, value-laden term. In the book Ethnicity, edited by historian John Hutchinson and sociologist Anthony D. Smith, racism is defined as hard cultural cleavages formed to exclude and dehumanise minorities on the basis of colour, culture and physical stereotypes.

It entails discriminatory behaviour based on inherited physical appearance, and it builds on the assumption that personality is linked with such characteristics.

Associating Singapore with racism has very serious implications on its identity - how Singaporeans want to see themselves and how they want the world to see them.

While one cannot deny the existence of stereotyping of minorities, of the prejudices and discrimination against them, one needs to be circumspect about carelessly identifying Singapore as a racist country.

Singapore is not America, with its history of black slavery that lasted more than 200 years, followed by decades of white supremacist dominance over black people. Singapore is not South Africa, where black people were subjected to apartheid rule by white people for nearly 50 years. These were the historical conditions within which racism against black people emerged in the United States and South Africa. The genesis of white privilege in America is associated with racism.

In Singapore's history, no minority community was enslaved or subjected to dehumanising segregationist policies. It therefore does not make sense to say that macro-level or large-scale racism exists here.

It is, however, undeniable that micro-level racism does exist, among individuals or isolated groups. Without large-scale or macro racism, however, it is not reasonable to claim that Chinese privilege exists in Singapore.

Furthermore, one must be mindful that Chinese privilege is not synonymous with acts of stereotyping of minorities, prejudicial behaviour or discrimination against minorities. These can exist even in the absence of Chinese privilege.

Defining who we are

The second response to racist incidents is to evoke past memories of racial harmony. It is always pleasing to hear old stories of racial co-existence and they also serve as valuable material for educating the population.

When the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor disaster happened in 2011, it was the Japanese reliance on narrating stories enriched with age-old wisdom that helped the people face the tragedy, as such reminiscences reminded them of the importance of togetherness, cooperation and resilience.

In the same spirit, the experiences of the bygone kampong days are relevant as reminders that racial harmony has always been part of the Singapore way of life. Such stories of lived experiences, accounts of tragic race-related historical events, such as the 1964 riots, and narratives depicting people living in multiracial harmony have often been cited by political leaders since the post-independence years to help shape the Singaporean identity.

According to sociologist Chua Beng Huat, this is "discursive identity", or identity defined by discourses of political leadership. It has enabled the multiracial population to feel that they share a common destiny and interests.

This sense of discursive identity and the accompanying social norms were instrumental in uniting racially diverse Singaporeans over the first 50 years of the country's modern history. However, the recent incidents raise the question of whether this discursive identity is resilient enough to protect interracial harmony when more serious problems of race arise in the future.

It is a matter that requires further work and is best done by Singaporeans themselves, rather than relying on the top-down approach in defining the Singapore identity in the country's early, formative years.

Towards a new social compact

After more than 50 years of nationhood, it is time for Singapore to relook its social compact on how race should feature in one's identity and national life.

Among the questions raised recently are:

• Whether the CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) model of ethnic classification should be done away with and, if so, what the alternative would be.

• How certain policies need to be reviewed in the light of their adverse effects on minority races even if they were designed with other broader goals in mind. The examples often cited include the Special Assistance Plan schools which place a heavy emphasis on Chinese language and culture; the Ethnic Integration Policy in public housing; and policies and practices in national service and security matters.

• Who determines the dominant sociopolitical culture, without which a country cannot exist. The answer to that lies in who forms the dominant group in society. Sociologically, the dominant group here consists of two segments - the majority community, which is large in size and possesses power, and elite groups, which may be small in size and include minority communities.

In the context of Singapore, those who are key in crafting the dominant culture must take care to be inclusive and heed the views of all the constituent communities. The majority community and the elites from the minorities should also endeavour to think collectively beyond racial lines and act in the common interests of all Singaporeans. Whatever the changing circumstances, the adjustments to be made to the dominant culture must always be anchored in the core principle of multiculturalism.

• Whether there is a need to introduce intercultural education so that Singaporeans consciously embrace multiracial living that goes beyond simple co-existence to one that is enriched by deeper and positive interactions among the different racial groups, leading to a better understanding and appreciation of racial diversity. This enhanced form of multiracial living can build the social capital needed to fend off disruptions to racial harmony.

In its initial phase of nation building, Singapore has done well in race relations. In the next phase, Singapore needs to renew its social compact on race so that its divisive forces can be reined in.

With Singapore no longer a fledgling nation, the approach this time should be from the ground up so that more voices are heard on the diverse issues on race relations and how we go forward as a nation. It is time for the state to initiate and facilitate a national conversation on race.

Mohammad Alami Musa is head of the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

*  Not possible to 'bubble wrap' Singaporeans from foreign competition, especially with rise of remote work: DPM Heng Swee Keat at the NUS115 Distinguished Speaker Series
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2021

In the coming years, millions of university graduates in Asia alone will be added to the global talent pool, alongside the accelerating pace of technological change and disruption.

Against this backdrop, "the reality is that it is not possible to 'bubble wrap' (Singapore's) workers from foreign competition and still expect to succeed", said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Friday (Aug 13).

Compounding the matter is the normalisation of remote work due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the recognition that "working from home" is just one step away from "working from anywhere".

"Employers can easily seek out the best skilled workers from all parts of the world… This means foreigners do not have to be in Singapore to compete with us," said Mr Heng. "It would be increasingly difficult, if not impractical, to confine opportunities by geography."

Mr Heng made these points in a pre-recorded speech at a forum on shaping the future of Singapore, the last in a series organised to celebrate 115 years of the founding of the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Mr Heng then took to the stage in-person for a virtual dialogue with NUS staff, students and alumni. He was asked by moderator Suzaina Kadir, an associate professor and vice-dean of academic affairs at NUS' Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, how students about to enter the workforce could prepare themselves to be truly global.

The key lies in having a mindset orientated towards qualities of confidence, humility and openness, said Mr Heng, who is also Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies.

"Confidence in ourselves, in what we can do and in how we can equip ourselves as best as we can to emphasise our creativity, imagination, ability to do some good," he said.

"But, at the same time… you have to combine confidence with that humility to learn to be able to work with others. In particular, there will be many different ways of doing things, and we must not assume that our way is the best way."

Mr Heng added: "Singaporeans venturing out need to have this mindset where we see what we can contribute to causes, and what it is that we bring to and can learn from the discussion. That process, I think we can do a lot better."

Earlier, during his speech, he described how Singapore's founding generation had been creative in forging its own path and bucking conventional wisdom.

"We welcomed MNCs (multinational corporations) to invest here, when critics saw MNCs as the new colonialists. These investments went on to propel our rapid growth," said Mr Heng. "We developed a new airport in Changi, against the advice of external consultants, which gave us an outsized presence on the world map."

The common thread here was Singapore's openness to the world. The Republic would not have succeeded if it had insulated itself, he noted.

But the DPM added that embracing openness did not mean leaving Singapore's companies and people to fend for themselves.

He pointed to initiatives such as Industry Transformation Maps - now being refreshed for a post-pandemic world - alongside research, innovation and support for start-ups. Efforts in the SkillsFuture movement and in retraining and upskilling are also being ramped up.

"There is certainly room to adjust our foreign manpower policies. And there is scope to strengthen our laws on fair treatment at the workplace," Mr Heng said. "But closing our doors is ineffective and provides a false promise of security."

He cautioned against Singaporeans "boxing" themselves into a false choice.

"Instead, we should embrace openness and equip our people with the experience and skills to succeed," said Mr Heng. "This way, our workers can remain confident about their position in the world, and know that they can continue to make a difference - not just when they are fresh out of school, but throughout life."

"This is the best way for Singapore and Singaporeans to continue thriving in a more interconnected, interdependent and technologically advanced world."


Minimum salary for Employment Pass to rise to $4,500 from 1 September 2020; higher qualifying salary of $5,000 for financial services

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