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More jobs, higher wages, more pain?

In Money, News Reports on September 16, 2014 at 3:03 am

I suppose we should be happy with the half-year manpower report that was published in MSM today. Wages are going up – because employers can’t hire as many foreigners as before. Real median wage went up 4.6 per cent last year, and is likely to go up further. (Nope, got no updated half-year figures on income.)

I guess employers have no choice but to raise wages to attract locals to work. There are 63,900 jobs going a-begging as of June. So more jobs, higher pay for locals, as ST trumpeted today. But there’s a cautionary note that ST sounded as well, backed up by experts and economists.

What if employers just passed on the increased manpower cost to consumers? So, everything cancels out and real income growth, said one economist, will be “muted’’.  And it looks like this might well happen given how productivity is going down. It’s gone into “negative territory’’ or to put it simply, people are actually doing/producing less than before in the second quarter. It’s -1.3.

You can blame the construction sector. It’s the biggest drag on productivity. (I sort of wonder if this is because the construction sector is skimping on employment of foreign workers because of higher levies they have to pay. And if lack of labour is also a reason for more people dying on worksites.)

But hey, most of us are NOT in construction so wages shouldn’t be affected, right? Except that the services sector isn’t doing too well on the productivity front as well – and this is the sector that is facing a foreign labour squeeze in numbers. You wonder where the hotels and malls that will be opening will get their workers…They just have to pay more to get the fussy locals to work then?  Higher and higher wages, and higher and higher cost of living. What’s the point of holding more money if it buys you the same amount of stuff as before?

What if employers simply cannot find workers despite offering higher pay? They can do a few things – re-locate, bug the G for more foreign workers or fold.

MOM said in its statement: “The manpower-lean environment will continue to be a feature of the Singapore economy. As the economy restructures, some consolidation and exit of less productive businesses is expected.”

We’ve been hearing so much about wages that I wish we had a handle on how our employers are holding up, like how many had to “exit’’ less productive businesses. It will be good to look at bankruptcy figures to find out how SMEs are faring. Is this rate increasing? It should be, given that economic restructuring does mean that companies would have to “consolidate’’ or “exit’’. If so, retrenchment figures should go up too. But a total of 2,410 workers were laid off in the second quarter of this year, lower than the 3,110 workers who were retrenched in the previous quarter. What does this mean? Are we over the worst?

Experts interviewed by ST don’t seem to think so.

They noted that the authorities tightened foreign worker hiring policies with the aim of forcing firms to work more efficiently. But the reverse has happened in some companies. It quoted Singapore Business Federation’s chief operating officer Victor Tay as saying that a lack of workers has pushed some firms to focus on day-to-day operations instead of planning ahead to raise productivity.

In other words, some companies are too busy trying to keep head above water to think long-term.

ST also quoted Mr Victor Mills, chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, as saying that curbs on employment pass renewals have led to the rejection of “talented, committed and productive’’ foreign employees who could have helped raised productivity levels.

Hmm…they weren’t replaced by locals? Or the locals not as good?

Only 11,000 or so foreigners were hired in the first this year, mainly for construction. And this is half the number the year before. The labour market report, however, didn’t break down the figure into employment or S pass or work permit holders.

I think the people who wanted fewer foreigners here have got their wish. Except that now, we’ve got to persuade Singaporeans to do the jobs that foreigners used to do – for the pay that they did. Or if we want to make even more money, we simply have got to be better (read: productive) than the foreign workers were.

It’s time to make productivity sexy.

The widow and her millions

In News Reports, Society on September 15, 2014 at 1:29 am

Okay, I think everybody who’s been reading about the tussle over the $40million fortune of the old widow would have formed an opinion now…You just can’t help it from reading the news reports. So it seems a 40 year old tour guide from China has somehow managed to inveigle himself and his family into the widow’s bungalow – and will.

The 87-year old Madam Chung turned over all her affairs to him, giving him lasting power of attorney in 2012. (Before anyone asks, seems she was diagnosed with dementia only this year.) She has left all her assets to him as well, effectively cutting out the family (she has a younger sister and a niece – mother and daughter) as well as a long-time friend who used to stay with her and who actually introduced her to the said tour guide. Needless to say, the friend thoroughly regrets the introduction. And the niece has started legal proceedings to revoke his power of attorney which gives him control over Madam Chung’s life.

Mr Yang Yin looks like he’s in hot soup. It’s not just the family who is gunning for him. Questions are now raised about his permanent residency status which the immigration authorities are investigating. Seems he obtained his employment pass when he moved here in 2009 by setting up a dance studio, with Madam Chung of course. But somehow he’s now a PR. (Which, by the way, means he can’t be quietly repatriated) Then the Singapore Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry is wondering why he’s describing himself as an SCCCI director on business cards, when they don’t even have such a position. And an MP has denied knowing him as her grassroots leader, when pictures of him at community events turned up.

Of course, Mr Yang didn’t do himself any favours by uploading holiday pictures of himself and his family and bragging online about his luxury watches and how he’s into big money, right after he moved into the Gerald Crescent bungalow.

He’s moved out of the bungalow and is now in a Toa Payoh flat it seems. There was an unseemly row between the niece, herself in the tour agency business, and his wife, when she turned up to evict the family.

He’s sticking to his guns though maintaining that the old widow had asked him to be her “grandson’’ and that her family cared nothing for her. He even hinted that her long time friend was in a relationship with the widow’s late husband, something which the old lady, now 84, has vehemently denied.

He transferred her money into his account – so he could “manage her finances more efficiently’’. He claimed that Madam Chung made regular payments to her younger sister and her niece but he stopped the payments when he took over her finances. He did not say why he did so but thinks that “this could be the reason for (them) to be upset with me.”

He got his family to move over from China and into the bungalow – so that he did not have to travel to China and back which would have “hampered  my ability to look after Madam Chung’’.

He gave Madam Chung’s long-time driver the boot in 2009, saying that the old man, now 80 years old, had tried to attack him. He’s now Madam Chung’s chauffeur.

He sacked her Indonesian maid in 2011 because she was always “asking for money’’ and because he and his wife were around to take care of the household chores.

Yes, he did buy and sell a $1 million Amber Road condominium unit last year, for a $200,000 profit. But this was an investment on Madam Chung’s behalf and had “her knowledge and consent”.

As for the niece maintaining that her aunt had been manipulated into signing over her legal rights in 2012, he said that a doctor accredited with the Public Guardian office had declared that Madam Chung had the “requisite mental capacity’’ when she did so. I wonder who this doctor is. The media didn’t say. And I also wonder who her lawyer is….

The case has yet to go before the courts and both sides seem to have gone to the media to air their views. Predictably, Mr Yang is being painted very black in social media. And the pity is, so are his compatriots from China.  Yet he is one man among millions and Justice Bao has yet to rule on the case. (Seriously, it sounds like a Chinese drama serial).

This is probably the first, or at least rare, case of someone trying to revoke another person’s power of attorney. It must be an interesting time for the office of the Public Guardian which surely has a vested interest in making sure that its processes are water-tight. I wonder what sort of questions the public guardian asks of anyone who is signing away his legal rights and how it ensures that the person hasn’t been influenced in any way, especially a childless widow with millions.

And in the middle of it all is the old lady, a retired physiotherapist, who has no children. If the man and his family have moved out of the bungalow, and she no longer has her driver and maid, I wonder who’s looking after her now.

Is it CPF-only for retirement?

In Money, News Reports on September 11, 2014 at 2:59 am

I was a bit disappointed to read the terms of reference for the panel to review CPF. It seems to me so itsy-bitsy. I guess that’s the point. The Prime Minister has made clear the CPF isn’t in need of an overhaul but some tweaks. So the panel now has to think about what sort of minimum sum would be needed in future, after next year’s $161,000 for those who turn 55. The PM has promised a moratorium of sorts on the rise so I guess it will be for the panel to decide how much, and when.

Then the other terms of reference are what the PM has already let fall in his National Day rally speech, on the possibility of lump sum withdrawal, allowing some people to get higher returns on their CPF and a graduated re-payment scheme (small to bigger returns over the years).

ST was predictable in getting the panel members to talk about their role. TODAY went further to ask non-panel members what they thought of the terms of reference. I agree with those interviewed that they do seem narrow.

TODAY reported NUS economics lecturer Chan Kok Hoe saying that the CPF’s adequacy as a retirement vehicle depends mainly on two factors: How much funds people are able to accumulate for retirement and what returns they can obtain relative to inflation.

It reported:

The terms of reference do not include looking into the first factor, which would involve the allocation of funds between housing and retirement as well as overall CPF contribution rates, he said. On the second factor, the panel is tasked to study how to adjust CPF payouts to increase nominally over time, but not to examine whether CPF funds should be invested in special inflation-indexed government securities, he said.

I agree. If the issue is retirement adequacy, shouldn’t we go further than examining what sort of  minimum sum would be able to give a regular payout till day of death? Like looking at the ratio between setting aside cash in the CPF and putting money into housing? Or have we settled that retirement adequacy includes assets such as housing? Well, there needs to be a big mindset change over “unlocking’’ the value of housing if so. And shouldn’t we also be looking at CPF contribution rates now set for employee and employer?

But I could be wrong. These could well be questions subsumed under the Minimum Sum scheme re-look.  

Then again, there is the big explosive question on withdrawal age. So it’s still 55 at the first key unlocking CPF and later, at 65, you start getting payouts? Or should be 60, and then 65 given the rise in retirement age? It will be immensely unpopular to raise if you think back to the days of the Howe Yoon Chong report. I really think that is a question the panel could pursue and give all the numbers that go with its recommendation. It doesn’t mean that the G would have to adopt whatever the panel  proposes – it will be a political decision outside the panel’s ken – but it would be a good education for all concerned, especially who want their CPF, like, now.

ST has an interesting piece by academic Donald Low commenting on another aspect of retirement adequacy outside of the CPF scheme, the Supplementary Retirement Scheme which gives tax savings if you put aside a certain sum in a bank every year contingent on withdrawal at age 65. It’s not a very well-known scheme and taken up mainly by the higher income. Mr Low talks about making it compulsory or at least an “opt-out’’.

I suppose if the panel had to look at so many different aspects, like what sort of interest the CPF should make or what the money should be invested in (inflation-indexed securities?), it would take more than its allotted one year time frame.

But I also wonder if we should move away from looking at CPF (cash and home) as the people’s sole retirement income. Mr Low’s SRS option is one. Maybe other groups should be working in parallel with the panel, to study the amount of insurance among various groups of people, for example, as well as what sort of family financial support is now given to the elderly. Just like parents give pocket money to their children, I am sure adult children do the same for the elderly. Or has this gone out of fashion and the elderly are now supposed to fend for themselves?  

This is just my one cent worth. Not accounting for inflation, of course.

Danger: bad film

In News Reports, Politics, Society on September 11, 2014 at 12:57 am

Sheesh! So Tan Pin Pin does NOT have plans to upload her banned film, To Singapore, With love, on YouTube. At least for the moment. And there I was hoping to get a free screening! She’s going to re-submit it for rating although how this would get past MDA’s strictures without making further cuts to the tales of the nine exiles, she didn’t say.

 May she succeed like Ken Kwek did, getting an R21 rating for his Sex.Violence.Family Values film which was initially banned from public screening in 2012. ST had an intriguing bit of info, indicating that a “purely private’’ screening is allowed. Now, this is odd given that the film was deemed “Not classified for all ratings’’. So what is a purely private screening? At the home of Tan Pin Pin?

Unlike Mr Kwek’s film which was deemed racially explosive because some parts could offend Indians, Ms Tan’s film was whacked with the “undermining national security’’ label. That’s heavy.

According to MDA, she let the interviewees get away with untruths about their past, like forged passport info and absconding from National Service. It is not true that they had to leave and not true that they can’t return to Singapore, it said. I guess this means that they probably haven’t been put on the “ban’’ list of the immigration authorities to be turned them away if they showed up at the airport. Nor are they on some “wanted’’ list.

ST helpfully included some background on ex-Communist Party of Malaya members such as Eu Chooi Yip and P V Sarma, who returned from China in 1991. I wonder what the two had to do when they got home. Because it seems that the nine would just need to agree to be interviewed by the authorities on their past – probably a renunciation of communism. But there was also this line “Criminal offence will have to be accounted for in accordance with the law’’. Goodness! Isn’t this an indication that the NS abscondees and passport forger would charged for crimes? You wonder then why they wouldn’t want to return home…

In any case, ST said that about 40 members of the filmmaking and arts community have criticised the ban, calling on the G to release the film so that viewers can make up their minds. You know, whatever these exiles did, it was a very long time ago. I doubt that there are many people here who would want to pursue the communist ideal in modern Singapore. But many people are interested in the past, having only heard about some of the names that Ms Tan interviewed, like Tan Wah Piow, now 62.    

But the key point is whether the G believes that such paternalism is needed to safeguard national security – or whether it is merely insisting on its own narrative of history. As an IPS academic said in TODAY, a determined audience would get hold of the film somehow. Better to un-ban it and have the G release its own version of events. After all, if the film makes its rounds on the Internet, wouldn’t the G have to counter it? If it is such a detriment to national security, it would have to do something about its exposure.

Actually, my other question is whether Ms Tan considered taking into account the G’s view of what the exiles might have said in her film. That would have made for a more complete film-cum-documentary. Or, the G can always make its own…

Great grad dreams

In News Reports, Politics, Society on September 10, 2014 at 1:19 am

I’ve met several parents over time who have sent their children abroad to study for a degree. And there have been times that I’ve been taken aback at the course of study. Like criminology, art history, media studies, psychology or sociology. I wondered if this was because they were “sexy’’ subjects. I don’t hear so much of those who take up “hard’’ subjects, like engineering. Of course, I hear of plenty who study law abroad, now a headache of the Law minister who wonders if the Singapore Bar would be big enough to accommodate them.

Going by what MPs say in Parliament, there are many different kinds of parents:

  1. Those who think a degree of any kind would lead to a good job and would therefore fork out big money to get their students into a university abroad, especially if they can’t get into a university here.
  2. Those who want to pigeon hole their children into degree courses that they think would bring in big money for their children in their adulthood. They want to set them up “for life’’.
  3. Those who let their children pursue their “dreams’’ regardless of whether they have the aptitude or can fit into the economy here later. They proudly proclaim that they let their children be, even if their children are really mistaking infatuation for passion.

I pity Education minister Heng Swee Keat who seemed to be contorting himself to explain that he wasn’t dissing the worth of a degree.

“Qualifications matter, but they must be the right qualifications and of the right standard for what we want to do,” he said, citing doctors, nurses, pharmacists and physiotherapists as examples of occupations that require professional qualifications. “But not all qualifications matter — not if they do not help us build the right skills for what we want to do,” he added.

At the risk of over- summarising, I think he was also trying to say that even a diploma could be as “good’’ if it means the diploma holder has the depth of skills that the course required of him.

He’s in a bit of a bind because his predecessor had already stated that all primary school teachers will be degree-holders from next year. The assumption is that grad teachers will have a stronger mastery of content and pedagogy. So now Mr Heng has to say he will continue to hire non-grads who have the aptitude and passion. Nothing was said about whether they can master “content and pedagogy’’.

In fact, Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing sounded a bit gleeful (sorry!) when he said that early childhood educators – the people under his domain – don’t need degrees. Just like our parents didn’t need degrees to bring us up.  

Actually it’s all back to what the education system is all about. Mr Heng said it was about the quest for skills rather than paper qualifications. I think he should be blunt and say that it is about churning out people who can fit into the economy.

That’s what it’s about isn’t it even if it isn’t politically correct to say so? People can’t expect that the economy in future will accommodate jobs of all kinds or even the number of jobs in a particular profession. (Hence, lawyers being pushed into doing criminal and family law instead of “big money’’ law). I can sort of imagine bureaucrats toting up numbers of workers needed to fill different sectors in the short, medium and long-term and collaborating with the university, polytechnic and technical institutes of the number of places for courses every year.

The difference is that instead of setting up a three-tier structure with the technical institutes at the bottom, then the polytechnics and universities stacked on top, the push is now to see them all as parallel structures with the formerly bottom two rungs supplemented by workplace training and extensive skills to reach the level of university graduates. So Singapore doesn’t want just an ITE grad, it wants an extremely skilled ITE graduate with the opportunity to catch up with their university peers later in life.

Now, whether that will work or not is something, to use that trite phrase, “time will tell’’.

So now, we are deluged with media reports of ITE/poly students who did well. Actually, we should also be exposed to the other side: graduates with esoteric degrees who discover that they can’t advance as far as they want. In fact, MPs are already saying that more grads than non-grads go to their Meet-the-People sessions looking for jobs. I can just imagine what these disappointed people are thinking: “I am a grad, and I still have no job’’. And then going to Hong Lim Park to claim that foreigners were taking their jobs…

Sigh.

Everything is so inter-connected.

Sounds and silence

In News Reports, Society, Writing on September 7, 2014 at 6:49 am

The Prime Minister said something a couple of weeks ago which I think we should heed. He said that the Internet, far from leading to a great convergence on universal truth, has led to divisions of all kinds. People seem to think they have grasped the “truth’’ with the emergence of groups that are completely antithetic to each other. “We have to make sure we don’t get seduced by the delusion that we know everything, that what we know is the truth and that we are the sole possessors, and therefore we will fight it out to the very end.’’ It leads to a fractured society, he said.

He doesn’t think human society was designed with the Internet age in mind, like the good ole days with information lags and time lapses to let stuff sink in before coming to a considered and wise consensus. “But today, all of that is telescoped and the splash goes out tonight, and tomorrow morning, everyone knows the answer, which may be the wrong answer.’’ Far from having a faster circuit, we have a “collective short circuit’’, he added.

ST followed it up with a Pew survey report which talks about how people online tend to keep quiet when they think they have a minority view. Yesterday, it followed up with a major spread on whether the same “spiral of silence’’ applied to Singapore. The Anton Casey and Amy Cheong cases were brought up as examples of online vitriol, with moderate voices only emerging when the din has died down. The ease of the “sound bite’’ online with no need to substantiate views makes it impossible to have a good conversation, you have experts saying.

I agree somewhat.

I have watched different groups emerge online and those who push a line or agenda regardless of the topic at hand. If you watch the many conversations closely, you get an idea of who are among the like-minded and who sticks together, whether friends or not. The various Facebook groups which are agenda-based don’t help. They start off by promoting a cause which gets hijacked by immoderate elements who are countered by yet other immoderate elements. Hence, this wonderful term: polarisation.  

It’s the word of the day, week, month and maybe even year given the way people are agonising over east being east, west is west and never the twain shall meet.

Here in Singapore, I think we’re still novice navigators of the free speech space. It wasn’t too long ago, you know, that rules were relaxed for rallies at Hong Lim Park and you don’t need a public entertainment licence for indoor events. It used to be that you can’t even use a loud hailer at Speakers’ Corner and it was the police, not the parks or performance authorities who monitored your events. The internet hastened the pace of liberalisation and the flowering of views everywhere, yes. But here, it meant liberation of a different kind. Suddenly, it seemed the shackles were off and we don’t quite know how to use the new-found freedom.  So there’s a torrent of voices, a cacophony, so loud that it intimidates those who want to say something not quite “mainstream’’ – or rather, fits with what the supposedly online mainstream is saying.

I have been asked many times if it’s possible to bridge the different groups or bring a level of reason to discussions on the Internet. I reply that there are probably plenty of reasonable people on the Internet, those who watch and don’t post a word because they’re scared that they’re being watched. They’re scared that they will be called to account for their views and can’t answer rationally – all “gut instinct’’ you know. They worry that the more articulate will out-talk them and make them feel small. Worse, being called names and feeling bullied. They think of Anton Casey and Amy Cheong. They’re not like them at all, but what if….?

I call them the internet spectators. Funny that the climate of fear that people perceived as emanating from the authorities has become a climate of fear of fellow netizens.

There are probably many, many groups of people out there online who discuss issues rationally. But they are probably “closed’’ groups, that is, like-minded individuals who do not want to have their reasonable conversations interrupted by the unreasonable. That’s the problem isn’t it? Reasonable people don’t want to reason with the unreasonable and the unreasonable pitting themselves against other unreasonable people. No wonder it’s so noisy on the Net.

Ask you. Do you have any of the following traits?

  1. I have a view which I hold very dearly and will inject it into every conversation because MY view is important and everybody MUST share them.
  2. Everybody who disagrees with me is wrong. They have been brought up badly, are intrinsically bad or went on the wrong path somewhere along their miserable life.
  3. I cannot listen to other people’s arguments because they go against something very fundamental for me, for example, the PAP is evil, religion is evil, homosexuals are evil.
  4. I don’t care about the totality of your views. So long as ONE aspect offends me, you are not worth “friending’’.
  5. I have a right to my views and I don’t care how in-your-face I get. The internet is free space. So suck it up.
  6. I shouldn’t have to pick my words carefully because that won’t be ME talking or reflect exactly how I’m feeling.
  7. I don’t see the need to self-censor even if others are offended because censorship is just plain wrong.
  8. I will never say sorry for my views or acknowledge that I might have interpreted things wrongly because I know, at the end of the day, I am right.
  9. If you have not experienced what I have, you have no right to talk to me because you don’t know what you are talking about. So shaddup.

Narcissism, egotism and self-righteousness is everywhere on the Net. I tend to think that maybe some people don’t want to be any of the above but lack the tools or experience to communicate effectively. They come off as blunt and abrasive because they’ve never had to engage in the cut-and-thrust of debate in the past. And they haven’t collected a body of knowledge with which to defend their viewpoint against the more erudite. So they either come off as defensive or they seek solace in silence. Or these people might really hold those positions from a. to h. In which case, I don’t see how any sane discussion can be had with them.

I liked what Mr Baey Yam Keng said in the ST report: “Facebook itself is a neutral platform. What is the style or character of that page depends on the people in charge of that page.’’

There is something to be said for having “moderators’’ and rules of engagement. Too often, people are turned off from voicing views when they see a few dominant voices making a point so aggressively that they seem to be spoiling for an online fight. Or the page or chatroom becomes so sour that you are worried about being infected by it. Of course, blocking and deleting views is an option – for which you get vilified elsewhere.  Questions will be raised about “censorship’’ – and you will simply have to bear with it. The bottomline is this: If “censoring’’ or editing some people can lead to more people taking part in the discussion and bring more views on board, why not?

I have blocked a grand total of three people on my FB wall, and this after many, many nice warnings to them to behave and get with the programme. My rules of engagement are simple: No vulgarities, personal attacks, hijacking of conversation threads or protracted bilateral feuds. There must be space for moderate voices or reasoned voices that doesn’t descend into name-calling or pure assertions. I like the way some people try to tamp down tempers by resorting to humour. I like people who are clever but also self-deprecating. Those who put down others oh so nicely are also appreciated. There can be “hurt’’ feelings but there should not be long lasting “hard’’ feelings. And I get a nice, warm feeling when someone who is defeated in argument actually admits it.  

This is the way the Internet space should be : where no one need fear one another and where you – and me – can admit that we are not always right. With humour and elegance, of course.     

 

Chatting with Lim Swee Say Part 1

In News Reports on August 29, 2014 at 6:50 am

So we have Mr Lim Swee Say weighing in on productivity today on ST page 1. Do I hear a yawn? We’ve been hearing so much about how low our productivity is and how we should be raising this by turning to manpower-saving devices and training to a high level that I’m not sure anyone can say anything new anymore.

Except, of course, if the G throws in yet another acronym announcing yet another fund for SMEs to take advantage of or for low-wage workers to enjoy. But I’m going to listen a little harder to Mr Lim because the labour movement has in recent time been doing what it should be doing: focusing on its core mission of protecting the workers. And also because I had a long chat with him about the NTUC to clarify some of its workings. (No, I have not been brainwashed and no, he did NOT give me NTUC Fairprice vouchers)

I’ve never been a fan of the NTUC. I recall how last year at a dialogue on fair employment practices, nobody in the room raised the role of the labour movement in ensuring equal employment opportunities for foreigners and locals. It would have been natural, I thought, for workers to say that this should be something to be taken up by the NTUC, instead of being a Government-led process. What does it say about the NTUC’s image with the people?

In recent time, however, the NTUC seems to have been weighing in quite heavily on the issue of wages and the protection of workers’ rights. Like how it wrangled with employers in the National Wages Council to get an absolute quantum increase for low wage workers. Like how it’s been getting more workers unionised. Like how it is pushing for the progressive wage ladder for certain industries. I tell myself that it is acting more like a union these days, and less like a social organisation. I told Mr Lim that too. He, being a nice man, overlooked my condescension.

Mr Lim said the NTUC has a higher unionisation rate than in OECD countries. Over the past year or so, it got 95 firms to agree to let their workers join unions, boosting its membership numbers from 770,000 last year to 830,000. It seems that two were reluctant to do so and the union members went into “organising’’ mode, waylaying workers outside the gate to conduct a secret ballot. How cloak and dagger, I thought! I also thought to myself: Why would any firm object to the rather tame union that Singapore has?

It’s a question I posed to Mr Lim. He said he met a foreign boss of a very, very, very big company who didn’t want a union in-house. He saw no reason for this since he is a good employer who rewards and trains his workers well. There was no need for a union to stick its nose in.

Mr Lim’s answer to the man floored me. He cited three reasons which got the boss to say OK to letting the union in:
a. Recruitment and retrenchment: It was the labour movement which placed his workers, through e2i. And if he ever had to retrench his workers, the union would help place them in other jobs. As a good employer, he must surely be concerned for his worker’s welfare
b. Training. If the company is unionised and meets certain industry standards, the union would help him pay for the training of its workers.
c. Stretching the dollar. His workers might be happy with their salaries but if they are union members, they would be entitled to benefits that will further stretch their dollar.

A rather bad thought crossed my mind: Hmm. No wonder bosses and unions seem to be in cahoots! You don’t cause trouble. Shouldn’t you cause some trouble? Are employers always so nice? And what of the unionised workers themselves, what do they gain?

In this instance, I think the NTUC does itself a disservice by not trumpeting what it does on behalf of workers in terms of its core mission. What is “organising workers’’? How does collective bargaining take place? Do workers know that whatever the union negotiates with bosses only applies to members – unless the bosses extend it out of “goodwill’’. Ditto for retrenchment benefits to be paid out? What, in other words, do union members get that non-unionised members don’t? What is worker protection?

Here, he referred me to the Industrial Arbitration Court. Last month, the Singapore Manual & Mercantile Workers’ Union and China Airlines Limited argued over the salary ranges for bargainable employees in the proposed collective agreement. The union wanted an increase in the maximum of the salary ranges, while the company wanted to raise only the minimum. It’s still pending.

Last year, the Singapore Industrial & Services Employees Union asked the court to order First Defense Services to pay workers an annual salary increment of 5 per cent with effect from 1 Jul 2011, or alternatively a one-off lump sum equal to a month’s salary. The Court decided that the company should pay a built-in increment of $50 on the monthly basic salary of employees earning up to and including $2,000 per month and a built-in increment of 2.5 per cent of the monthly basic salary for employees earning above $2,000 per month.

Other unions have gone along this route although not all were successful. The Singapore Catering Services, Staffs & Workers Trade Union, for example, went to court on behalf of an ex-employee of Hollandse Club over termination of service and reimbursement of medical expenses. The court dismissed the case.

Mr Lim didn’t say so but I think he believes I’ve been pretty myopic about the role of the trade union in Singapore. It isn’t about just representing people who are unionised, but raising the salaries and ensuring the welfare of all workers across the board. That’s why he’s been weighing in on productivity, trying to encourage early adopters to make the move towards labour-saving devices so that others can see the benefits. That’s the only way higher salaries can be sustained, he said, besides mandating wage increases for low-wage workers or getting the G to keep giving Workfare Improvement Supplement for low wage workers in cash and in their CPF.
Before you yawn, here is one interesting project I thought worth highlighting known as the Inclusive Growth Programme. Can bosses of SMEs which employ a lot of manual workers please, ahem, take note.

It works this way:
A company spots some ultra-new labour saving device but can’t afford it. It can go to NTUC which will pay for 80 per cent of the cost of the machine. As for the rest of the bill, it can go get it from the Productivity Improvement Council. In other words, it has obtained the machine for free. But after buying and training workers (this is subsidised too) to use them, it has to commit to raising the pay of the workers by at least 10 per cent. How come? Because the company would need fewer workers with the device. Mr Lim reckoned that the wages of 70,000 workers have been raised this way over the past three years.

The hope is that other companies in the same business would see what’s happening and do the same. And no, it doesn’t mean the union will fund everyone who buys the machine. Hence, this is a reward for early adopters. Seems that a noodle maker got a noodle packing device this way. A couple of hotels also managed to get a pump which lifts beds, a great help for chambermaids.

But what of those who get laid off then? I suppose it will be the foreigners who get laid off first. And possibly, just possibly, locals will be more attracted to the jobs.

Such a slow process, I thought. Well, the faster progression will be for cleaners, some 45,000 in some 900 companies. Starting Sept 1. Mr Lim then told me the story of how he got involved over the issue of cleaners’ pay. It was while he was at a hawker centre.

Tomorrow: Mr Lim and the hawker centre cleaners

Workplace streaming

In News Reports on August 27, 2014 at 11:17 am

I’m glad I’ve never worked in the public service. What if I got placed on – or streamed into – some career track with a very low glass ceiling? What if the track is so rigid that promotions come far and few in between with pay rises that are pre-determined rather than merit-based? What if people less talented got placed on a separate track that reached to the skies because they did well in some examination hall some time ago?

I was aghast at today’s report about the civil service boosting the career paths for non-grads. I never knew much about the dual tracks with posts that depended on whether someone was a graduate or not. All I knew was that entry into the Administrative Service required sterling results which set a path to the top. No third class honours, no siree…The degrees had to be pedigrees. But below the exalted ranks, the hoi polloi can’t seem to get away from being “streamed’’ just as they were in the education system. Is it any wonder than that parents obsess over their children’s grades given the country’s biggest employer has set the example of chasing paper qualifications? So if you have the paper, you are set for a smooth life. Our parents were…right.

Yup, a cultural shift is needed.

The wonder is that the change has come so late. So the Prime Minister has said that the civil service will lead the way in measuring the worth of a person on his character and performance rather than a piece of paper. It seems like he was being kind. The civil service is not leading the way, it is catching up with the private sector. It’s pretty crazy to read that non-graduate teachers who perform well on the job can now be placed on the graduate salary scale. This is like crossing from the Normal stream to Express stream in secondary school. Surely, if a non-grad’s performance is as good as a grad, they should at least make the same amount of money and not be constrained by their pre-determined tracks?

It’s also crazy to read that non-grads who do well can get their first promotion after two to four years, down from the current three to six years. Hmm. I wonder about grads then – how many years do they have to wait? Probably shorter. I also keep wondering if I’m supposed to go “Yay!’’. So, in the past, there’s a set pattern and too bad if you are a super teacher and only hold a diploma, you wait three to six years, okay? The fellow with the degree gets promoted first. Now….got chance to switch to a different ladder. Yay!?

Why are there even two ladders dependent on education qualifications? It seems that there are ONLY three agencies with single-track schemes for grads and non-grads : the People’s Association, the Inland Revenue Authority and the Home team. PM raised an example of PA officer who did good while the media today highlighted police officers. I am almost sure the examples were picked for the media to interview rather than sourced by the media themselves. It would be too funny – or rather not funny – to have a well acknowledged good performer who is a non-grad, who got held back because the civil service HR practices…Maaaan, he or she should have joined the three agencies and not any other ministry or G agency…

But this is not school, where you cross ladders if your grades are good enough. In fact, streaming in school is fairer because it is based on academic performance at that point in time, Surely, in the workplace, performance at the point in time is more important than past school results? And if a person’s performance – based on whatever criteria – is on par with that of a grad, he should get the same rewards as the grad. And if performance outstrips the grad, he gets more. Of course, it all depends on whether the different ladders are drawn up such that comparisons in terms of performance can be made. Or whether each ladder is so different in job scope, that is, designed to keep a good man down – or raise him up. The grad track is known as Management Executive and the non-grad track is Management Support. Since we’re all into changing names to avoid stigmatisation (like no more Third Class Honours), maybe a nicer term than “support’’ can be used. Some measurement must be done comparing the work and worth of line managers, say, principals, and those of individual professionals like super teachers who don’t want supervisory roles. I guess management consultants will now be in demand.

I read ST and TODAY to find out if these separate career paths would merge into one. Yes, the PSD is studying ways to merge the graduate and non-graduate schemes into one career path. Yay! (Not sarcastic this time) I wish a time-frame was given. In fact, I think that this was the most significant point of the story, not the itsy-bitsy details about teachers getting promoted in how many years instead of how many years. There are 139,000 officers in the public service, 56 per cent of whom are grads, according to TODAY. It will be a gigantic change for them – unless it is only for new entrants.

It is right that non-grads get a lower starting pay. But once they start work, their exam results and what school they came from should be erased from the minds of their superiors. Everyone should have a chance to race to the top. It is only performance that matters in the workplace. I believe this is much the case in the private sector. It should be so in the public sector too.

After the rally…the buffet

In News Reports, Politics, Society on August 18, 2014 at 4:14 am

I started painting my nails halfway through watching PM Lee’s National Day rally speech last night. Bad of me; I should have been taking notes. But the speech struck me as very administrative and municipal. Plenty of human interest stories of people made it good despite the odds (kudos to them!), with PM in the role of interviewer. And an explanation of how CPF works with the PM playing financial planner to a fictitious 54 year old Mr Tan. PM Lee was a real estate agent last year.

I had to look over the newspapers this morning to find out what I missed. I think it was this point: PM Lee called for a cultural shift – away from chasing grades to valuing a person for his worth and character. He made the point much sharper in his Mandarin speech when he stressed that a university education does not guarantee jobs. And please don’t enrol any old how into any university course which you are not suited for.
Good point. That’s a reason I gather that our universities now do away with grading first-year examinations so that freshman can check out their aptitude and inclination against what’s on offer before buckling down to work. Hence the PM’s emphasis that an ITE and poly education would do just as well so long as it is accompanied by learning in working life. (A freshman in my class told me he was puzzled by the PM’s speech. He was a polytechnic student. For the past three years, poly students have had the carrot of a university education dangled over their heads with the promise of more university places. Now that he’s in the university system, a different song is being sung. *shakes head*)

So it looks like the focus has shifted to equipping the broad swathe of young people in the ITE and polys for the market. For what areas I wonder? To replace foreign S pass holders in areas traditionally shunned by Singaporeans? The PM also gave examples of those who did well despite lack of paper qualification except, as he noted, his examples were all Keppel employees. You need a company that makes money and a good boss who doesn’t look at grades and will give you a chance to move up the ladder. He said that the civil service will lead the way so that the career paths of grad and non-grad civil servants aren’t always so separate.

DPM Tharman will be leading a team to get the nation to “learn as you earn’’ (my phrase). What does this mean? Compulsory continuing education as is the case for some professions? Guess workers shouldn’t think that they have left the classroom forever. Or that examinations and tests are things of the past. It would be interesting to hear how DPM intends to integrate working and learning, as well as starting and raising a family.
I think the cultural shift is something to be encouraged. It’s in line with the compassionate meritocracy that we want to build here. It really shouldn’t matter which school you went to or how well you did in an exam hall; what matters is what you can bring to the table. But it would take people (parents and employers) some time to recognise this. That prized photograph of a family member in a graduation gown and cap is still very much sought after, no matter what sort of degree, course or university the person had enrolled in. One sign to look out for to know if the cultural shift is a-coming: whether people start believing that every school is a good school.

Here’s a run-down of the news points on the CPF front:

a. Four-room flats to be included in lease buyback scheme, which is now confined to three-roomers or smaller. This means that those who don’t have enough cash to retire on can still remain in their homes and get a pay-out in a lump sum and every month. One question: Your child won’t be able to inherit the home then? Or only up to the expiry of the home owner’s lease?

b. Minimum sum for next year’s cohort of 55ers already calculated: $161K. PM stressed repeatedly that the sum is not too much, and people tend to forget that half the sum can be a property pledge. Most people would be able to make the grade – and get a pay-out for life. I think of the minimum sum as a one-off insurance premium you pay in return for a monthly annuity.

c. The poor elderly will get an annual bonus called Silver Support pumped into their CPF. Thing is, what is poor elderly hasn’t been defined yet. Can’t just be looking at minimum sum right…because they might have well-heeled children to count on for support.

d. A committee will be set up to add some flexibility into the system – like allowing those who need money urgently to draw up more in a lump-sum (this is a big change of heart on his part, he admits), or having a scale of payments which increase or decrease with age.

Wonder what the Return My CPF lobby will say…PM Lee didn’t touch on the interest rates earned on Ordinary and Special Accounts which some people think should be pegged to what fund manager, GIC, makes. He didn’t talk about the use of CPF for housing, presumably because he is clear about how both CPF and housing are twin pillars of old age. So we’d better hope that the housing market keeps moving up…

As for what else in his speech was worth noting….Here are my, ahem, news reports:

a. HD: Pick up sticks gain popularity

A fishball stick dropped by a litterbug earned more than one mention in the Prime Minister’s National Day rally speech last night. It was the subject of a complaint by a civic conscious citizen who noticed that it had been lying on the ground for a good two days, well past Singapore’s efficient cleaning standards. His MP, Mayor Low Yen Ling was galvanised into action, as she sought to ascertain the agency responsible for the fishball stick’s continued offensive presence. After intensive and extensive investigations, PM Lee decided that it will be the National Environment Agency’s business to pick up sticks, although people shouldn’t be dropping them in the first place. He used a dialect term “pau kar liao’’, causing many to wonder if he was moving away from the Speak Mandarin policy.

A Municipal Service Office graced by Grace Fu, he announced, will be set up to ensure that all sticks anywhere will be picked up with alacrity. In the meantime, the civic-conscious citizen complained that he had sent a picture to STOMP which obviously did not realise the political potential of the stick which, it argued, could have been holding up a sotong ball.

b. HD: East Coast residents upset with Jurong plans

Hundreds of East Coast residents will be gathering at Hong Lim Park on Saturday to protest plans announced by the Prime Minister to make Jurong more hip and happening. Upset that they will only be getting the Thomson/Marine Parade MRT line, they are organising an online petition calling for the Singapore-KL high-speed rail to terminate in the east instead of the Jurong Lake district. “The Jurongites can keep their Chinese and Japanese Gardens,’’ said lead organiser Tan Kah Tong. “We don’t even mind if the Science Centre re-opens there but we think the Jurong Lake should be filled in and move to the East so that we will have a bigger East Coast Lagoon or East Coast Lake.’’ Planning authorities, dealing with the fallout from PM Lee’s National Day rally speech, said it will meet disgruntled residents to explain that these are tentative plans, not confirmed targets. It is understood that one option is to move the proposed Ng Teng Fong hospital, which has had its opening delayed by six months, to the east to placate the residents.

c. No news is… good news?

The PM didn’t talk about how economic restructuring is affecting the economy and making SMEs scream about not being able to get foreign labour. Nor did he say anything about low productivity.

The PM didn’t talk about the looming culture war (although he spoke about a culture shift) brewing between conservatives and the not-so-conservative a la the book pulping issue and the Pink and White standoff and who really decides what sort of values the people should hold.

The PM didn’t talk about how events in Syria, Iraq and Gaza might affect the Muslim minority here and create tensions although he did use the Ukraine/Crimea conflict as an example of how small nations must stay strong.

And, finally, he didn’t talk about the pesky people online….Thank goodness!

Singapore’s slow poison

In News Reports, Politics, Society on August 17, 2014 at 8:11 am

I’ve always been a fan of ex-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. He is a decent man. A good man. He is an old-fashioned conservative in the Platonic mould– believing in the establishment of a group of wise men to lead the rest. People should know their place, that is, don’t be boh tua, boh suay.

So I wasn’t surprised when he worried about bonds between the government and the governed being loosened; he’s always been big on social cohesion. But his use of the family as an analogy bugged me.

Here’s what ST reported:
“Speaking at length on people-government ties in family terms, he said that just as parents do for their children, the Government imparts values and sets norms for society through its policies and creates opportunities for people.
People cannot choose their parents but they can choose their government – a privilege they do not always value and “sometimes decide with less care than we should”.
Singaporeans also demand much more from the Government than their parents, accepting their family’s situation but not the constraints faced by the Government.
And while they do not criticise their parents’ imperfections, (“We love them.. Warts and all.’’) when it comes to the Government, they “see only warts… and freely criticise it for its slightest mistakes or when we disagree with it”.

This bit is from The Online Citizen:
“This state of relationship between the people and the government is part of the so-called New Normal,” he said.
“But if this New Normal leads to fractiousness, divisiveness and estrangement in the Singapore Family, then we will be undoing what the Pioneer Generation had painfully and diligently built over many decades,” added Mr Goh.
He said that unlike in the past where Singaporeans were clear about where they were headed, “now people are pulling in different directions.”
“We still discuss and debate, consult and engage’’, Mr Goh said. “But each group is now more assertive than before in pushing its point of view and vested interests. Each side does not want to give an inch without taking a quarter. The common space for Singaporeans is getting smaller instead of bigger.”

Why am I bugged? Because I can see that his comments will create even more fractiousness. Already wags are pointing out that he is harking back to a paternalistic government. Stretch the family analogy further and you get this: “Daddy and Mommy know what’s good for you. So shut up and just do as you’re told.’’

The question to ask is what lies at the root of the discontent or the disengagement between the G and the people. I am going to stick my neck out and say that it is ministerial salaries. I consider it the root of all evil. Serious. It reduces what should be a social compact into a business contract. We cannot see the family analogy because we are run like a business. (The wonderful thing that has happened over the years is that we are no longer known as “Singapore Inc’’ with citizens being shareholders and the government sitting as the board of directors. I have always thought the analogy was unfortunate.)

Consider why there is less respect for our leaders. We pay them so much, they are expected to do well. If they don’t do well, we complain that they are not worth their pay. How is this a family structure? We certainly don’t pay our parents to run the household although we do give them an allowance and take some of the financial load off them when we start working.

I know that every government struggles over this issue of how much to pay each member. Talking about, and approving, your own salary seems rather self-serving and pretty awkward. So salaries are kept low and unseen perks, pomp and privilege are added to the job description. On the whole, they might be paid many times more but the voter is blissfully unaware or complicit in some way.

So rational and efficient Singapore has come up with a formula which sets the pay higher than what other nations pay their leaders. Only that, with performance bonuses decided by the Prime Minister. And nothing else. I think. So clean. So rational. So transparent. So why are people grumbling? After all, if the ministers met their KPIs, why not?

Now, the Singapore pay structure, pegged by a complicated formula to economic growth and private sector pay, has been tweaked over the years. There was even a review committee headed by Gerard Ee which, unfortunately, only did more tweaking rather than examine the fundamental principles underpinning the structure. Ministers have given up bonuses and agreed to pay cuts, like the rest of the hoi polloi, when times are bad. But who remembers this? Who remembers how finely calibrated ministerial salaries are, and how so much thinking has gone into making them “fair’’ or “appropriate’’? Can you recall the sort of “premium’’ given to public service in drawing up salary structure? All the rationalisation is lost on the people. They see only one thing: We have highly-paid ministers. And we measure their monetary worth against every screw-up or warts. We do not cut them some slack, as Mr Goh would like, because we do not see them as our parents but as chief executives and general managers.

Ministerial salaries have never got much air-time in the media, except when the G says something about it. Yet it is talked about at election rallies and brought up in bars, coffeeshops and the Internet every time the G screws up. This sacred cow was not even raised at the Our Singapore Conversation.

I know the argument that the G has for defending their salaries, chief of which is to keep our leaders free from temptation that high office can bring, in other words, money politics and corruption. I would like to think our citizens are made of sterner stuff and our watchdogs far more vigilant than those elsewhere. In fact, I wouldn’t mind paying the watchdogs a lot more to ensure they do their jobs well. And even have caning introduced for corruption convictions! So why not just pay the politicians more you say? Because leadership is not just a “job’’, it is a “relationship’’ built on, yes, trust.

(Frankly, I also won’t have a problem if, after leaving Government, they are recruited by the private sector or go on the lecture circuit. Let the market dictate then what they should earn. Nothing to do with us voters)
Then there is the other argument about bringing in talent who would otherwise prefer to keep their privacy and their highly-paid jobs instead of venturing into politics. They can’t “lose out’’ too much. So we’ve heard about the salaries of doctors and lawyers who join politics and what they stood to “lose’’ even as ministers. Okay, but if I want to be churlish about it, I can also point out that many ex-civil servants have now crossed into Cabinet, and it is not likely that they would ever get those kind of salaries, would they?

All these comparisons leave a bad taste in the mouth. Of course, no minister would say they are in it for the money. In fact, they seem to be pretty frugal; they drive themselves, for example, and take care not to dress flashily. Their offices are smaller than those of some CEOs. What they say or how they present themselves matters, but not as much as what people think and are increasingly vocalising. It is a slow poison.

I know what the next question will be: You talk so much, do you have a solution? I don’t, which is why I’ve held off writing on the subject for so long although it has been nagging me for some time. But the subject must be brought to the fore and tackled head-on, however embarrassing it might be for the current leadership. When the G talks about building the public trust or its erosion, it never, ever talks about ministerial salaries. It is that big elephant in the room. But still we are trying to pull up the wages of low wage workers and narrow the income gap. We are restructuring the economy and SMEs are feeling squeezed. All this dislocation to work and to pay is being done against a backdrop of public angst over ministerial pay.

We need another formula, one that will not make our leaders paupers but will not make the people laugh when there is talk of “servant leadership’’. We need to put to rest or at least diminish the people’s big bugbear over pay, and build a new relationship between the rulers and the ruled – one that will not be clouded by the monetary worth of a minister nor assessed in terms of dollars and cents.

How? I’m afraid I don’t know…

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