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Chatting with Lim Swee Say Part 2

In Money, Politics on August 31, 2014 at 12:52 am

Tomorrow, a big change is going to sweep over one sector, or rather, cause a ripple in the way employers pay their workers. It has to do with the 40,000 or so cleaners in Singapore’s 900 companies. From then on, they will have a career progression path, much like most other workers. It means that they won’t be stuck at the $1,000-or-so a month bottom rung of the pay ladder. If they learn to operate machines, they can move up a step or two, and this will be accompanied by a raise in pay. No big deal you say? After all, it is the case in other parts of the labour market. You do more, you earn more. Except that the cleaning sector is an odd place.

And that’s because of people like you and me…   

Mr Lim Swee Say, head of the labour movement, was in story-telling mode. The story had to do with how when he was Minister for Environment and Water Resources in 2003, he visited a hawker centre and watched how cleaners went about their work. A pail of water and a cloth, which became dirtier and dirtier with every table cleaned. He got to talking to the hawkers who said they each paid each cleaner $80 a month to clean the tables.  That was all the cleaners could do in a day. Would they pay them $120 ? They said they would, provided that the cleaners could do their work better and not have customers complain about the state of uncleaned and uncleared tables. That was when he worked with the contractors to see if the cleaners could do a better job as well as handle more stalls. The cleaning trolley, which  people now see in hawker centres, with different compartments for detergents and several “washing’’ containers, is one outcome. It allowed the cleaners to do their rounds a lot quicker. They could handle 12 stalls instead of eight. And it was a lot cleaner too. Their pay, therefore, went up. (He calls it ESS – easier, safer, smarter)

This a reason for Mr Lim’s obsession with labour-saving devic es. Pay can only go up if low wage workers can work faster and better (a Lim Swee Say phrase..). That means using machines. But there is another unique thing about cleaners: They do not work directly for their employers. They really work for third parties: the mall owners, building managements and hawker centre committees who are old fashioned about the way they tender out jobs for cleaners. They usually set a head-count, rather than define the job scope. That means they ask for a certain number of cleaners, which meant that it is in the interest of the contracting company to pay the cleaners as a low a wage as possible to win the tender. Mr Lim calls this “cheap sourcing’’. They should be leaving it to the companies to decide the number of cleaners needed for the job to be done, he said, or “best sourcing’’. (So he has a BSI – Best Sourcing Initiative…)

I thought that made sense. I see it for myself in my condominium when the queries are about the number of security guards rather than whether the job gets done. Because, really, why should we care how many people the cleaning or security company hires so long as the place is clean and security is assured?

But changing mindsets from cheap sourcing to best sourcing is a slow and arduous process. When a company loses a contract the next time bidding comes around or when the contract expires, it does not mean the cleaners or security guards lose their jobs. What happens then is that the new company hires them instead, and since the new company probably got the tender because it under-cut the rest, their pay does not go up. In fact, it might go down, if they prefer to stay in familiar surroundings. Hence, you sometimes see the same people all the time – in different uniforms. This is a spiral which goes on and on, leaving wages stagnant.

To raise their wages, a structural change must take place to “force’’ higher pay in the sector. Enter the progressive wage model which has been described variously as a minimum wage. (He calls this PWM. )

Mr Lim acknowledged that in the cleaning sector, as well as the security and landscaping sector soon, this will be the case. Companies are not allowed to pay cleaners less than $1,000 a month. This is the law and is part of a licencing condition that the National Environment Agency will oversee.  

But more than a floor, a series of rungs have been created, each tied to job scope and productivity. So is an indoor cleaner worth more than an outdoor cleaner? If there were different sets of machines, which ones can workers operate?  A cleaner’s ability will be matched against an industry standard of skill levels. (This, by the word, is WSQ – Work Skill Qualifications). And this is again set to different wage levels. Again, all this is law and a company which flouts this stand to lose its licence – and cannot operate at all.  

I proceeded to irritate Mr Lim with a few “buts’’.

But don’t foreign workers have a role in keeping wages low in the sector? If we kept the numbers small, the wages of local cleaners will go up no?

Mr Lim’s reply: Not with the dependency ratios in place. So if a company hires 10 locals, it can only hire one foreigner if the dependency ratio is set at 10:1. The number of foreigners hired is dependent on the number of locals. If the company can make do with fewer workers, it will lay off the foreigner first – unless of course, companies scream loud enough for dependency ratios to be changed.

But isn’t this intervening in the free market by using the blunt instrument of the law?

Mr Lim’s reply: Yes. And it has to be done because the market has failed to set the wages correctly because of the emphasis on headcount rather than quality of manpower.

But why not set a minimum wage for all labour intensive sectors?

Mr Lim’s reply: This would allow companies to sack people and hire others – at minimum wage. So it doesn’t matter how good you are, you will never be better paid because the headcount only cares about how “cheap’’ you are.

But a worker who is trained may get sacked anyway and what happens if joins a new company?

Mr Lim’s reply: He doesn’t start at the bottom. He takes his qualifications with him which will require that he be paid according to his skill level. (Hmmm….it’s like have a diploma versus a degree) A smart employer will make sure the salary is according to the job scope.

But the cleaning companies would be required to train workers or get new machines and where will they get money for this?

Mr Lim’s reply: Actually, he just rolled off more ABCs….more funds and schemes that will help pay for training. Then there is IGP, Inclusive Growth Programme, that will help pay for new machines. (Go read Part 1 if you want to know more)

But some cleaning companies won’t be able to qualify for the licence and will have to shut down. So where will workers go?

Mr Lim’s reply: Companies have had six months to prepare and it seems that most will be able to meet the Sept 1 deadline. If some have to shut down, others which are licensed will snap up the workers. He doesn’t think people should be too bothered if there is a shake-up because the bottomline is: cleaners’ wages will go up.

I’m glad I had a chance to talk to him. (Our meeting was supposed to be held at TCC at NTUC centre at OMB – yup, his subordinates speak in ABCs too – but was shifted to his office). There are too many complicated policies in Singapore. They are like jigsaw puzzles. Miss a piece and you won’t get the whole picture. The PWM or progressive wage model (may I ask that the NTUC not be so quick to turn everything into acronyms?) looks pretty workable to this layman although I pity the people who have to monitor its workings. I don’t know, though, if there are further ramifications for the labour market, in terms of salary distortions.  

Mr Lim said he’s only looking at the security and landscaping sectors, which suffer the same “market failure’’, for the time being. Slow steps. He went on to say that he hopes other sectors would voluntarily adopt the PWM (I don’t know how he keeps all the ABCs in his head).  

I have to say that I didn’t manage to irritate the genial man.

He answered questions so well, so fully.  

He irritated me instead.

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…

Ee Boh lah! Thank goodness!

In News Reports, Society on August 16, 2014 at 2:02 am

There’s a joke going around about the scare the Nigerian woman caused when she was thought to have brought the Ebola virus into Singapore. She’s been given the all-clear; in other words, Ee boh lah! I suppose the joke is also a manifestation of a relief, given that we would probably be put in a state of panic if it was the case.

Anyway we have the Changi Airport people all donned up in white suits to do mock simulations if something so untoward should happen.

The wonder is that this little global city hasn’t yet been breached by the virus. We haven’t started barring people from West Africa and wonder if the airport authorities do more than a pat-down when visitors arrive from Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Liberia or Guinea. Should we be grateful that they number among the poorest countries in the world and can’t afford air travel? Sounds rather heartless, doesn’t it.

(Actually, the authorities should not do a pat-down because the virus is transmitted through bodily fluids. It is not air-borne, like Sars. And what’s worse is that those thermal imaging machines to detect feverish travellers might not work either, since the fever disappears in the late stages!)

There are two articles in the New York Times republished by TODAY which on reading, gave me a sense of déjà vu. These weren’t about what the World Health Organisation is up to or whether the virus came from infected bats or anything so big picture – and which people’s eyes may glaze over. The articles were about the people who were affected.

So Patient Zero, a two year old, died in December after falling ill. But not before infecting his mother, three-year sister and his grandmother. Two mourners at the grandmother’s funeral took the virus home to their villages and a healthcare worker to another. The healthcare worker died, so did his doctor. The circle got wider and wider.

The virus works so quickly. A woman with the sickness travelled to Monrovia, where she vomited in the taxi. The taxi driver who cleaned her up died. She also infected her husband and two year old child. Then there was a doctor in Sierra Leone in the forefront of combating the virus who emailed colleagues worldwide for stuff including chlorine, goggles and body bags. He died before the supplies came.

And there comes the question of burial. Few came to mourn those who died of the virus and burial workers were in protective suits. Funerals were scary.

I got thinking again about the Sars scare and how healthcare workers were falling down like flies when it was unclear how the virus was transmitted. How burial workers masked themselves with scarfs and tee-shirts. And how there was the battle to be waged against fear, prejudice and ignorance, which is pervading West Africa now.

Those far less developed countries are scrambling to put in measures to protect their people. They seem to be going through what we did – deciding how much information to put out, whether measures would hit the economy and what sort of restrictions on movement should be imposed.

I would like to think that our Sars experience has built our expertise against the invasion of foreign viruses. That alerts and processes are in place once the alarm bell is rung. The authorities and healthcare workers probably know what to do, but what about the rest of us? Sars was in 2003 and from what I can tell, the younger generation’s main recollection of the period was that there was “no school’’ and learning was done online. Perhaps, we should be better exposed to the steps taken by the besieged countries so that as a population, we too would be prepared to buckle down to survive. This wouldn’t be alarmist; it would be prudent.

The challenge of writing an assessment

In News Reports, Politics, Sports, Writing on August 12, 2014 at 2:07 am

I guess not many people realise that today marks the 10th anniversary of PM Lee at the helm of Government. Well, The Straits Times remembered and has a long essay assessing the Lee decade. It is a fine balance of he did this, but…he didn’t do this, still…
And it starts off by using the catch-all word “challenging’’ to describe the PM’s first decade.

Sigh. It’s a safe word, of course. Challenging can mean anything. You always rise up to challenges, you never merely solve problems. Challenges mean tough times, but not so tough as to not be able to overcome them. A challenge is like a dare. It evokes courage.

It must have been a challenge to write this piece. You have to give credit where credit is due and not over rah-rah such that the article becomes sycophantic. Every action should have a reaction. The piece must be very clearly analytical, with no biases that are detectable.

So the article goes this way….(excerpts are in italics)

GOOD…Leading Singapore relatively unscathed through the global financial crisis was cited by several observers as among Mr Lee’s top achievements in the decade. (Annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaged 6.3 per cent from 2004 to last year. GDP per capita went up from $46,320 to $69,050 from 2004 to last year)

BUT…The global buzz also comes at a price – cohesiveness.

STILL…. One of the signal achievements of Mr Lee’s Government is the move to bridge inequality by raising the tranche of subsidies for the lower- and middle-income group in all areas: from an income supplement for low-wage workers to grants for housing to subsidies in health care and childcare.

THEREFORE… By last year, the Gini coefficient was back down, to 0.463. After government transfers and assistance, it was 0.412. (Major re-ordering of the social compact)

BUT…. Trouble is, many Singaporeans do not see it that way, as they grapple with rising housing costs and feel the heat of competition for jobs. Instead, anxieties on overcrowding abound. Over the past decade, the population went up too fast, before transport and housing infrastructure could cope. Some observers consider this the greatest policy failure of the last decade. How did a government that prides itself on keeping close tabs on numbers allow an influx of foreigners beyond the housing and transport infrastructure’s capacity to cope?

STILL…. Mr Lee himself did not shirk this responsibility. In the heat of GE 2011, he surprised many when he apologised to the people of Singapore for the mistakes made, in an election rally at Boat Quay. That public mea culpa and events after GE 2011 raised widespread expectations of political change. (Which are in the form of nips and tucks, such as liberalising the use of Speaker’s Corner)

ALSO…he stopped doing some things. He sought to be seen to be fair when he called for polls, reducing the surprise element in timing them. Nor were there wholesale changes to electoral boundaries. He stopped using estate upgrading as electoral carrots. In GE 2011, opposition candidates’ views, not their personal character, were attacked. In choosing fair election campaigns, and in refraining from browbeating opposition candidates, Mr Lee made it less risky for people to enter the opposition fray. Hence, more opposition members got in.

BUT… Mr Lee stopped short of fundamental reforms to the electoral system that some sought, ignoring calls for an independent election commission, for example.

ALSO… still very much top-down/command and control approach, like the Population White Paper introduction. (Backed by an opinion from a commentator, that is, not writer’s words)

WRITER’S FINAL ANALYSIS… What is one to make overall of Mr Lee’s roller-coaster decade? One can take the optimistic view and say Singapore has weathered crises remarkably well and remained intact as a society, despite the train breakdowns, the Little India riot of last December, a bus drivers’ strike, and the sex and corruption scandals. Critics might say there are signs of a ship that is cruising, or even adrift, tossed about by the global winds of change. I would say that the truth as usual lies in between.

See? Told you it would be a challenge to write the piece….

Musing over the PM’s message

In News Reports, Politics on August 9, 2014 at 5:32 am

The PM actually looks nice in pink but someone should teach him what to do with his hands. They look better off holding on to a mike than flapping along his sides. Last year, he planted himself at ITE College Central, using it as a backdrop for how Singapore has come. This time, he planted himself at the Alexandra Park Connector to make the same point. Wonder what place he will pick next year? Sports Hub?
But, hey, who cares about what he looked like or where the television cameras were placed? Matters more what PM Lee said in his National Day message.

What struck me was how he eschewed the vulnerability narrative. You know, about how Singapore struggled against the odds, no one owes us a living, everybody else wants to eat our lunch and how we are so small and, yes, vulnerable. But there was the familiar refrain about how foreigners are impressed with us….and we should be too?

He was pretty forward-looking with a focus on that great swathe of young people in the ITEs and polys. I suppose those at the higher levels of education in the universities can fend for themselves. He wants to give the middle level a boost, to get them ready for the workplace and to keep on learning. (Notice he didn’t say they should all go on to university.) There’s yet another acronym-ed committee called ASPIRE to help them to reach their aspirations.

Of course, he talked about economic growth, to be achieved within a much smaller band now which he didn’t say. We can forget about hitting top end of 4 per cent forecasted; it’s 3.5 per cent at the upper end. I half-expected him to talk about productivity which has been pretty dismal despite years of effort, and which so many economists and commentators have referred to. He didn’t. Nor did he talk about how the economic restructuring might not be working as well as it should or the pain it is causing to businesses.

He did go on about retirement planning. That’s really the big thing that everybody wants to hear at his National Day Rally next weekend.

“Singaporeans know that they have to prepare for retirement. People are working longer and saving more. For most of you, your HDB flat and CPF savings are key ways to fund your retirement. The HDB flat has allowed Singaporeans to build a home, and to grow a valuable nest egg for old age. Your flat is an asset which appreciates as Singapore prospers. My team is studying how to make it more convenient for retirees to get cash out of your flats, in a prudent and sustainable way.’’

“Besides your flat, the CPF has helped you to save for your old age. It ensures you have a stream of income in retirement. The scheme works well for many of you, but it can be improved.’’

So it’s time to play a guessing game on what’s coming up. A re-look at the minimum sum requirements? More CPF money freed for the financially-savvy to invest? More “reverse mortgage’’ plans to get the elderly to unlock their assets? I hope that something more radical will be announced than such tweaking along the sides, such as whether CPF money should used to buy a home for the first, second, third and umpteenth time so much so that even though we can’t quite maintain our standard of living in the last home, we insist on keeping it. Because it is our home. As I’ve said before, people look at retirement planning in terms of cash; not cash that must be unlocked from assets. A massive mindset change needs to occur for people to “touch’’ their houses to pay for day-to-day living. (You don’t suppose he will speak about Roy Ngerng do you?)

There’s something else that he said that resonated with me: “As Singaporeans, we must judge a person not just by his educational qualifications, but also by his skills, contributions and character. This is how we keep Singapore a land of hope and opportunity for all.’’

This might be naughty of me but is that why he didn’t talk about ITE and poly students going on to uni? In any case, he’s correct to say that a person shouldn’t be judged by whether he was from the Normal or Express stream, has a diploma or a Phd. It would be good if he put a brake on this paper chase so that no one need feel embarrassed about cutting short his education or having his education cut short for him. And people realise that they don’t have to buy Phds online to earn respect or look good.

By the way, I almost expected that he would say that you should not judge a person by his sexual orientation or views on the family…he didn’t. Nothing on the cultural wars fought over library books beyond how “our interests and opinions are more diverse and deeply held’’. I wonder if he thinks the cultural divide is important enough to merit a mention in his rally speech. Is this more a pre-occupation of the vocal few than a national issue?

In all, a very “safe’’ message. I hope his rally speech will be more uplifting. I have always thought the Prime Minister doesn’t address the nation often enough. He should, to pull together the diversity of voices or set the nation on a path. May he do so in brilliant fashion next week. I’m looking forward to it.

An online citizen’s National Day Pledge

In Society on August 9, 2014 at 12:41 am

Here’s a possible pledge for online citizens of Singapore. If you don’t like, replace the We with Me. Still works…

We, the online citizens of Singapore, pledge to:

PUT a smiley face on sour news and go kekeke whenever we don’t like something.

LOOK kindly on rabid proponents on all sides of the cultural divide because they have a thick skin, even if they are deluded.

BLOCK trolls who swear and use invective or at least tell them nicely to stay out of our Face(book)

GIVE the benefit of the doubt to the G because we know it is no good at communicating, even if it means well.

BELIEVE in the goodness of our fellow men, even though we see mainly the ugly side online.

PARTICIPATE in every online petition that we are asked to, so as not to disappoint the originators who took the trouble.

ACCEPT as FB friends people from far flung places who are out to get your money – just to see what they try to do.

READ the right stuff, from the right people, in the right way, although we wouldn’t know if they have got it wrong.

RECOGNISE that people have different views and may not articulate them as well as we think they should – or we can.

DECLARE that racism, sexism, chauvinism and xenophobia (even when disguised as patriotism) has no place in discussion threads.

LEAVE the realm of conspiracy theories to writers of fiction even though they are fun to come up with.

REMEMBER that recriminations will be rewarded by more recriminations.

IGNORE those who pour cold water on everything good depending, of course, on our definition of “good’’.

SHARE liberally stories and photographs of heroes, especially those whom you can take home to meet mother.

HAPPY 49th BIRTHDAY, Singapore!!!!

Still poor or not?

In Money, News Reports on August 8, 2014 at 4:35 am

A new acronym has been inflicted on the reading masses: SPOR. It stands for Singapore Public Sector Outcomes Review, released by the Finance ministry. Shame on TODAY and BT for using this acronym that only a civil servant can come up with. At least ST declined to relay the affliction.

But on a more serious note, what does SPOR (haha) has to say about S’pore? It depends on which newspaper you read.

ST predictably rah-rahed on the higher pay of the lowest paid here, that 20th percentile of workers. Those at that level earned $1,800 a month, up by 6 per cent since 2009. That’s five years ago. I don’t know why it’s a five-year comparison, when the report is released every two years. Maybe because there isn’t too big a difference in wages of less well-off between 2012 and 2014? Anyway, this is real wage growth, after accounting for inflation.

In any case, the article led off with the closing Gini co-efficient as a key achievement of the G in the past two years.

What are the figures?
ST and BT say from 0.434 in 2012 to 0.412 last year (after taxes and transfers, says BT )
TODAY says from 0.478 in 2012 to 0.463 last year. (doesn’t say if this is before taxes and transfers)

Anyway, BT gave better insight on this income inequality story by pointing out that those wages went up because of transfers – the G forcing through higher wages because of clamp down on foreign labour and other wage policies. While things look better on the wages front, the productivity front “remains a concern’’. Economists now say full growth for this year will be 0.5 per cent, higher than 0.2 per cent previously but still way off 2-3 per cent G target.

So what’s the implication? That we are getting higher salaries that are “artificial’’ because it’s not underpinned by better productivity and it’s to do with G re-calibrating the supply front? Oh dear. Or is the argument really that the low wages have been kept “artificially low’’ in the first place because so many foreigners were doing the jobs? Really. Can argue anything in which way…

BT also has economists saying that core inflation which was 1.7 per cent last year will go up. And this means that real wage growth may not go up as much and that Gini co-efficient may widen yet again. Unless there are more G transfers?

Anyway, go read BT for a fuller story. But read TODAY also for other spores of Singapore, like how public satisfaction with public transport has fallen yet again.