Thursday, May 30, 2013

Bye Bye Blogger

Little Ms Kaypoh has decided to migrate... to wordpress!

See you at http://littlemskaypoh.wordpress.com/.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Straits Times' Long Interview with 'The One Who Got Away'

I read the Straits Times' Long Interview with Ong Ye Kung in today's issue and immediately had.to.blog.

Firstly, THAT headline.



"ONG YE KUNG - 'The one who got away'"

A few paragraphs into the article, the context of that quote becomes clearer:
Touted to be of ministerial calibre, Mr Ong is often spoken of as 'the one who got away' and unfortunate 'collateral damage' of GE 2011. People who have worked with him say it is Parliament's loss as he is a natural politician, with his ability to rally people.
"The one that got away"? Not "the one that wasn't voted in"? Or, as someone else pointed out, "the one that lost"?

It seems that when the PAP loses - in what it likes to tell us are democratic elections - it is an absolute crying shame, a great grave loss.

When the opposition loses? Well done, Singaporeans! Stay sensible!

The phrase "unfortunate collateral damage" makes the voting choices of Aljunied residents in GE 2011 seem like a stroke of bad luck - thereby requiring little examination of why many voters actually chose to vote against the PAP to send the Workers' Party's candidates to Parliament. 

Here are more choice excerpts from the article:
ONE year on, losing Aljunied GRC as part of the People's Action Party's team in the 2011 General Election still stings for Ong Ye Kung. He had described his campaign as 'jumping off a cliff into the unknown'. 

But he's found the bottom.
....
Looking back, the deputy secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) says: 'I don't regret running. It was an experience of a lifetime.' The only pity, he says, was that he had to resign from his 18-year Administrative Service career to go into politics.
I have no doubt that losing an election stings. But "jumping off a cliff"?

Ong may have lost the election but he is currently (according to Wikipedia):
  • Deputy Secretary General of the National Trades Union Congress 
  • Chairman of the Employment and Employability Institute 
  • Executive Secretary of the National Transport Workers' Union 
  • Executive Secretary of the Singapore Manual Mercantile Workers' Union 
  • Board member of the SMRT Corporation 
  • Board member of SPRING Singapore 
  • Board member of NTUC Learning Hub 
  • Board member of the Jurong Town Corporation 
  • Council Member of Ngee Ann Polytechnic 

According to the Straits Times, Ong is still "a card-carrying cadre of the PAP" and remains "involved in grassroots activities in Kaki Bukit, the ward he was assigned during the last GE". In fact, he "still shows up for community events almost every weekend". Not only that, "he also spent eight weeks heading internal investigations into the SMRT breakdowns".

(Seriously, with the amount of work a PAP non-MP does around here, why bother electing them in?)

If this is considered taking a leap into the unknown, how would they describe the incredible risks and terrible costs borne by opposition politicians? Politicians who have faced long years of imprisonment, exile from their country and loved ones, as well as bankruptcy, to name just a few consequences?

When PAP candidates speak of risk and hardship in entering politics, it trivializes the courage and suffering borne by others who have literally "jumped" into the known battlefield that is opposition politics in Singapore.

Far from leaping into the unknown, PAP politicians can generally enter elections with the assurance that, win or lose, they will continue to be actively involved in their ward's grassroots activities and policy-making.

Surely that is a fact worth scrutinizing more closely?
One thing you definitely learn is resilience,' the 43-year-old says, describing his failed political outing as his biggest professional setback to date. At his bleakest, he drew comfort from everyone from crooner Kelly Clarkson to boxer Muhammad Ali. He cites the lyrics to Clarkson's What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger and a quote from the former world heavyweight champion which a stranger sent him on Facebook: 'Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come out with an extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.'
Actually, this match was far from even. Ong was in a GRC helmed by a very popular minister but despite how very uneven the odds were (stacked in THEIR favour, that is), they still lost.
What helps him is how he keeps score - by deliverables, change and action. He has little patience for scholarly pontificating or writing retrospective analyses. The day after the election, he says, he returned to NTUC and resumed work to improve the lot of workers.
These sort of statements make non-PAP politicians who lose elections appear, in contrast, lazy, impotent and whiny. But opposition politicians are simply not able to "jump back" into work the same way, or continue attending grassroots events and "take action" - they do not have the power or resources to do so.
He has spent the past few months negotiating for a pay hike for bus drivers and making sure the Transport Ministry's funding to public transport operators got passed down to drivers. Wage ceilings, which were not raised for 13 years, inched up from $1,560 to $1,700. 'That says a lot about his negotiation skills,' says bus driver Ong Leong Chin, 58, who is SBS Transit east district branch chairman. 'He is someone who treats the workers as equals and respects their views. He goes down to a bus interchange coffee shop at least once a month to have lunch and chat with them.'
Sigh, Straits Times, you had a Long Interview with this man after a controversial "negotiation", one that resulted in SMRT bus drivers sending an email to the media to state their displeasure, and you did not even address the bus drivers' concerns? Instead you give Ong credit for the pay rise and do not even mention that these negotiations - which did not involve the bus drivers - involved an extra day's work.

Can you blame us for wondering if this is yet another NTUC advertorial?

And finally:
I am certainly maintaining an active interest in politics. I was not successful when I stood for election. That is part and parcel of democracy and the electoral process. I will learn from it and remain committed to serving Singaporeans.
Our electoral process is far from democratic. Ong's loss, in fact, was shocking because the odds of an opposition party winning a GRC are stacked against the latter. Ong's loss (and the Workers' Party's win) is not a testament to democracy - it is a resolute show of disgust at the lack of it.  

*It may seem hard to believe, but I do not dislike this man. I just really really abhor the political system that produces these sorts of attitudes and outcomes, and a mainstream media that panders to it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

SMRT's Pay More No Choice But to Work More Scheme

On 18 May 2012, the SMRT announced a 35% pay rise for new Singaporean bus drivers, bringing their monthly basic pay to $1600. This move was applauded by Ong Ye Kung, the National Transport Workers’ Union executive secretary.

What both the SMRT and Ong Ye Kung neglected to mention, however, was that the pay rise comes with… one extra day’s work.

SMRT is now mandating a 6-day work week, where it used to be 5 days. A group of SMRT bus drivers then sent an email to the media (including online media), asserting this “pay rise”, along with an extra day’s work, would either result in negligible increases or, in certain cases, a decrease in their daily wages. SMRT and “unionist” Ong sought to defend the new scheme, which I shall call the Pay More, No Choice but to Work More scheme.

That a so-called “unionist” is defending this scheme demonstrates our unions either do not understand or are disrespectful of the importance of a) encouraging work-life balance; b) protecting workers’ health and safety; c) workers’ autonomy, the need to have some control over our work life and decisions.

This 6-day work week, after all, was a unilateral decision. While bus drivers expressed shock and disappointment, the SMRT and Ong determined that the problem was one of poor communication, rather than the scheme itself, or the fact that workers were not consulted, despite this decision being “discussed at length between management and union leaders, who support it”.

 The SMRT is now working on a “series of communication sessions", with Ong expressing regret that “[t]he news ran ahead of ground communications”, which has “caused confusion among the drivers”.

Confusion? Bus drivers are pissed off because they feel ripped off – they currently face the possibility of being paid less in “daily gross remuneration” while forced to work more days per week, even as SMRT claims credit for “raising workers’ pay” (with the unions supporting the latter). To call it “confusion” is to suggest workers have no legitimate claim to their disgruntledness, that it is merely the “lack of communication” which has led to bus drivers not viewing this new arrangement positively. What is actually confounding, though, is the following:

Work-life balance and pay rise – mutually exclusive for bus-drivers?
In January 2006, the SMRT decided to go from a 6-day work week to a 5-day work week. The reason? To promote better work-life balance.

In May 2012, the SMRT decides to go from a 5-day work week back to a 6-day work week – why? Because they are increasing bus drivers’ pay.

This was kind of head-scratching at first – is work-life balance no longer important for bus drivers? Doesn’t SMRT say on its website that “our people are our assets”? Didn’t MPs recently speak up for bus drivers in Parliament, citing concerns about bus drivers’ “long working hours, short breaks, and the need to deal with traffic and passengers”? When questions were raised over the government’s $1.1 billion dollar subsidy to public transport operators, there were assurances this subsidy could contribute to “improving salary and work conditions”.

I didn’t realize this was an either/or option – either improving salary or work conditions.

Perhaps the SMRT has not visited the Ministry of Manpower’s website, which states:
The implementation of a Work-Life strategy is key to achieving such a win-win situation for both employers and employees. It also plays an important part in attracting and retaining talent. The business benefits resulting from a successful Work-Life strategy can include: 
 • Increased productivity; 
• Improved recruitment and retention; 
• Lower absenteeism rates; • Improved customer experience; and 
• A more motivated, satisfied and equitable workforce. 

 In terms of bottom line, for every $1 spent on family-friendly programmes, a company reaps an average return of $1.68. 
 Seeing as the SMRT is in dire need of all of the above benefits, why isn’t the union reminding them of the importance of work-life balance (instead of publicly defending them)? And where is the Tripartite Alliance of Fair Employment Practices when you need them?

It seems as if ‘work-life strategy’ is only applicable to some groups of workers (like busy executives), but not others (like bus drivers). For bus drivers, it appears a perverse human resource principle applies – if you want a marginal pay increase, you must face – and accept – reductions in your working conditions.

“Unionists” are busy pointing out that SMRT bus drivers want to work overtime – but this, surely, is different from mandating a 6-day work week, in which all bus drivers are denied a choice over when and whether they want to work more than 5 days a week, how frequently, and for how long.

SMRT bus drivers, in their email to the media, stated:
Having the policy changed by SMRT Bus Service from a 5 days work week to a 6 days work week will result in bus drivers having less time for their families, which is contrary to the Singapore government's policy of work-life balance. Bus drivers will only have 1 rest day a week and have to apply leave should they wish to spend more time with their family. Currently, on a 5 days work week, it is already very hard for us to apply leave as there is a quota set for each service route. With only one rest day now, it will only make matters worst. How does SMRT Bus Service expect to recruit more locals with 6 days work week? 

Transport unionist also SMRT board member? 
A year ago, in May 2011, Ong Ye Kung, a PAP candidate campaigning as part of the Aljunied GRC team during GE 2011, said he saluted bus-drivers for their hard work and can-do spirit. In his rally speech, Ong asked: “What has the WP done, in tangible terms for low-wage workers? Will talking help low-wage workers? Or will taking action help them?”

 Well, action has been taken, but has it helped? Maybe - if you’re SMRT.

While reading TODAY’s article on the pay rise, I noted that National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) deputy secretary-general Ong Ye Kung is also the executive secretary of the National Transport Workers' Union and a board member of SMRT Corporation. Er, the union representative who is meant to negotiate on behalf of bus drivers, is also a board member of the profit-driven SMRT Corporation?

That this was part of a matter-of-fact description about Ong tells us much about the state of our current labour movement.

~

The campaign is now on to prove, irrevocably, that bus drivers, without a doubt, will be earning more under this Pay More, No Choice but to Work More scheme. The union continues to stress that the loss of overtime pay is a key concern of bus drivers, and that this will be addressed through a rostering cycle to ensure "there is no loss in overtime overall". But surely other questions need to be asked? For example,

· Is this bus drivers’ preferred way to raise their wages? Yes, they may be asking for more overtime to boost their wages, but if their wages were actually commensurate with inflation, would so many of them want to be working such long hours over an extended period of time? When workers are reliant on overtime pay in order to get by each month, doesn’t that signify their current wages are inadequate?

· Is this a “sustainable” way to raise wages? When a group of workers are viewed as underpaid, is lengthening their work week the only way to justify a wage increase? How far along can/should we stretch this? (Strangely enough, this principle seems to apply only in the low-wage sectors.)

· When overtime and overtime pay is “factored in”, leaving workers little choice to opt out – because it has already been assumed by the company they all want to opt in, indefinitely – isn’t this akin to forced overtime? If the company and the unions are so confident workers want overtime, then why not leave it as it is, a 5-day work week, with the option to work longer hours and days if workers wish to? (And pay higher overtime rates, so there will be a pay increase)

· With all this focus on extending work hours to earn more pay, is there no consideration of the fact that driving long hours is tiring, and that fatigue is closely linked to increased accidents on the road? Is driver and commuter safety – not only of the bus drivers, but general road users too – not a priority?

So, yes, I agree with Ong that there is much confusion – but I really don’t think it is bus drivers that need to sit down and listen.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The ministerial pay revisions: what are we really valuing?

I have hesitated commenting on the ministerial pay cuts but after watching the news and reading the Straits Times (5 Jan 2012), I needed to BLOG.IT.OUT.

‘In principle, we agree’
In the Straits Times article, ‘How benchmark model is picked’ (ST, 5 Jan 2012), it was reported that while the review committee ‘agreed with the principles’ behind the former model of basing ministerial salaries, the model ‘turned out to be complex and difficult for the public to understand’.

Not only does this perspective not challenge the former model and its moral reasoning, its premise is that the previous model was not flawed, just that we (‘the public’) were unable to grasp its ‘complexities’. Public rage at the hefty pay rise for ministers in 2007, pegged to the top earners in the private sector, has therefore been reduced to confusion – a general public too simple-minded to ‘get it’.

Meanwhile, in ‘The million-dollar question on fair pay’ (ST, 5 Jan 2012), the author deems the recent recommendations ‘fair’ but believes ‘opposition parties will continue to milk the issue’. She ends by asking: ‘Will sentiment or reason prevail with the electorate at large’?

In one lazy but effective stroke, she has divided us into two camps: those who think the recommendations are fair, and those who do not. Among the former, it is presumed that reasoned deliberation has resulted in the reasonable conclusion the current outcome is ‘fair’. As for the latter dissenting voices, you are either trying to stoke the flames for your own selfish political gain, or you’re just being sentimental (thinking with the wrong organ again, i.e. not your brain).

This is thoughtless and dishonest characterization. Between the congratulatory backslappers and the ‘I-will-object-to-anything-and-everything-the-government-does’ naysayers lies a continuum of diverse concerns. Here, I add to the medley of voices by sharing mine.

On principle, I disagree
The entrenched perspective that ministerial salaries must remain ‘competitive’ in order to attract ‘top talent’ from the private sector sends a very clear signal who the ruling party views as worthy and desirable to run this country (to prevent it from social chaos and irreparable financial ruin). Persons of ‘good calibre’ are assumed to only subsist in the million(s)-dollar stratosphere, a rarefied and ‘limited talent pool’. Such persons – ‘the best and the brightest’ – must not be deterred from joining politics because of the potential economic hardship they will suffer.

This is unapologetic elitism framed as national necessity.

What does this mean for other (much) lower-paid individuals who have leadership qualities and a desire to serve the community through political service? Is it inconceivable that salaried employees in other respectable – but much less lucrative – professions such as social work, nursing, teaching etc. etc. could be interested in running for office and capable of doing a commendable job? Though perhaps it is really not about who is interested and capable of serving constituents, but who the People’s Action Party desires to fill its party ranks – and they have a very narrow and strategic focus.

Yet, as a writer in TODAY pointed out, ‘historically, many ministers have come from professions which are unlikely to figure among the top 1,000 earners, including career army officers, academics and trade unionists'.

So the argument is not just elitist, it is shown to be historically untrue (at least partially).

Another unchallenged assumption: that the salaries of top earners in the private sector are uncontroversial and should be adopted as ‘objective’ indicators of ‘reasonable’ salaries for those deemed deserving and capable. But why did Occupy Wall Street happen? Globally, there is overwhelming public dismay and disgust over excesses in the private sector – apparently, the ratio of pay for CEOs versus the average worker in the United Kingdom is 22:1 and, in the United States, an alarming 475:1.

While our Occupy Raffles Place movement did not happen (physically), I don’t believe there aren’t similar sentiments here too. And where does that resentment spring from? The intuitive sense that NO ONE, no matter how capable, deserves to be paid in such gross disproportion to the plenty of other honest and hardworking others who are consistently undervalued and paid so little. These escalating ratios mock the reality of our interdependency, for the CEO of any company is reliant on the constant hum and drum of its many employees – from its lowest rungs to more revered tiers – to keep the company thriving and drawing profits.

Empirically, there has also been little evidence that the ‘pay better = attract quality leaders’ equation works. After all, there was a boost in ministers’ salaries in 2007 and, well, look what happened during the last General Election in 2011.

Surely that should have been a wake-up call to examine the other factors that are deterring persons otherwise suited to come forward and ‘join politics’. The reluctance to do so, the insistence on prioritizing high pay in practice while paying lip service to ‘service’, contributes to the persistent and cynical conclusion that it IS all about the money. [And until fundamental flaws in our top-down political system, which can be oppressive and unkind to political plurality and vibrancy, is addressed, competitive salaries will continue to be limited in its ability to draw talent – or, at the very least, the sort of diversity of talent a growing number of Singaporeans appear to yearn.]

Additionally, how was this whole pay package review conducted? The process should be placed under as much public scrutiny as the outcome. This particular pay system – of pegging salaries of government ministers and top civil servants to the top earners in the private sector – was created, defended, and entrenched by the PAP since 1994, despite vehement public disagreement. After the so-called ‘watershed’ election of 2011, which showed the ruling party in no uncertain times it was losing its popularity, a review of this pay package was called for – by the Prime Minister. More importantly, the terms of reference for this review was set – by the Prime Minister (and they went unchallenged by the review committee, who worked only to the terms of reference. See Siew Kum Hong’s post ‘Answering the wrong question on ministerial salaries’] Within this new package, heralded as dispensing a ‘clean wage’, the performance bonus, which could possibly go up to six months, will be ‘determined by the Prime Minster’ (according to the Straits Times, ‘What goes into a minister’s pay’, 5 Jan 2012). The mentality that ‘we will makes changes when we want to’, ‘how we want to’ and in what degree we feel is necessary, remains unchanged.

So the mercenary asks: ‘Are we being too idealistic’?
I caught snatches of BlogTV today (5 Jan 2012), where the topic was the ministerial pay cuts. A ‘political observer’ expressed the view that politics is ‘not priesthood’, that it was unrealistic for members of the voting public to expect politicians to make drastic financial sacrifices for the heavy responsibilities they undertake simply out of passion or a desire to serve.

Such hyperboles unhelpfully exaggerate what are not unreasonable ideals people the world over generally expect and admire in leaders – integrity, empathy, fairness and a heart geared towards service. Yet expressions of such expectations of potential office bearers tend to be pooh-poohed as ‘idealistic’, as if some inherent incompatibility exists between capable, caring and committed public servants and any pay packet below $1.1 million dollars+++. Plus, Singaporeans, generally noted for their pragmatism, are not advocating Minister Martyrs who undergo severe deprivation in order to prove themselves worthy to run the country. (That said, an entry-level minister under the revised scheme will earn about $55, 000+++ a month. If someone cannot budget a comfortable living on $55K a month, would I want that person to be my Minster? If anything less than this is considered financial hardship for our leaders, then how can they continue to reject, without any sense of irony or shame, calls to institute a living wage in this increasingly expensive city?)

It is frustrating how advocating a principled approach, when it runs contrary to the ruling party’s approach, tends to get you framed as ‘idealist’ – in a derogatory way. Idealism has become a careless smear thrown at anyone who finds distasteful the dehumanizing lens our government has cast on every aspect of our lives here in Singapore.

I oppose this representation and think it’s time we reclaim our right to champion values we collectively agree are important, without fear of ridicule or retaliation when the actions of those in power contradict these values.

Monday, May 2, 2011

GE 2011: My vote and my ‘child’s future’

As a mother-to-be and eligible voter, I am, for the first time, considering a) who to cast my vote for, and b) ‘my child’s future’.

This is the PAP’s ongoing mantra – vote for us, think of your children’s future and your grandchildren’s future, not to mention your assets and property values and job opportunities.

Well, I have been thinking hard about my child’s future, and the sort of Singapore I would like him to experience and fully participate in as he grows up. I have also been thinking about the norms that he will be exposed to, that will have the ability to shape his formation as a young adult. I have also been considering what sort of lessons our current socio-political landscape will be teaching him (and it discomforts me greatly).

I would like my son – yes, it’s a boy, says the doctor – to respect leaders for their integrity, dedication to service and commitment to justice that is not bereft of compassion.

I would like him to be steered by courageous leadership, one that does not succumb to easy appeals to greed and fear in order to secure votes, but inspires him to rise above self-centredness to support decisions that may, potentially, cause him some temporary discomfort, but may ultimately result in a more humane alternative to the current ‘catch up or die’ development model.

I would very much like my child to be able to speak his mind respectfully yet fearlessly if he disagrees with the status quo, without having to hover in the background to remind him: ‘Be careful, son!’ (And then give a long and somber lecture about the existence of the Internal Security Act and how it has been abused in the past to silence and intimidate persons who disagreed and tried to challenge the system.)

I want him to grow up learning that loyalty should be earned, not bought. That if he was ever to become a politician, or even a team leader in his school or manager of a company, that his key strategy should not be to induce obedience through a coercive combination of threats and bribes. If my son wins – a competition, a promotion, an election – I would like to be proud of how he won it through a ‘clean fight’. That he won the respect of others who have selected him because of his capabilities, his potential, his sincere desire to serve others.

I would like my son to appreciate humility and its power to move others. Genuine humility, that comes from admitting to human frailties and mistakes and taking responsibility for them. Humility that is demonstrated by listening with sincerity to others with differing – even opposing – views, without being dismissive, patronizing or bullying them into silence.

I would like my child to grow up in a country where the ‘good life’ is not merely characterized by GDP growth, but by the measure in which fellow citizens protect and care for each other, particularly the most vulnerable amongst us. I look forward to him being part of a country where he could, without being a Presidents Scholar, or even a degree holder, be recognized and valued for whatever skills and talents he possesses. I want him to work in a country where he could excel in a trade if he so chooses – e.g. carpentry, bricklaying, horticulture – and be paid a decent, living wage for an honest day’s work, a wage where he could afford to get married, buy a comfortable (not necessarily luxurious) home and raise a family.

I want my child to be convinced that in this society, there is no shame or crime in being different, that it is important to think critically, imaginatively, and boldly – that the road to success is not through memorizing model answers or mindlessly filling in the blanks with droll answers provided by judicious instructors. I hope that he can flourish within an education system that genuinely fosters creativity, spontaneity and sparks of harmless mischief, and doesn’t kill enthusiasm for subjects/curricula not perceived as ‘profitable’ – e.g. philosophy and literature, as opposed to engineering or accounting.

I want my child to grow up with a healthier understanding and experience of democracy than I have. I want him to experience a Singapore where it is not accepted as ‘normal’ for Members of Parliament to hold on to their positions for years – even decades – without having ever been voted in; where ‘live’ debates between politicians of different parties over pertinent policy issues are a regular feature; where civil liberties such as freedom of assembly and expression and the right to information are not treated as ‘luxuries’ but recognized as the fundamental rights of mature citizens.

I want him to be able to experience the dynamism of an egalitarian society at its best – one where persons fight fearlessly to protect the principles of truth and justice, yet never forget the beauty of mercy and gentleness.

But most of all, I do not want my child, when he is 21 and no longer a child, but an adult about to vote himself, to ask me, perhaps with some measure of disappointment, maybe resentment, or possibly despair: ‘Mom, why didn’t any of you do anything?’

I am 38 years old this year, and I can finally vote.

And because I’m thinking of my child’s future, I know exactly what I want to say come 7 May 2011 at my local polling station.

Friday, February 18, 2011

How about 'Richer, Kinder, Slower'?

I have come to my tether, and therefore I must blog (or self-combust).

In a nutshell:

Cause of aggravation #1: A friend told me last night of a conversation between an undergraduate at a local university here and her colleague. Her colleague had expressed his dismay at the large numbers of elderly folk in Singapore working in menial, backbreaking jobs. The law student couldn’t understand what the fuss was – after all, ‘it’s good that they at least have a job’.

This echoes a letter in a mainstream newspaper recently, which similarly extolled the employment of elderly folk here in Singapore as some sort of blessing.

Two questions for persons who hold such views:




Is this what you wish you/your mother/father/grandparents will be doing when you/they are 65, 70, 75? To be pushing trolleys, hauling trash, clearing plates (while standing most of the day), so as to earn a part-time pay of maybe $400 a month, or full-time pay of perhaps $800?

The government will boldly splash posters of elderly working folk who beam and tell us they are grateful to be working, that working keeps them active, affords them a modest income. The mainstream media will boost their efforts by featuring more of these elderly workers who are pleased to be working.

These elderly men and women are admirable for their spirit, but such cases should not be exploited to a) exaggerate the number of such cases; b) distract from the problem that many elderly persons are forced to take on menial jobs with meager wages just to make ends meet.

After working a lifetime, instead of easing into an era of ‘Richer, Kinder, Slower’, the low-wage elderly find themselves coerced by the state into being ‘Cheaper, Better, Faster’. So much for filial piety and contributing to the spoils of this extremely prosperous nation.

Ministers who are past retirement age but still working – not just as highly paid government officials but also as consultants on boards of large companies – are far from a legitimate example for the rest of the country’s ‘average citizens’.

Their wealth and bargaining powers position them among the elite, who can easily choose not to work and still live extravagantly till their last days – they do not need to worry about escalating healthcare costs draining their dwindling retirement savings, or what record inflation will mean for their daily expenditure.

I have met foreign workers from poorer countries in the region who ask me, with great puzzlement (sometimes shock), how is it that in Singapore, one of the richest countries in the world, there are so many frail elderly women and men working alongside them, as they clean toilets and scrape leftover food off plastic plates. I am embarrassed, and unable to answer. ‘This will never happen back in our country’, some of them say, shaking their heads.

Which makes me wonder, as it increasingly does for others: what is the point of being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, when we are so callous towards the weak and marginalized?

Cause of aggravation #2: The Ministry of Manpower responded to my letter to the Straits Times forum about foreign worker levies (specifically, the foreign domestic worker – or ‘maid’ – levy). In light of the recent controversy over proposed wage hikes for domestic workers, I had proposed a reduction in the foreign maid levies. This could alleviate the financial strain of working families as well as be redirected to increasing the wages of domestic workers here in Singapore. After more than a decade, the wages of domestic workers have increased from a mere $230 to $380; in comparison domestic workers can earn up to $800 in Taiwan or $650 in Hong Kong. (Little wonder they would much rather head there!)

The response from the MOM reiterated nothing new: the levy is to moderate demand, they said, not wages. However, if the mandate of the levy is to ‘moderate’ demand, I would like to point out that there is nothing ‘moderate’ about the exponential leaps in domestic worker numbers in this country.

The Foreign Maid Scheme was introduced in 1978. By 1988, in just a decade, there were 40,000 maids in Singapore. By 1993, it was said that one in fifteen households in Singapore employed a domestic worker, one of the highest rates in the world for countries with live-in domestic help; by 2007, this figure was one in six households; in 2009, it was one in five households. In today’s letter, the MOM says there are now more than 200,000 domestic workers in Singapore. In 2009 alone, 6,000 new domestic workers were hired in that one year. The figures below chart the not-so-moderate increases (as culled from media reports and research papers):

Foreign Domestic Worker population / Year
40,000 / 1988
100,000 / 1999
160,000 / 2005
170,000 / Feb 2009
196,000 / Dec 2009
200,000 / Feb 2011

Sure, numbers could have gone even higher without the levies – but is that even the point anymore? There is clearly a deepening structural dependence on domestic workers here in this country, and if the government doesn’t take concrete steps to reduce this reliance, then what is the point of taxing employers even further?

A levy ceases to be an effective deterrent when there appear to be little other attractive options available. Moreover, the costs of previously affordable alternatives have risen beyond the costs of the levy – e.g. when childcare outside the home costs $800-$1200, a financially pragmatic working family might choose to hire a domestic worker instead, as the domestic worker’s salary + levy is still lower. This does not mean that all families who do so can easily afford to hire a domestic worker – but that it will be presented as the less financially taxing option if childcare costs continue to escalate, as has been reported in the press yesterday and today.

There is also a standard PAP-government way of rationalizing ‘cost savings’: The MOM stated in its letter that families with young children, elderly and disabled family members pay a ‘concessionary levy’ of $170, instead of the full maid levy of $265. That is indeed ingenious – slapping on a tax of $265, then reducing it slightly and, hey presto! You have ‘cost savings’!

If the levy is not quite ‘moderating’ demand, and is fast losing effectiveness as a ‘deterrant’ due to inflationary pressures on childcare and aged care options outside the home, then what is the foreign worker levy for, where does the money go, and how is the money being used?

A foreign worker levy is a tax employers of all work permit holders and S-Pass holders have to pay every month. There are over 200,000 domestic workers in Singapore, and the levy ranges from $170-$265 per domestic worker. As of December 2009, there were allegedly 856,000 work permit holders, and the levy per worker ranges from $160-$470. As per Dec 2009 figures, there were 82,000 S-Pass holders, and their monthly levy ranges from $110-$150. Anyone wishes to hazard a guess how much this means in terms of government revenue each year?

A conservative estimate, based on an assumption that 40 percent of households pay a concessionary levy of $170, and the rest of the 60 percent pay $265, means a ‘guesstimate’ of revenue earned from the maid levy alone per year would be:

80,000 x $170 (monthly levy) = $13, 600, 000
+
120,000 x $265 (monthly levy) = $31, 800, 000
=
$45, 400, 000 in revenue each month for the maid levy alone

If you multiply that by 12 (months), that makes it $544, 800, 000 earned from the maid levy each year.

What if you add the levies from the other 856,000 work permit holders (which are considerably higher), and the 82, 000 S-Pass holders?

It made my calculator go beserk and my head spin.

The state has never revealed in total how much it earns in revenue from the foreign worker levies, where this money – billions! – is channeled to, and how it is used.

There is no transparency and no accountability, and yet we have to accept their rationale, as foreign worker levies continue to rise alongside foreign worker numbers, that this is really for our own good.

Cause of aggravation #3: Record inflation rates and ‘wage increases’

The news today predicts record inflationary rates – inflation is estimated to rise to 5 or 6 percent in the coming months; averaging at 3 to 4 per cent the entire year. Apparently, the average inflation rate since the 1980s has been 1.7 per cent, so this rise is considerable and alarming.

Of course, we are also told that the economy grew at a record pace last year.

But wait, hang on, income inequality has also been growing at an alarming rate too:

• According to the United Nations, the rich-poor gap in Singapore is the second largest among the world’s developed countries. Apparently, Singapore’s richest 20 percent earn 9.7 times more than the poorest 20 percent: the median monthly income of Singapore’s richest 20 percent rose from S$5, 328 in 1996 to S$7,278 in 2009; meanwhile, the poorest 20 percent saw their wages increase by a mere $32 over the same 13 year time period (from S$711 to $749).

• Yet another article in the Huffington Post cited: ‘From 1998 to 2008, the bottom 20 percent of households saw their income drop an average of 2.7 percent while the salaries of the richest 20 percent rose by more than half’.

• Leong Sze Hian’s article, 'Income up 0.3%: Everyone got govt benefits?', pointed out that between 2009 to 2010, ‘the ratio of average income of top 20 percent to lowest 20 percent employed households increased from 12.7 to 12.9’.

• Currently, up to 400,000 workers – 20 percent of the resident workforce – earn a monthly wage of less than S$1200.

Yet Singapore remains one of the world’s most expensive cities in the world, the second most expensive in Asia to live in (after Tokyo) – it is estimated that housing prices have increased by 70 percent since 2006. In contrast, it ranks low on wage levels in comparison with other major cities (43rd out of the 73 surveyed).

A commentary in today’s Straits Times (‘New Era of Higher Inflation’, 18/2/2011) talked about the problem of ‘higher wages’ – both overseas and in Singapore – and how this is also a driver of inflation. A mention was made of higher foreign worker levies, which an economist equated to a ‘rise in wages’.

Once again, and I refer to my previous point: higher foreign worker levies DO NOT MEAN HIGHER WAGES. It may mean higher labour costs for employers, and it definitely means higher revenue earnings for the Singapore government, but it certainly does NOT translate to increases in salary payments for low-paid workers.

And then, there was this statement: ‘Higher labour costs, by definition, mean higher pay for Singaporeans. As long as salaries rise by more than inflation – as they did last year – then Singaporeans’ purchasing power will still increase’.

Perhaps this writer is referring to the top 20 percent of Singapore’s richest households, whose income more than doubled.

But ‘salary increases’ on par with inflationary pressures is not a reality for a significant proportion of other households. In fact, Leong Sze Hian, in the article cited earlier, suggests that lower-income households actually experienced, in real terms, a decrease in income.

The mantra to ‘solve’ our woes seems to be reduced to one word: productivity. Increase productivity, and your business will become more cost-effective/the reliance on foreign workers will be reduced/you will somehow automatically earn more money because you are more productive.

Really?

Have you ever been in an office or been part of a team where someone was laid off (to cut costs), and the workload increased – hence more labour output per worker – but your salary didn’t?

In any case, Singapore, of all places, is not one where upward pressure on wages will be tolerated for too long. The PAP's objective has always been to ensure the labour market remains ‘flexible’ and wages ‘internationally competitive’ in order to attract businesses and foreign investors. For the ruling party has vastly different sets of rules to be applied to different segments of the community.

For PAP Ministers and others on the government’s payroll, it is imperative that they are paid ‘top dollar’ to preserve their integrity and attract ‘top talent’. Salaries are pegged to the top market performers, and are increased along with GDP growth. Nothing to do with individual productivity or performance, and salaries consistently continue to increase.

For the rest of the workforce, particularly those on the lower rungs of the labour market - including hunched-over 65 year-old aunties mopping toilets - salaries must be pegged to productivity. No matter that there are limits to how many queen-size beds you can physically make up in an hour; or plates you can clear off hawker centre tables; or trolleys you can remove (without leading to higher rates of work injury and stress).

In fact, how about a vastly different question: How about increasingly woeful salaries to increase productivity? In one episode of Undercover Boss, one employer discovered differences in the cleaning teams in two different caravan resort parks, both of which he owns. Among the better performing team, wages were notably higher – the team supervisor there had cut management staff, and used the money to boost the salaries of the cleaners. Instead of management breathing down the cleaner’s necks, they implemented random spot checks. The cleaning team responded to this greater independence and higher pay by becoming more diligent, motivated and cheerful.

Which reminds me of a quote by a low-wage worker in Australia, who appeared on a talk show discussing the rising costs of living. In exasperation, after bureaucrats kept harping about how wage increases may harm the economy, she commented (am paraphrasing): How is it that marginal wage increases for the low-paid are always ‘harmful’ for the economy, but generous pay increases for the already highly-paid are not?

It is astounding and quite sickening how pay rises for top executives and ministers in this country have been rising to obscene levels – way beyond what could reasonably be construed as ‘need’ – while a significant number of persons who do an honest day’s work are forced to scrape by on salaries ranging from $400 to $1000. Moreover, any calls to mandate salary increases for the low-paid are met with horror by policy-makers, who cite a string of ‘nasty consequences’ – namely, for the economy. How come there are no nasty consequences for the economy when millions/billions are directed each year to our inflated bureaucracy?

So stop this ‘cheaper, better, faster’ nonsense already. It’s not greater productivity that we need to ameliorate the problems of the working poor.

What I want are policy-makers with greater emotional intelligence and empathy, to shift us towards a new development model that values each worker and citizen, and upholds the principles of dignity at work – not just for people at the top echelons, but especially for those currently subsisting at the bottom.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dear Vui Kong

This blog entry is for Yong Vui Kong, a young man currently sitting on Singapore’s Death Row. His appeal hearing takes place tomorrow, 17 January, at 10am, at the Court of Appeal, Supreme Court. This letter is part of a blog-a-thon organized by We Believe in Second Chances.

Dear Vui Kong,

I am not much of a blogger. I started a blog in August 2009, and so far it only has three entries.

Each of them, I wrote because I was motivated to say something, and could not rest till I expressed it in words.

Today, I am writing my fourth entry, for you.

We Believe in Second Chances organized a blog-a-thon and I attended, even though I wasn’t sure what I was going to say.

While I was there, I read the booklet that your sister lovingly put together as an appeal to President Nathan. It was filled with plenty of photographs of you and your family – lots of warm smiles – and it was both heartwarming and heartbreaking to see these images and read the emotional appeal.

Damien and Kirsten also brought a birthday cake, and we all sang Happy Birthday to you, and blew out the candles together after making a wish – for your freedom, and that of the others on death row.


I hope that it brings you some joy to know that there are people out here, whom you have never met, who are concerned about you and wish you and your family well.

I spent some time thinking about this – how it is that we can develop an attachment, or some deep concern for another, despite the separateness of our lives.

Up till last year, I was never particularly involved in the anti-death penalty movement. But the more I read, the more disturbed I became. I started to follow the stories on The Online Citizen, and attended several of the events, including one where your brother and your MP from Sabah spoke.

I was drawn to your story, and when I saw the photograph of your family kneeling outside the Istana , that image haunted me. I felt a deep and heavy ache in my heart, mixed with growing anger at how my country was behaving.

How could a life – a life cherished by self, and also by others – be taken away, so thoughtlessly, so cruelly, by legislators?

The death penalty is an issue that frequently leads to fierce debates, and I have read arguments from both sides.

But in my mind, there is no justification to kill another (it’s murder, no matter what you call it). If we recognize our human-ness, then we are fully aware that we are beings capable of shameful crimes and reproachful behaviour. But we also have an immense and remarkable capacity to change – to feel remorse, to take steps to repent, to demonstrate kindness and compassion even in the most hateful of circumstances.

I am moved by the love and tenacity of your family, and the strength you have demonstrated over the long and difficult years you have spent on death row.

It does not matter to me what statistics my country’s legislators sprout, in a vain attempt to convince me that they have a right to do what they are doing to you and your family.

I do not care if people say that I am simply swayed by emotion in my support for this campaign to save you, and show support for you and others in your situation.

For that is precisely what binds us together in this crazy, cruel, confusing world – moments where we appreciate beauty, demonstrate empathy and love mercy.

Despite the difficult circumstances you are in, I hope that you feel comfort, love and an abiding peace in your heart.

Happy 23rd Birthday Vui Kong!

Love,
Stephanie/Stephii