Yesterday marked the completion of 5 months of our daily food distribution which began on 7 April 2020, the first day of the Covid-19 Circuit Breaker.
Yesterday was also special, because we had a young helper, Ethan Tan. I had met his dad and mum, Alan and Sharon who are the third generation operators of a Nonya food group. It began as a push cart stall and then as a hawker stall in the Tiong Bahru market. The stall is still running in the market, but the third generation owners have also expanded the concept into a chain of HarriAnn Nonya food cafes in busy workplaces downtown.
From a casual conversation with Alan and Sharon two weeks ago, we moved into getting their delicious kuehs to the recipients at Eunos Crescent. Ethan, just 11, wanted to help in community projects, so he joined along, waking up just after 6am to go with dad and mum to the central kitchen to bring the kuehs over.
When most of the distribution were done, Helen the lead volunteer, took us to see the community garden that she and another helper have cultivated. Sadly, the bananas and papayas were constantly plucked by others, despite a warning sign not to pluck and with CCTV monitoring. Even the banana leaves have been cut by unknown people.
Over the past 5 months of food distribution, we had our daily packs of rice or noodles from a social service organisation. Occasionally like yesterday, we had sponsors for other items – eggs, dry rations, rice, biscuits, soap, detergent, bread, cereals, 3-in-1 beverages, tau huay (soya bean curd) and now kuehs.
It is great to see the active involvement of local residents and kind sponsors who have made the food distribution sustainable, despite many challenges we have faced and are continuing to face. Most of the helpers for this daily charity programme are themselves residents in the rental flats but willing to lend their time and energy to do daily charity. Glad to see young ones like Ethan starting out early in life to be involved. Let us not get weary from doing good.
This morning, a group of enthusiastic young adults and several of us, the young-at-heart were at the East Coast beach. I had gotten to know them from GE2020 when several of them volunteered to help in our campaign.
Most of them are still university undergraduate or had worked for just a few years. Some had volunteered before in beach cleaning activities with other groups in the past. They decided to execute their East Coast cleanup plan today. They invited me along.
We spent about 1.5 hours cleaning the part closest to car park D1. I met a group wearing various NUS T-shirts moving eastwards from McDonalds. They were armed with tongs, bags and plastic pails too. I found out that they come regularly to the beach for clean up too, as most of them live nearby. One of them turned out to be the son of my classmate from primary and secondary school!
I also chatted with Mr Han. He is a full-time cleaner for the beach. His day starts off at 5 am when he will be picked up from his dormitory and dropped off at the beach. He gets to end work around 5 pm each day, a rather long workday. He said that he gets just one rest day a month. He is tasked to cover ‘7 stones’. These are the stone breakwaters. His area for cleaning spans the beachfront of 7 breakwaters, a fairly long distance.
Mr Han has been in Singapore since 2004, first as a construction worker. He switched to the cleaning job only a year ago. He is undecided if he will continue to work in Singapore when his contract ends. He feels that the salary in his hometown of Jiangsu, a fast prospering part of China, is now not that far off from what he gets to take home from his work in Singapore. 16 years is a long time to be working away from home.
I titled this post as Jurwa2. Jurwa is the Bhutanese word for Change.
I first blogged about Jurwa in 2013 when I was in Bhutan for a total period of over 7 weeks spread over 5 months. I was the lead consultant to the Ministry of Education of Bhutan in their ICT Masterplan project.
There, on one of the Sundays, I met a group of young people who did a clean up of the streets in the capital city, Thimphu. In the afternoon, there was another group of mostly professionals and business owners who had formed the Jurwa club. They were also doing clean-up in the area around the clock tower square in the heart of Thimphu. I made friends with this group as well. In fact, I am still in contact with one of them.
The Bhutanese were also frustrated that their once-clean streets and rivers had become littered with rubbish. Care for the environment has been something ingrained in their Gross National Happiness teachings, something all Bhutanese learn since school. Yet, the streets were littered. Part of the problem was that Bhutan was opening up and many foreigners had come in. The habits of the foreigners started to influence the behaviours of the locals as well. These groups wanted change, and decided that change should come from doing something themselves. So, they did these regular clean-ups.
In Singapore too, we had our “Keep Singapore Clean”, “Use Your Hands”, and other campaigns decades ago. In my original Jurwa blog, I shared this story of how when I was in junior college, our class had a night hike across Pulau Ubin island and camped at a remote part of the island. The next morning, we packed up to go. Some of us left their rubbish in plastic bags in the deserted beach. A classmate picked up the bags and carried these with him. The nearest dustbin must be at least 5 km away, back through the plantations we had trekked through. This classmate reminded us that we should handle our waste properly. So everyone picked up every bit of rubbish that we had created on the beach and carried them till we came to the first dustbin miles away.
There were plenty of dustbins in the East Coast beach. Yet, today we filled several trash bags with rubbish, most picked from within 50 metres of a nearby dustbin.
I spoke with the young people in my team. They agree that we should be the change to influence people around us. It may be challenging because our society is open. We have some 40% of our population who are non-native born. One of those in this morning’s team had recently returned from a 6-month NUS overseas program in Stockholm, Sweden. She said she picked up being environmentally conscious from the Swedes. We spoke about how the Japanese and Taiwanese dispose their rubbish well despite not having many bins in public areas.
I still remember the camping story after so many decades. One member of our team took his rubbish and those of the others. Everyone then quietly cleaned up the remote beach. Our actions may be small but we can choose to change and inspire others to change. We need Jurwa too – for a better world, and a cleaner Singapore.
He explained his calculations as follow: Singapore now has 300,000 construction workers. IF a Singaporean is three times as productive, then we will need 100,000 Singaporean workers. And over a 40-year period with Singaporeans replacing the foreign workers, we will need 2,500 a year, or about 8% of our babies each year.
He argued that therefore Singapore cannot cut down on foreign workers as other countries had because of our small size and lack of natural resources.
The Minister seems to suggest that this high reliance on foreign workers situation is inevitable. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Singapore’s journey to nearly 1.5 million migrant workers detailing the 30 years journey we took that saw this rapid explosion in number of foreign workers, especially the low wage workers. I will leave you to read that and will focus on looking at the construction sector in response to the Minister’s statement.
Let’s look at the Minister’s reasoning.
(1) The Minister has a way of exaggerating. His mathematics is based on 100% replacement of all workers in the construction sector by locals. Singaporeans are practical people. We are not calling for total replacement. We are calling a stop to this over reliance and ever-increasing number of migrant workers. We are calling for deliberate steps to correct the process and to seriously make careers in construction viable for Singaporeans so a more sizeable number can be in the industry.
The Minister’s question and the tone of it seems to make construction as a shunned career. It sadly adds to the poor image the industry is already having because we can only think of the low wage and low skilled migrant workers. The reality in many places is that skills in a strenuous job can pay well. Many of these jobs are not shunned by the locals in say Japan, Australia, Switzerland or Finland. And some aspects of the construction sector do include skilled specialists and trained experts.
(2) The Minister assumed that Singapore construction workers can eventually be three times as productive as currently. This figure is probably arrived at by looking at the best in class, where in places like Australia and Japan, the locals are indeed three times or more productive than a construction worker in Singapore currently.
It is a big ‘IF’. We are currently so far off the chart in productivity compared to other developed countries. Why are we not even attracting Singaporeans into this industry?
Singapore took a different path from other developed countries as we started to prosper in the 1990s. Entrepreneur Jack Sim shared some interesting observations in his Facebook post recently. Jack shared that when he started in the construction industry in 1979, there were very skilled Master Craftsmen, trained Skilled Craftsmen and Apprentices. Jack lamented that ‘the Shanghainese Masters have now passed away. The Singaporeans Master retired. The Malaysian Masters have returned home. The Thais who replaced them also returned home. The Japanese and Korean have also returned home.’ He observed that Singapore started to bring in many who ‘have never done a day of Construction work’. Jack Sim’s presentation involves some generalisation but we can all relate to our present-day situation. The salaries of the migrant workers in construction are low but the cost to employers is not low because of huge levies and accommodation costs. The effect of such a large-scale replacement of skilled craftsmen with low wage workers effectively made these jobs unattractive to locals.
Today, it is a fact that the productivity of construction workers in Singapore pales in comparison to locals in developed countries. We can only compare ourselves with our ASEAN neighbours. It is one thing to say in theory about how productive Singaporeans can be but another thing to do so in practice because what Australia and Japan have achieved took tremendous efforts. Where are we in this process today?
(3) Next, let’s examine the effect on construction cost in countries with high local participation and high-productivity. The Minister noted that ‘in many other countries, a proportion of local workers is allocated to the construction industry. In some cases, this leads to these workers becoming more expensive, and in other cases, projects take much longer to complete due to the lack of manpower.’
If we look at Japan, their processes in construction are highly integrated and efficient. According to the Japan Construction Information Center Foundation, there is tight integration in the industry. When the construction specialist for foundation works is done, almost without delay the next team doing structure can be onsite the following day to start work. Their planning and project management tools can talk across companies. They also need to construct to withstand earthquakes and typhoons, which makes it a lot more challenging than construction in Singapore. Yet their overall construction costs are comparable to Singapore as well.
Higher wages local workers may not lead to much higher overall costs. Top local businessman and hotel magnate Ho Kwon Ping shared in an interview in 2011 that his company has construction development experience in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and so on. He was shocked that when they built their hotel in New Zealand, the number of workers they had to engaged was about 10 percent of what they did in Thailand — because the workers were well trained.
(4) The Minister is correct to say that Singapore has a small population. Well, so do New Zealand, Switzerland, Finland, Hong Kong and other small developed countries with high local participation in construction. The Minister also said, “If we lose out in that relative game compared to other people, then unfortunately, I think the future of Singapore will not be what we expect it to be.”
Some of these countries are globally competitive too despite relying mostly on locals for their construction industry. Some are in fact competing fiercely with Singapore to be regional hub and to be a financial centre.
Having said all these, what can we do now? I believe we cannot leave it to the market to correct itself. I recently shared in my Facebook about the preschool sector which I am more familiar with. I will use this as an example.
I recall in the 2000s, the preschool sector was shunned by young Singaporeans. In 2007, I was invited to be on a national workgroup on education and human capital. At the first meeting, we were discussing possible areas for the committee to focus on during our two-year term. Many topics from K-12 and higher learning were discussed.
Then I shared a story. My wife met by chance a former staff of a preschool we had previously operated. The teacher had already attained diploma in teaching and in leadership and was a senior teacher with us until we sold our centre. My wife had not met her for several years and asked where she was working at then. She had become a masseur and her basic pay as a rookie was already higher than what she commanded as a senior teacher after more than 10 years in the industry and after having gone for the training required for the industry.
Those who were not in the industry in the committee were shocked. They probed further about pay and prospects in the sector. In the committee, we had another long-time leader in the industry. She confirmed the situation and added her own stories. Staff turnover was high and it was tough to attract good locals to the sector. There were increasingly more foreign teachers in the sector as employers could not find locals. That sharing decided what we were to focus on for our committee’s term. Several bold recommendations were made after extensive research into the sector. Unfortunately, the government was not ready then for these changes. It was only after 2011 that a national drive was put into the sector, including the government running their own kindergartens, massive training and scholarship opportunities for pre-service and in-service teachers, merging of MOE and MSF preschool sectors into an agency (ECDA) and lots more funding. All these were actually recommended by our committee earlier and the boldest and what we felt were most necessary of our recommendations, were then turned down.
The effect of the massive government push is that the preschool sector today attracts young Singaporeans. There are now good career prospects. My daughter for one, decided to take up early childhood on her own when choosing what to study at the polytechnic. She was attracted to the scholarship for her studies and the security of the job. She found that she liked the industry and has stayed on and even went for further studies in the same field.
My niece is a nurse. She had excellent A levels results but she chose nursing. This was another industry that used to suffer from poor image and low pay. After much concerted effort at developing the industry at the ITE, polytechnics and universities level, added with scholarships, better pay and improved career prospects, coupled with aggressive marketing, young locals are moving into this industry once more. Even the SAF used to be unable to attract people until it was rebranded and career prospects became better.
Today, when there is talk that we have become too reliant on migrant workers, the industry associations quickly responded to say that cutting down on migrant workers would kill businesses and destroy the economy. They are not totally wrong. The situation has become so bad that we cannot just leave it to the market to correct itself. We cannot just tell employers to be more productive with their workers, cut staffing and to find their own ways to hire Singaporeans. The companies that try to do this now may find themselves priced out of business in the short run. We will need to tackle sector by sector, those sectors with low productivity, mostly untrained workers and low take up interest from Singaporeans. Many aspects of the whole system are broken. We need to fix it at the national level with a big push from the government side, including perhaps to take the lead in several areas. The recruitment and training aspects for foreign workers is messed up. Middleman make huge money and the workers coughed up large sums to come here, laden with debts. Many have not even worked in construction or the trade they are recruited for in their own country. Dormitory operators make huge profits housing migrant workers in what many consider as crowded and relatively poor living conditions.
Singapore had taken a different path from other economies as we started to prosper. Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Finland, and many other developed economies do not have this huge reliance on low cost migrant workers, such as in construction. There is decent pay for their locals in the sector and they are better trained, more productive and manage automation better. These have evolved over the years because their government had decided that they cannot rely on low cost migrant workers from the start. To correct decades of neglect in Singapore, we cannot just ask the market to correct itself. Private companies are forced to accept the current market situation because each by itself cannot correct the industry. For years, the preschool sector could not correct itself and was moving towards the path of large number of foreign teachers, poor pay relative to peers, and low interest by locals to be preschool teachers. Painful and difficult though it might be, the situation has to be changed with major government interventions.
In case I am being accused of simplifying the problem, I acknowledge that this is a monster of a problem to solve, way more difficult than the other sectors I had cited. I am not an expert in this industry. I am gleaning data from around the world to look at the problem we have created for ourselves in order to offer my views. It will take many years to correct the unfortunate path we had taken to become too overly dependent on low wage migrant workers. We pride ourselves to pay the best in the world to have the Team A in government (and with constant reminders that Singapore can never have a Team B). We pride ourselves to plan 20, 50 and even 100 years down the road.
But the experience of other developed countries like Japan, Australia and Europe shows us it is possible to have a higher skilled, more productive, largely locally-manned construction industry that pays decent wages and where construction work is a skilled and respectable profession. While we may take years to get there, it is clear that it will take a concerted industrial upgrading effort by government to do so. If anything, this Covid-19 crisis has underlined the important strategic need to do so both in construction and in other industries which have through our misplaced labour intensive growth policy, created a low wage industry far too dependent on migrant foreign workers and low wages for working class Singaporeans.
We need to start somewhere and start it in a massive and decisive way. Let’s not use mathematics and rhetoric to brush the problem aside for the next generation to solve.
Note: Written by Yee Jenn Jong. The views expressed here are that of the author.
——— Additional notes ——-
In response to some online comments on my FB post, I decided to summarise the solutions. I am posting them here for those who are interested to follow up on what solutions we can have. As mentioned, these are purely my personal views on a topic I had become interested in since the 2013 Population White Paper Debate when I had the chance to look deeper into the numbers and speak with experts.
(1) Recognise we have a deep and urgent problem that requires immediate attention.
(2) Market cannot resolve this mega problem anymore. Not even the industry association can solve this.
(3) As what had been done in other industries, it has to be a big national effort. This is way more complex than preschool or nursing.
(4) Make construction viable as a career for Singaporeans again – start at the schooling level. Make pay decent enough, and even support with scholarships, career pathways, some sort of wage subsidies for Singaporeans in initial phase, etc.
(5) government may need to intervene in some of the processes at national level such as recruitment, training (even at source countries), dormitories, etc. Learn from the Japanese how they integrate the whole project management processes for swift handover between teams and companies on a project with technology.
(6) Lastly, the gravity of this situation due to decades of neglect is so bad that it will take years to solve and has to be across ministries and with specialised agencies to drive the initiative. The worrying thing from the Minister’s statement is that the government does not seem keen to want to start in a serious manner. It is such a big problem warned by experts from years ago and will have to be a mega national effort. The earlier we start, the better for our future.
官委议员特斯拉副教授（NMP Associate Professor Walter Theseira）最近在新加坡大学政策研究所的论坛上指出，新加坡对此客工的依赖，从1970年代占新加坡总劳动力的约7％增加至今天的约38％。目前，这些客工中有72.4％持有工作准证（WP），而14％持有特别准证（SP）。从数字上看，客工人数从五十多年前的6万人增长到如今惊人的147万。其中大部分约123万人持有WP和SP（资料来源：新加坡人力部和美国移民政策研究所）。
In today’s interview with Bloomberg News, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing that there’s “not much time” left for Singapore’s government to hold its next general election as the city-state has to dissolve parliament in January, months ahead of an April deadline.
Mr Chan also said, “Coming up against a hard deadline to hold elections, there’s actually ‘not much time’. We would like, when the opportunity arises, to have a strong mandate because the challenges that we are going to face in the coming years will indeed be the challenge of an entire generation.”
When the time to vote does come, Mr Chan thinks Singaporeans “are wise enough to look at the government performance not just on an episodic event”, but how it has done in the long term.”
My thoughts on this are:
1. The PAP has been given a super strong mandate since 1968, I believe the strongest for any country with democratic elections even in their worst performance. The current strong mandate that the PAP had been given certainly allows it to do whatever had been required to in the fight against Covid-19.
2. Yes, we should not judge based on just an episodic event, even though the government themselves had admitted that they could have done better in the explosive Covid-19 infection outbreak amongst migrant workers, if they had hindsight, etc.
The issue with migrant workers though, is actually a long term one that has become worse and worse each year. In the Population White Paper debate, Singaporeans had given their views very strongly yet the move towards the 6.9 mil ‘cap’ continued. The 2013 Little India riot cast a spotlight on migrant workers again. The key response was to curb drinking, especially among the migrant workers past 1030 pm. The Foreign Employees Dormitories Act (FEDA) was passed in 2015 but three manpower ministers later, some key parts of the bill appeared to be unimplemented, including the appointment of a Commissioner to oversee safety, maintenance, health and other issues across all large foreign workers dorms. We now know that half of the large dorm operators flout regulations yearly, thanks to questioning by MP Png Eng Huat. Singaporeans are paying a huge cost in now trying to control the situation at the dorms. How much we are paying is not yet clear but the government had said they will fund the additional costs that the already very profitable dorm operators have to incur for the required additional Covid-19 safety measures. Should Singaporeans fund dorm operators especially if they had cut costs and constantly flouted regulations previously and yet made huge profits each year?
3. In researching on this issue for an earlier blog post on how Singapore grew to nearly 1.5 mil migrant workers, I found that several of our prominent first generation leaders including the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the late Dr Goh Keng Swee had been against the idea of growing our migrant workforce beyond what we can manage, for many good reasons – our space cannot handle the large numbers that the PAP wanted, the negative impact on our culture and society, that over-reliance on cheap foreign workers will kill the push for innovation and entrepreneurship, etc. Dr Goh had warned that Singapore’s growth will one day come to a grinding halt if we become too reliant on these low wage workers. This is a long term issue that must be urgently addressed. The explosive number of Covid-19 cases has put a timely spotlight on our over-reliance on these migrant workers, living in what I believe are overpriced, poor and crowded conditions.
Former GIC Chief Economist Yeoh Lam Keong cited a IPS study in 2014 which projected that if our labour force was allowed to grow at just 1.7% annually, Singapore would hit 10 mil population by 2050, just 30 years from now. Can we handle this? Will more migrant workers issues explode in our face in the coming years after GE2020? Will we come to a grinding halt as warned by Dr Goh? Will the wealth and income inequality become too crazy to handle as we overpopulate? Can we even have a Singapore culture with local-born as minority?
Yes, there are indeed long term issues Singaporeans should be concerned about in the coming GE. It will certainly be the challenge of an entire generation as we seek to deal with a very tricky over dependence on low wage migrant workers problem and other issues caused by years of grow-at-all-cost..
At a May 15 virtual forum on the topic, “What are the sacred cows that Covid-19 might force us to reconsider?”, a panel of academics and other prominent social commentators believe that the Covid-19 pandemic is challenging some of the Government’s “sacred cows”. These include the country’s addiction to cheap, transient labour and what the panelists described as the policymakers’ “fear of social responsibilities” and the idea that they hold “the monopoly of wisdom”.
Yes, I feel much needs to be done. Covid-19 has brought to the forefront issues which our society has been sweeping under the carpet for far too long.
1. We have a long entrenched and ever growing reliance on foreign workers. We were not like that years ago, definitely not under the first generation leaders who had repeatedly warned that we should never let ourselves become too dependent on low cost migrant workers. Those advice were swept aside in the chase for stellar annual GDP growth when the 2G leaders took over and grew worse over time. I have traced the 30 years journey of how we got to this mess today : https://yeejj.wordpress.com/2020/05/12/1-5-million-fw/. Just in case we think this is unavoidable, many developed economies such as Australia, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong have done far better especially in the construction industry compared to us by taking a different path. The productivity of their largely local-based construction workers are way higher than their counterparts in Singapore.
2. Assoc Prof Theseira spoke about the myth of Singapore exceptionalism. Former NMP lMr Sadasivan said that the Government needs to come to terms with the fact that it “really does not have the monopoly of wisdom”.
For far too long, given the vast success of our first generation of leaders in transforming Singapore and shutting down criticism, Singapore has gone deeply down the path of believing that only the government has all the wisdom, that we only have enough for one A team, etc. We have been conditioned since young, from schools to just follow rules. The government celebrates creativity and innovation only when they fall in line with what they like to see, but clamps down or withhold support when they feel ideas are not consistent with their views. There are many examples. Just to name one, graphic novelist Sonny Liew had his grant of $8,000 from the NAC revoked on the eve of the official launch of his novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye for ‘sensitive content’. He went on to become the first Singaporean to win at the prestigious Eisner Awards, considered to be the ‘Oscar Awards of comics. He won not one, but three awards at that event.
Bold change so far happens mostly when the ruling party feels their hold on near absolute power is being threatened, such as after GE2011. Unfortunately, group think has and will impede Singapore from innovating and moving forward. I believe too often, the false sense of exceptionalism will make us complacent, lazy to think deeply, just follow rules and unwilling to embrace divergent views.
I have long believed that only when the competition becomes stronger will the government be forced to be more innovative and more responsive. I remained even more convinced after GE2011.
Covid-19 has exposed that our government does not always know it all and that we do not always have the ‘Gold’ standard. We should be humble to learn from others, whether from other countries or from Singaporeans with differing views. Given the uncertainty of the 21st century, we need to learn to embrace diversity to continue to be relevant.
(Note: a shorter version of this was earlier posted on my personal FB page)
To qualify for additional relief from the government, the criteria certainly must be more than what is the operators’ normal running cost versus the additional costs incurred due to measures required due to Covid-19.
Firstly, the operators would, like all businesses in Singapore, qualify for Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), support for foreign staff, property tax rebates and perhaps other measures. These must be factored in before allowing them to claim additional costs. When ECDA made all preschools give 50% rebate on net fees for Apr and May to Singaporean parents, the main rationale was that centres already receive JSS and foreign staff support from government and these must be used to provide the fee rebates. All preschool centres definitely had increased costs during this period due to additional cleaning, health screening, additional MCs for staff, etc, on top of loss of revenue due to withdrawals and deferred enrollments. The centres all bore these costs as part of the expectation that these are part and parcel of their business risks.
The dorm operators, especially the larger ones, seemed to have been rather profitable in the good years as the government pushed foreign workers away from HDB and other places into large dorms in a short period, plus a constant growth of low wage migrant workers coming to Singapore. Have all the operators complied with the regulations, health and safety measures required by the Foreign Employees Dormitories Act? Or were a number flouting regulations and cutting on costs needed to implement these? Surely their level of readiness must be factored into how they would qualify for additional support.
While I can understand that the situation at foreign workers dormitories is urgent due to the fight to contain massive explosion of Covid-19 infections, I do hope the authorities will be very careful in reviewing carefully all applications for additional relief. It seems to me from a cursory read of the Straits Times report on this issue that the criteria to give out additional relief is far too simple and these businesses can continue to enjoy the normal good profits they make and no mention was made on whether the regular generous business support that they already received from our Budgets would be taken into account. We must not double support them given that they already automatically receive support like all Singapore-based businesses. There should be sharing of pain, in fact more needs to be borne by the operators as they had benefited in the good years and they will want to continue to partake in this business after Covid-19.
The massive explosion of Covid-19 cases has cast the spotlight on migrant workers. Much has already been said about living conditions for these workers and whether this has contributed to the spread of Covid-19. The purpose of this article is not to add to these debates, but to examine how we ended up with such a vast number of low wage workers, living in a different world from Singaporeans even though they are very much in our midst all the time. What could have been the economic thinking behind this massive influx?
Singapore has seen migrant workers grow from 3% [see notes] of our workforce since 1970 to 38% today (presented by NMP Associate Professor Walter Theseira at a recent IPS forum). Currently, 72.4% of these migrant workers are on Work Permits (WP) and 14% are on S-Pass (SP). In absolute numbers, the migrant workforce grew from just over 60,000 fifty years ago to a staggering 1.472 million today. The vast majority of 1.234 million are WP and SP holders (Source: MOM & Migration Policy Institute).
WP and SP workers form the lower wage spectrum of our work force. Their numbers are so large now that they occupy almost every area of our social spaces. In 2008, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said that he was not convinced on his own party – the PAP’s plan to have 6.5 million population, to be achieved largely through immigration to drive economic growth. “There’s an optimum size for the land that we have, to preserve the open spaces and the sense of comfort,” the late Mr Lee said. Other than occupying our social spaces, the presence of so many low wage foreign workers have depressed the wages of less skilled Singaporean workers, which has in turned caused a great divide between those who have benefited from our economic progress and those whose real wages have stagnated or even regressed in the past two decades.
How did we arrive at this situation of so many migrant workers, many stuck at low wages and with low productivity compared to other developed countries?
I believe it was the obsession with economic growth when the baton was passed from the first generation of leaders. Economic growth is good, but we also need to look at how the growth is derived, whether it is sustainable quality growth and how the benefits are spread across society. Our rapid growth from independence till the 1990s has made many countries and economists praise Singapore as a role model for development. One contrarian view was that of renowned Professor of Economics, Paul Krugman. To him, Singapore’s miracle was based on perspiration rather than inspiration. The growth had come from a very successful mobilisation of the population to participate in the workforce, jumping from 27% in 1966 to 51% by 1990. Professor Krugman warned that Singapore’s workforce participation rate was by then so high that it was unlikely to be further increased significantly. Such ‘sweaty’ economic growth model has its limit. Unless productivity, efficiencies and innovation are raised in the future, economic growth has to be captured through an ever-increasing migrant workforce.
By the 1990s, the ruling party had monopolized parliament with absolute or near absolute monopoly since 1968. The leadership was transferred to our second PM, Mr Goh Chok Tong in 1990. There was an unprecedented loss of four seats to the opposition in GE 1991, a really big deal to a party that will not tolerate any loss or the rise of a serious competitor. Mr Goh had in 1984 promised that Singapore would reach the 1984’s Swiss standard of living by 1999, in per capita GDP terms. The measure of success was to boost up GDP.
The late Dr Goh Keng Swee, architect of Singapore’s economic transformation in our first 2 decades, had since the 1970s till his retirement in 1984, warned of the dangers of growing our GDP through large influx of foreign workers and foreign direct investments. In the Future of Singapore (FOSG) talk in 2017, former Chief Economist at GIC, Yeoh Lam Keong who had worked under Dr Goh, said that Dr Goh frowned upon those who dare suggest growing the economy by boosting immigration. Dr Goh had felt that getting unlimited access to cheap labour would impede the critical need for upgrading and innovation. The first-generation leaders seem well aware of the dangers of large influx of cheap foreign labour and overpopulation. The next generation of leaders however, felt that it was imperative to capture economic growth fast. I believe they must have felt the pressure to retain their super majority control of parliament through continued economic growth.
There were massive infrastructure projects in the 1990s. It opened the doors for a much looser migrant workforce policy to feed the expansion. Foreign workers grew from 311,264 in 1990 to nearly 800,000 in 2000 (a 255% increase in just 10 years). In the mid-2000s, to capture another wave of economic boom, Singapore had another massive round of migrant workforce. The 2009 Global Financial Crisis put a temporary pause but in 2010, our GDP grew a phenomenal 14.7% and the influx continued. Foreign workers numbered 1.3 million by 2010. As infrastructure had been a key part of the economic activities, the construction workforce grew very rapidly in these two decades, from 114,000 in 1996 to some 300,000 in 2019. This numbers will potentially be even higher going forward as the Singapore Business Review recently projected a 3.3% average annual growth in the construction industry from 2019 to 2028. The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had observed in 2011: “We’ve grown in the last five years by just importing labour. Now, the people feel uncomfortable, there are too many foreigners.” He had estimated that it might take five years for the country to scale back its need for foreign workers, something which the government is still grappling with nearly a decade later and the numbers have continued to increase.
During the 2013’s debate on the government’s Population White Paper, we were reminded of this simple formula: Economic growth = Annual Productivity Growth + Growth in Workforce. Singapore’s productivity in recent years have been miserable, mostly flat for the decade of 2011-2020. It even fell by 1.5% in 2019 and is likely to be worse in 2020 due to Covid-19 disruptions and an impending recession. Today, despite recent acknowledgement of our low construction workforce productivity and some efforts to improve on this, we are still lagging very far behind our developed peers such as Australia, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. For example, Australia’s and Japan’s construction workforce are 3.9 times and 2.8 times respectively more productive that their peers in Singapore. In other sectors that depend heavily on low wage migrant workers such as F&B and retail, our productivity has lagged significantly behind that of Hong Kong, a city state economy like ours.
The trouble with looking at purely GDP numbers is that it is misleading. GDP can be divided into three components – Wage share, Profit share and Tax share. Singapore has now one of the highest GDP per capita in the world but its wage share has been hovering just above 40% for the past few decades, way below those of OECD countries which are around 50% and some even much higher.
The profit share component of GDP would go back to shareholders. In Singapore, the government owns a disproportionately large share of the economy compared to other developed countries. We encourage foreign investments and the profits would have to flow back eventually to where the investments originated from. Prior to Covid-19, the Marina Bay Sands was the most profitable casino in the world. It was generating some US$1.5 billion in earning (EBITA) a year. It is owned entirely by Las Vegas Sands Corp, listed in the USA.
For a long time and up till 2011 when astronomical ministerial salaries became an issue in GE2011, GDP was the measure for how well the civil service did. GDP growth was a key determinant of the bonuses of political office bearers. With the rapid rebound from the Global Financial Crisis, in 2010 the salary bonus for ministers went up to 8 months on a then-super high salary base. When productivity is low, growth in workforce can boost up the GDP growth; so we should also look at the quality of GDP growth, as well as how income growth had been distributed to the median and lower income groups.
I believe that the last three decades of drive to boost GDP numbers through large-scale foreign labour import had masked many brewing long-term structural problems. It has come to a stage where our Singapore Inc. economy is hooked on an ever-increasing base of low wage, low productivity workers to continue with our model for ‘prosperity’. I believe it is this obsession with GDP that impedes bold decisions such as having a national minimum wage.
It is unsustainable. In the same FOSG talk, Yeoh Lam Keong shared a 2014 forecast by IPS: A mere 1.7% annual growth in labour could see Singapore hitting 10 million population by 2050! The 2013 Population White Paper only presented a population scenario of 6.9 million by 2030. What’s beyond 2030 if we continue at this rate? This is quite a frightening thought considering that our imported labour is indeed growing at beyond 1% per annum currently. At a population of 10 million, the IPS forecast was for 3.3 million migrant workers, a 235% increase from currently. This will be on top of regular injection of new citizens and permanent residents. How do we manage the housing and social spaces by then? How do we manage the growing wealth and income inequality that will come? What will our Singapore identity be like then?
We have seen how troubles like that of the Little India riots of 2013 could happen when we overcrowd our small city state with the many people that we currently have, not to mention if we allow it to explode to another 235%! The government now collects some $3 billion per year in workers’ levies. These add significant costs to employers and force them to keep wages of workers low. There has to be big structural changes, initiated by the government to bring us away from the ‘perspiration’ driven model that Paul Krugman warned of in the 1990s. We have to also look at the ‘optimum size’ as advocated by the late Mr Lee that our island can hold and figure a more sustainable quality and innovation-led economic growth. The government has to take the leadership to effect big structural changes to sectors that persistently have this problem of huge dependency on low wage workers.
For too long, we have kicked the can down the road from one generation of leaders to another in the drive to capture GDP growth in the quickest (and lazy) way, even though we had been warned by prominent leaders and economists that such methods will lead to unsustainable population growth, depressed wages for the bottom income earners and social problems associated with vast inequality. We are all feeling the negative effects now in a very real way. Uncomfortable though the changes may be, the time to tackle this escalating problem is now.
Note: The views expressed here are the opinions of the author.
* Earlier, I had published that ‘Singapore has seen migrant workers grow from 7% of our workforce since 1970 to 38% today’. This was based on data from an earlier presentation by A/P Walter Thereisa. I later shared with A/P Thereisa another data I found for our manpower in 1970 and we agreed that the figure could be more accurate and hence it should be 3% of our workforce in 1970 were migrant workers.
The incident reminded me of a case I took when helping at a Meet-People-Session in Aljunied GRC a few years back.
It was almost 9.30 pm then, which was the closing time for residents to register to meet the MP over issues. I had just completed a case and I was about to leave as there were no further cases needing a case writer. Then, a young lady rushed to the counter and registered. I popped over to check and decided to take her case. It turned out that she was a 2nd year diploma student at a government supported non-profit college. She had unpaid fees and was told by the college that unless she paid up, she would not get her official results and she needed the results to register for her courses for the third and final year. She was very distressed because the last date to register for her courses was like that next day or very soon after that. She was sobbing as she told her story. She is the eldest with only her uneducated mum working part time to support the family. The family was constantly in debt, borrowing from relatives. Her previous year fees had been paid by an aunt who was not able to give her another loan so soon. She worked part time but that was only enough for her own living expenses and not for her fees. She believed she would be kicked out of college because of her unpaid fees. She did not even know what her 2nd year results were because the school’s policy was that they could not release the results without payment of fees.
I happened to have a friend working in the school. I called him. He was kind enough to set up a rushed meeting the next morning with the finance manager. I called the young lady to come along. The school did not know of her financial situation. The finance manager was very kind and revealed that she had passed and may register for the third year courses and asked her to apply for a bursary. The school also gave her time to pay up for the previous fees, which she eventually borrowed from her relatives. She got a bursary for her final year of studies. As she had the relevant skills, I engaged her on a part-time basis for my art company that year as well.
She graduated, found a job in a MNC as a web designer and I last heard she was still working there. Hers is a happy story that could have turned out badly. I asked why she did not try to apply for any financial assistance before then. She said she was not aware (even though the school had schemes and were indeed kind and fast to act when her situation surfaced). It is hard to blame her as she was not yet an adult then and the family already had so much problems. Relatives were afraid of them requesting for more financial assistance. She only came to the MPS because she shared her problems at a church meeting and her friend suggested going to meet her MP, which she promptly rushed to because the MPS happened to be that evening.
Back to the MOE case. Like MOE, the college the lady was in had to have some policies over unpaid fees. So I do not fault these organisations for needing to have rules to go by. MOE said it is a teachable moment for the parents. The problem often is that when there are persistent unpaid fees, there are often some deep issues or dysfunctional family situations. I am not sure if the family would be in a good situation to talk to the child about the learning points of having to pay their dues if they had many other daily stresses or were dysfunctional. I do not know the exact situation for the PSLE student as to why financial assistance was not applied for. I know schools have lots of ways to help low income family pay for fees and even get pocket money allowances because I have been involved in helping to raise such funds for schools. The young lady I had helped could have raised her problems to the school much earlier and she would likely have gotten a bursary from day 1 but she said she was not aware of support schemes and did not know that she would have qualified.
I will end with another story. A principal of a faith-based kindergarten told me recently that she and the form teacher of a class made a surprise visit to a family whose child had not paid the third term fees nor fees for the school bus. The boy had stopped attending school without a formal withdrawal. The bus had refused to pick him as well. The purpose of the visit was to understand what happened and to try to get the child to be back so he can finished his final few weeks of preschool with friends he has made over the past couple of years before going on to primary school.
They reached the home of the family just as the father and son were stepping out. The father was apologetic and promised to pay up the fees. He thought that the school had come to chase for the debts. The school explained that they were not there for the fees as they had already asked the Board for permission to waive off the fees. They just wanted to ask the child to go back to school as they did not want him to miss out the memorable final weeks. They even asked the bus company if they could sponsor the bus trips for the final period for the family.
What are the teachable moments? It can be to tell the family and child that they need to pay for all financial obligations. It can also be to tell them that there’s grace in the society if there are truly situations that call for it. I hope the young preschool boy will grow up well and one day remember that the school he attended reached out because they did not want him to fall behind no matter what the family circumstances were; that if he is financially capable one day, he can pay it back to others.
I do not think many families like to owe money especially over education. It is embarrassing to the child. With persistent unpaid fees, there are often stories behind these which can only be known if we probe further. Probing needs time. I do not know enough of the situation with the PSLE student as to how the school may have previously reached out to the family. Teachers and principals are often stressed out because our schools run large operations and class sizes are big. There are daily fires to fight when school is operational. Digging into problems such as persistent unpaid fees and trying to resolve them require lots of time and patience. As much as there are teachable moments to the families, there are also engagement opportunities by the schools and by social welfare organisations to use these as trigger points to dig further and to help families work a way out of problems.
#Correction: The earlier post stated the Principal and Vice Principal of the faith-based kindergarten. It should be Principal and form teacher of the class the boy was in.
Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs) have grabbed the headlines recently for all the wrong reasons. PMDs started in a small way in the past but ownership grew with LTA’s masterplan in 2013 to better facilitate first and last mile legs of commuting through better connectivity for walking and cycling, and exploded in 2017 with the Active Mobility Act that allowed PMDs onto footpaths albeit with a speed limit of 15 km/hr and with food delivery companies tapping on PMD users. Along the way up till the sudden ban announced on 4 Nov, effective the next day, there had been fatalities and many injuries, many happening on footpaths. There had also been several flip-flops by the government along the way.
Let me share my thoughts as a motorist, cyclist,, pedestrian and PMD user.
I use PMD only casually because my daughter owns one which she use for commuting to her workplace under 1 km from her house. She will of course be surrendering her machine for cash incentive soon as the PMD will effectively be useless as the route is not connected by cycling tracks. A pity because it was indeed her most feasible and fastest way of commuting daily. In the few times that I used her PMD for convenient short commutes, the ride has been smooth, fast and incident free.
I am also a cyclist since I was young, both for exercise and for commute for specific purposes. I had long been concerned about the safety of cyclists because our roads are generally not friendly to cyclists and motorists tend to be impatient. I am concerned because I had a bad accident when I was young. I was in college or varsity at that time, cycling around my house in the Siglap / Bedok area. A lorry carrying workers sped past me very fast and knocked the side of my bike handle. The impact flung me onto the pavement. I distinctly heard a worker at the back of the lorry saying in Hokkien, “Hit already, run quick.” Yes, it was hit and run. I did not see the number plate as I was thrown suddenly onto the pavement. The handle was damaged and I had bruises and cuts but thankfully no broken bones. I composed myself after a while, pushed back the handle as best as I could and pushed the bike home. Since then, I am very wary of our roads even though I still do cycle. As much as possible, I avoid using the roads when cycling even if it meant the ride would be slower.
When I entered parliament, I made a few calls for more cycling paths and better sharing on the roads with motorists. I remember after one of my speeches, then MP Irene Ng spoke to me and said it was a relief that more have started speaking in parliament for cyclists. She had been a lone voice for some time advocating for this. Tampines Town where she was an MP for, was chosen to be Singapore’s first cycling town with more cycling tracks provided for.
The response from the government to her call, my call and those of a couple of other MPs had been the usual that we do have a Park Connector Network that now runs across most of the country. Yeah, it is good for leisure but for serious daily commute for work, shopping or to fetch kids? Nah, most of the time it will not get you to where you want and it is still bad and dangerous to cycle on the roads. So every time I see MND allocating generous monies at estate upgrading in the private estates, I wonder why they do not look at putting more budget for cycling paths. Frankel Estate, right next to my place is going for upgrading soon. I doubt it will improve my cycling experience much. I hope I am wrong.
I deliberately tried riding bicycles in other big cities and was impressed with my day-long experience at San Francisco. There, people can literally depend on biking to and fro work, even for long distances, and many do. They do not have cycling tracks all over the city but where there are roads, provisions are made for sharing of the road with bikes. And even when there were no special markings or provisions on the road for cyclists in San Francisco such as in the suburbs, cars were very disciplined to let us cycle past first. I rarely get motorists in Singapore giving way to me when I am cycling. For my safety and to be on guard, I always assume they will be aggressive and they usually are. After my accident years ago, I constantly watch over my back wondering if some speeding vehicles will squeeze too close to me. I have cycled in cities in Japan too and generally, the experience have been much better than Singapore. Here is a link to some cities we can learn from.
With PMDs now confined only to cycling routes (no footpaths and no roads), the spotlight is now on the bicycle infrastructure. Some improvements have been made by the government especially since 2013 but the infrastructure is still grossly insufficient. And it will be a long time before it will even be meaningful, so some other measures such as how some roads can be marked for sharing be implemented and motorists and cyclists better educated on sharing the roads. There are many cities we can learn from, if we are determined to truly make riding safer and more useful. With bicycles, there is not a lot of pressure on the government to act because it is still a small group and most do not rely on cycling daily. However with PMDs, it is now so widespread because the government had previously made it friendly to own and use and suddenly it has to solve a problem that it had helped to create.
As a pedestrian, of course I welcome the ban on footpaths because our footpaths are generally quite narrow, and Singapore is becoming more crowded. People have said that if we ban PMDs on footpaths because of injuries and deaths, must we also ban cars on roads because there are even more deaths and injuries due to vehicles? Well, roads are meant for usage by cars and pedestrians are supposed to use the roads safely at junctions and crossings and to use with care when crossing in other segments, according to safety rules. Footpaths are meant for pedestrians, which include vulnerable ones like old folks and kids. If we allow automated machines and unfortunately some do not control their speed well, then footpaths will forever be dangerous.
As a motorist, I have experienced PMD users dashing across road junctions or zipping in and out between vehicles. PMDs users have to understand that at road junctions, motorists are conditioned to look out for users with the speed of walking. I have witnessed a couple of near nasty accidents where a PMD user dashed out of some paths or buildings onto a zebra crossing or traffic light. No doubt they have the right of way because it is a designated crossing but motorists have to look left and right at junctions. So when PMDs travel at a fast speed dash onto a crossing, the motorist may have already checked that it was clear on the left and looked to the right and suddenly the PMD appeared in front on him / her as the car started to move.
I know some motorists will be unhappy reading this post and question why I am advocating for ‘road hogging’ bicycles and potentially even PMD users to share some segments of the roads (as it is in some cities). It will take more studies but I think that until we have enough bicycling infrastructure, we will need to think about sharing on the roads. Motorists will need to understand that there are other users on the roads and the slower lane of some roads may be used by others.
Lastly, I hope in considering what to do with PMDs, we can actively explore the use of technology. Technology can help us track speed real-time and determine the location of PMDs. It can determine whether the user is registered or licensed (assuming if we move to a path of having users to buy insurance or pass a test). Right now, the explosiveness of the use of PMDs and the frequency of accidents have caused several sudden policy announcements. Many are understandable frustrated because they followed what the government said, traded their non-UL2272 compliant PMDs to compliant ones recently only to find their investments have been made practically useless other than for leisure. Allocating $7 million for trade-in grants for food delivery users will only solve the issue for a small segment and even so, it is a poor solution that may not work for some of those doing food delivery. It will push more fast vehicles onto the road when our motorists are not so understanding of sharing the roads with other vehicles. We can explore how technology can be used to enforce regulations real-time. We also need to figure what regulations we will need to allow PMDs to start using more of our infrastructure again, and which part of our infrastructure can be opened up for use in a safer way.
Note: These are my personal opinions and not necessarily that of the Party’s.