My reply to: “Tan Chuan Jin: Efforts to reduce number of foreign workers on the ‘right track’” on Temasek Times

Manpower – Stay Calm and Think Rationally

Of late, there have been a number of articles and news pieces on manpower, employment and the economy. The statistics and information presented paint a bright, yet somewhat bleak picture of what lies ahead for our beloved country.

Employers in Singapore are hiring to fill new positions and they are still looking to fill vacancies arising from staff turnover, yet SMEs are having a difficult time recruiting Singaporeans for middle management and professional positions. The Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME) has acknowledged that the availability of cheaper (not cheap) foreign labour has resulted in wages levels (or salary offers) stagnating at less-than-desirable levels.

The Ministry of Manpower has reduced the growth of foreign manpower population, and have committed to reducing the foreign manpower figures further. This is taking place amidst a global slowdown and a time of uncertainty, and companies are hoarding foreign workers in anticipation of further foreign manpower quota reductions, thus risking the viability of these firms in the short to medium term. In case you’re wondering, the Purchasing Manager’s Index just shrunk, and this means the orders for locally produced goods are shrinking.

The Prime Minister has announced that two existing institutions, SIM University and Singapore Institute of Technology, will be converted into full degree-awarding universities to accommodate the rising aspirations of Singaporeans. This is in addition to places at NUS, NTU, SMU and SUTD. Bear in mind, there are other degree pathways available – Lasalle College of the Arts offers degrees validated by Open University and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts offers degree completion pathways with Essex University. Curtin University, James Cook University and SP Jain Centre of Management have opened campuses here. Specialist institutions like Singapore Aviation Academy and the Air Transport Training College are co-organising degree courses too. Let’s not even talk about the private institutions.

Minister in the PMO (with or without portfolio, it doesn’t matter) has pushed for cleaners to earn at least $1,000 per month. This is happening while hawkers are complaining about higher hawker centre fees, PM Lee has warned that food prices (raw food supplies) will rise and Singaporeans are still eating the same amounts as they used to (or more). Mr Brown’s favourite bak chor mee may soon cost more.

We look at these occurrences and we all know that these are the changes that Singaporeans (if not all, then at least a “majority”) are seeking. But this may not be the best way forward for all of us.

If we cut back on foreign manpower in the wrong areas, we risk losing SMEs that rely on foreign manpower to do the jobs that Singaporeans would not want to do, either because of the low wages or other employment considerations. And if we artificially inflate the wages of our local workers, we will price ourselves out of the global markets. I am pro-Singaporean, but I think we, as a people, need to be careful what we wish for. There is only so much our Government can do, only so much this little red dot can influence, and if we screw it up, we are going to be in a heap of trouble. And by that, I mean shitloads.

At the same time, companies must look at paying what Singaporeans ought to be paid, rather than what the other guy is asking to be paid. If a foreigner is willing to accept a salary of $1000 per month, while a local chap is asking for $1,500, we should take the local’s offer and make sure he / she delivers $1,500 in value every month (excluding CPF). Profit is not the only thing that matters. A business model that relies on the assumption of continuous and infinite supplies of cheap foreign labour is not a sustainable one, and we should not support such businesses.

Increasing university places may look like a good idea. But the transformation into an economy where the majority of jobs are designed and salaried for graduates will not come that easily. We should be prepared for the eventuality of a graduate-heavy economy, but we must accept that for the first decade or so, as the industries move toward a knowledge and productivity-based economy, Singapore will see high rates of under-employment. This means that you will have graduates sitting on diploma-holder positions as these companies begin to re-structure the work their employees do so that graduates can sit on graduate jobs (and Herman Miller chairs) in the long run.

Singaporeans need to consider what they are asking for carefully. We live in a globalized world, a globalized economy. Not everything is a matter of the Government’s will or doing. Some of it is a bitter truth.

– Posted 3 Oct 2012 on Temasek Times

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My reply to: “PM Lee: ‘National Conversation’ is about managing expectations” on Temasek Times

I have to say that the article “PM Lee: ‘National Conversation’ is about managing expectations” did little to give an accurate analysis of the Prime Minister’s comments.

While I encourage my fellow citizens to examine the messages that the media puts out to us, it is important that we remain discerning and objective when reading and interpreting what the state media or the new online platforms publish.

Let us first take a close look at the article carried by Today newspaper. Comments about which the article is based on are:

“”But some stones, after we look at them, the original place was quite nice, we put it back. There has to be a balance,” said Mr Lee, as he pointed out that managing expectations would be a key challenge of having the conversation.”

If you look carefully at what the Prime Minister is saying, he has made it clear that we should be willing to leave certain issues be, if there is no need for a change.

On the other hand, the commentary by the newspaper or reporter noted that there will be difficulties in managing expectations in the conversation.

To put it in layman-speak, the conversation will not shy away from slaughtering sacred cows, but it will not go on a Sacred Cow culling exercise. At the same time, we must manage the expectation that the National Conversation will be about making any and all changes demanded by the vocal majority (as opposed to the silent majority), some of whom may already expect that their views and ideas will result in radical changes or immediate action, and are ready to dismiss the National Conversation.

Now that we’ve dealt with this confusion, I would hope that the Government will take note of the phrases they should avoid, because the citizens have begun to associate these words with negative connotations or negative experiences.

(1) Manage expectations – enough said. Citizens do not want to be heard only to have their expectations managed, they want to be understood, and have solutions offered, even if such a solution is actually an exception to a policy that must be applied consistently across the board.

(2) Xenophobia – the citizens do not fear foreigners. They fear the loss of their jobs, career progression, salary increments, seats on buses and MRT trains and the way of life they have built up and served to protect (militarily and socially). I think we can just call this “anti-foreigner sentiment”.

(3) Foreign Talent – citizens do not see talented foreigners as key contributors to the economy any further. Foreign talents are now merely new immigrants who compete for space, jobs, housing, education and more. Citizens seem to think of “FT” as wage suppressors, alternative to Singaporean voters, and more. Let’s call a spade a spade – FTs are merely “locally-employed foreigners”.

(4) Engagement – citizens seem to think of this as “I talk, government listens, in one ear and out the other, and they decide on whatever they feel is right”. No need to re-word this term though, we should just work on engaging Singaporeans.

(5) Opposition – while the legal or traditional term of the non-ruling party might be the “opposition”, this term seems to imply that the Government is calling the other parties “opposition parties” as the ruling party is unwilling to work with alternative voices. Since we are able to coin “Uniquely Singaporean” terms on our own (think ‘Integrated Resort’, ‘foreign talent’, ‘group representative constituencies’ etc.) I think we can acknowledge that the opposition parties are merely “Non-ruling Parties”.

(6) Integration – Singaporeans want harmony, but they do not want to be integrated with locally-employed foreigners, new citizens or other non-NS contributing groups unless their interests are taken care of. While integration is key, we need to give Singaporeans sufficient resources and advantages to survive and thrive on the very land they grew up on, defended, built on, and lived on. Only when Singaporeans are less disadvantaged will we be able to fully integrate and harmonize Singaporean society.

Just my two cents worth.


– Posted 11 Sept 2012 on Temasek Times

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My reply to: “Take long-term view to solve Singapore’s public transport woes” on Temasek Times

We all have different perspectives and solutions on how to improve the public transport system. I respect your views and I appreciate you sharing them.

By the way, at the time that this was written, I had just arrived home from dinner, and even at 9:30 p.m., the bus was full and I was surprised that I was still able to grab a seat.

But let’s get back to it. I do agree with a number of points that were posted as comments on my first write up, and I will discuss them here.

The very design of the public transport system needs to be overhauled. But this needs to be done in tandem with the tightening of the immigration and foreign worker / foreign talent policies. While we wait for the National Conversation to take place, and SBS Transit / SMRT / Comfort Taxis to review the feedback, and the Government to decide on who should fund improvements, we will still be adjusting a number of other policies and we will still see a very fluid and dynamic system. Along with increasing capacity of buses and trains, there is a real need to moderate the population that resides on our little island. But a warning to all – every tweak requires careful calibration. Chase out all your foreigners and you will be left with a talent vacuum that will rock the labour market. I have faith in my fellow countrymen, but if we are not careful we will lose the competitiveness that keeps us ahead of our peers in the region.

The industry needs liberalisation but tight regulation. We want to open up the industry, to create more transport options, and create more capacity. Yes, given the high (and extremely effective) COE prices, we have a huge commuter population who will have to work til God-knows-what-age. They will likely create the demand for public transport. But as we have seen recently, there is a need to set the right standards and enforce them. Trains and vehicles need to be maintained, airbags need to be installed, GPS tracking devices need to be monitored. Drivers need to be trained and plans need to be exercised frequently. So while we call for more market players to enter the transport scene, we must be mindful of the need to design, plan and regulate the system so that it will be thoroughly oiled and work like clockwork. No essential services provider should be allowed to run wild in a liberal environment.

We must learn from the best practices of other countries. But let’s remember that our country is a unique situation, and we should not expect what works there to work here. Our people, our needs, our wage levels, and our culture are all different. I am particularly proud of that actually. But with such uniqueness comes the inability to fit ourselves into the shoes of others. Let’s set the standards and policies right before we start saying, let’s adopt India’s bus system, or Philippine’s taxi system, or China’s taxi system.

Let’s make it right and make it better.


– Posted 7 Sept 2012 on Temasek Times

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My reply to: “AXA Singapore withdraws insurance coverage of PRC Ferrari driver Ma Chi” on Temasek Times

There is a need to protect taxi drivers and their families.

Before I go on to comment about the case, I feel it is important to remember that there is still a family who lost a father and a breadwinner. Our thoughts and prayers should be with the family, even as they move on with their lives.

I have seen the footage of the accident (it went viral rather quickly) and I read the reports. I can’t say I am fully familiar with the issue because I have never had the privilege of owning a car. I do have a driving license, and I have driven company vehicles for work purposes, both in day and night conditions.

Here is my take.

By not paying out, AXA has made a very firm stand on whether insurance companies should bear liabilities for a driver who acted recklessly and endangered the lives of other road users.

I agree wholeheartedly that the insurer should not compensate the family of a deceased driver who acted dangerously and without regard for others’ safety. In this case, the Ferrari driver should not have been driving the way he did.

But I have a concern here – and that is for the family of victims. I am not familiar with car insurance policies (my fellow citizens should comment and educate me on this), but if there is a payout that needs to be made to the family of an innocent party who was injured or killed by the reckless driver, the insurer ought to proceed with that payout. If AXA has done that (compensate the family of the late taxi driver), and is now attempting to collect this sum back from the Ferrari driver’s family, I salute AXA for doing so and putting themselves through this process of litigation and spending resources on this task.

I do believe all cars must be insured, and all drivers must be licensed. Insurers ought to be aware that they are essentially putting a driver and a car on the road whenever they sell an insurance policy. In this respect, the insurer has a dual role – one as a service provider making profit from taking a risk, and the other as a corporate citizen with a social responsibility who should not insure a driver who might not be the best operator of a vehicle. I’m not saying that the Ferrari driver was a bad one (though I think he was), but generally speaking, insurers should take this as an obligation, one that must be taken seriously.

On the part of licensing drivers, I do note that there are a large number of foreign drivers on Singapore roads. I urge the Traffic Police and the Land Transport Authority to impose the same standards on foreign-licensed drivers as they do on local candidates. We must note that the road conditions, traffic conditions and driving culture are different in Singapore. We are not like the rest of the world. But let us not forget that we too, have bad drivers who are Singaporeans. They should be taken to task for their misdeeds and offences.

Taxi drivers are a vulnerable group – they rent taxis, drive around for a fare, and pay rental to the taxi companies. Taxi drivers are “hirers” in the eyes of the taxi companies, and “independent contractors” in the eyes of the law. They are not employees. They do not receive the same protection and benefits that employees do. I personally feel that we need to protect them better.

Think about it – when they fall sick, they lose money. I once took a taxi when I had a cough. The driver insisted on driving with the windows open. He humbly apologized and informed me that he was afraid of falling ill. “I take ‘MC’, no one pay me”, he said. Other taxi drivers told me that they couldn’t afford to take leave, since they earn their fares on a per-trip basis. The taxi drivers do not earn CPF.

Lastly, passengers who ride in taxis should be offered a degree of protection. We must implement minimum standards of safety – air bags to say the least. We should establish the duty of care that the taxi owners (i.e. the taxi companies) owe to the public.

I hope to see Singapore set the standard in managing taxis, licensing foreign drivers and administering taxi drivers’ benefits and protection in the near future.

– Posted 5 Sept 2012 on Temasek Times

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On immigration, foreigners and the country we love so much.

Foreigners are but humans from another land living next door to you.

Yes, we will not like the fact the proportion of locally-born Singaporeans is fast dwindling, and the people standing to your left and right speak a different language or at least with a different accent.

But the thing is this – we should stop looking at the differences between us and them, and getting ourselves all worked up. I have read the posts on socio-political websites, forums, blogs, Facebook pages and other platforms, and I find it shocking that Singaporeans are behaving this way.

We were raised to be an honest, hardworking and resilient population, that could stare adversity in the face and meet any challenge thrown at us. It was on this basis that our country grew, and we became a dignified and respectful society.

And yet our reactions, our words do not reflect the character of our people.

I am not pro-foreigner. I am pro-Singaporean, and a firm believer that Singaporeans must come first. I have served my National Service and so has my father. I was born and bred here, my favourite foods are all local, my closest friends are a mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian people.

But even then, being a Singaporean who faces the same competition as the rest of the private sector, it pains me to see my fellow countrymen referring to, addressing and discussing foreigners with words that should not come from a Singaporean’s mouth.

I for one, choose to look at the issues that we are facing – employment and employability, wages and income, standards of living, costs of living, an aging population, overcrowding and housing prices – and I prefer to look at the issues, constructively criticize where I feel it is necessary, and propose solutions.

As unhappy and as threatened as we may feel, we must think rationally and logically, and express our views respectfully. We owe ourselves that much – to not stoop to the very bowels of the monster we are fighting when addressing issues.

I will continue to pose questions openly, to answer and comment where I can, but I say this to my fellow Singaporeans – we are only human, but let us be dignified, civil humans.

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My reply to “SMU poll: Singaporeans are less satisfied with public transport service” on Temasek Times

It’s no surprise that Singaporeans are less satisfied with the public transport system in Singapore. Train breakdowns, overcrowding, higher fares and the failure to recognise taxis as a mode of public transport have contributed to the angst of a nation that has been effectively forced to use public transport, given the high costs of owning (and driving) a private vehicle, as well as the congestion on the roads today.

In my humble (and not-so-well-informed) opinion, what is really need is an in-depth, careful examination of the issue, and a solution strategically and operationally designed to meet the needs of Singaporeans.

Firstly, the public transport system was designed to accommodate a maximum capacity (though I don’t quite know what this capacity is). With the growth of the population, it is indeed obvious that the trains and buses will be stretched to capacity. It’s not rocket science, and we have to acknowledge this.

Secondly, we have not maximised our current resources and transport options. We have relied so heavily on buses and trains run by transport companies that we have failed to see other solutions to the problem that we know as the typical daily commute.

Thirdly, the public transport model, where we have several commercial entities bidding to run bus routes and train lines for profit needs to be adjusted. Not completely overhauled, but adjusted. We need to do this not only to alleviate the discomfort of the commuting population, but also to include the less fortunate and differently enabled people who can’t commute like we do.

Before I go further, let me say two things – I am Singaporean and believe in the Singaporeans First concept, and I take the train everyday to avoid a $30 taxi ride. That being said, I can go on with this little rant of mine.

I’d like to propose a few concepts, some new, some not so new, some bright, some plain silly, and some reflective of my idealistic nature.

1. Reduce the need to commute on public transport. Offer work-from-home or flexi-work arrangements where appropriate. Locate offices in the heartlands and away from the city centre. Offer company transport at a subsidised rate. By taking the load off of the country’s over-burdened transport infrastructure, we can minimise the squeeze for the sardines out there who absolutely must take public transport to work, for whatever reason.

2. Optimise transport resources with the aim of increasing comfort and convenience, as well as resilience for national events (and disasters). Years ago, there was a call to remove the bus services that were duplicating the MRT lines. I believe that was done. Now that the trains are packed full, we should look towards reinstating these services, not just to offer more options to Singaporeans, but also to diversify resources so that one national emergency (e.g. breakdown of SMRT’s East-West Line) will not paralyse thousands of commuters.

3. Take up a not-for-profit business model when offering public transport services. The current model, where shareholders pressure companies (and their executive boards) to turn high profits needs to be re-examined. Companies offering an essential service should not be measured by the profits they make, but the services they provide. One measure we could look at is having the Government implement key performance indicators into a board of directors’ scorecard that will be used to measure the benefits the companies receive – rebates or levies for foreign manpower, taxes, bidding for and award of new routes, etc.

4. Adopt a no-nonsense, zero-error approach to the public transport business. Companies should incur penalties for every lapse – breakdowns, accidents that cause injury to commuters and the public, security breaches that result in actual or potential losses and injuries and more. Transport companies will then be forced to put the public’s interest above all others.

We need to seriously re-look public transport, and find long-term, sustainable and commuter-centric solutions to the problems we face.

– Posted 4 Sept 2012 on Temasek Times

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Introducing… The National Conservation!

So you want to join the National Conversation?

Well, I thought I would try the National Conservation first.

Let’s see what we can save.