By Roy Ngerng
On the surface, when listening to the Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong at the May Day Rally 2014, a very clear theme stands out – the government wants Singaporeans to work longer.
But pry deeper and you can see the subtle contradictions and the leading message that the government wants to put out.
Much has been discussed about how the prime minister would like to extend the re-employment age beyond 65. At the start of the speech, the prime minister brought out three groups of Singaporeans and said that he would promise to help them:
- Older workers who have retired and are worried about whether they have enough to retire on and for healthcare
- Older workers who want to continue to work and be paid the same wages
- Low-wage workers who face competition from globalisation and technological advancement
He also said that helping all older and low-wage Singaporeans has been a stand that the PAP government has always taken.
Older Workers Should Accept Lower Pay?
The first contradiction that stands out is how if low-wage workers were paid adequate wages in the first place, they wouldn’t have to worry if they would have to enough to retire on and for healthcare. Thus one wonders if the government’s current focus is misplaced – should the aim, first and foremost, be to encourage older workers to keep working, or is to pay low-wage workers adequate wages so that they would have enough to retire on?
On the surface, it seemed that the government is supportive of older workers continuing to get higher pay but by framing older workers as being weak and fragile in his speech, the prime minister is already suggests that older workers should compromise in terms of their salary.
Indeed, he then went on to suggest that for older workers, instead of wanting to retire in the same job on the same pay, older workers should consider taking on a “reasonable” job on “reasonable” pay. No doubt, this would mean that for older workers, “reasonable” would indefinitely mean lower wages.
One cannot help but notice the deafening silence when he spoke about this.
Yet, while the prime minister described the perils of older workers working in blue collar jobs, you immediately notice the contradictions – why did he only illustrate the situation of older blue collar workers? What about older white collar workers, in better paying professions such as politicians like the prime minister himself and several members of his cabinet?
Is it indeed the case that white collar, or “more educated” workers continue to earn more as they age because they are more valuable than blue collar and “less educated” workers, and thus the latter should accept their lot in life and accept their lower wages?
Progressive Wage Model is Better than Minimum Wage?
In fact, encouraging Singaporeans to accept “reasonable” wages seems like a common theme throughout the prime minister’s speech. Instead of (rightfully) talking about how his government could directly increase the wages of Singaporeans, he seems to want to push the line that the (low) wages that Singaporeans are currently paid are “reasonable” and that we should accept them.
Indeed, in his speech, the prime minister made a very bold statement that the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) is better than the minimum wage. But take a look at the statistic and the truth of this statement crumbles.
As it stands, the $1,000 minimum basic wage for cleaners, under the minimum wage model is the lowest among the highest-income countries. In fact, when seen as (minimum wage to median wage ratio), Singapore also has the lowest minimum wage). Not only that, when you compare Singapore to countries with similarly high GDP per capita and cost of living, Japan has a minimum wage of $2,000, Australia has a minimum wage of $3,000 and cleaners in Norway earn $5,000.
Thus the prime minister’s claim that the Progressive Wage Model is better than minimum wage is a claim that does not hold water.
In fact, this harks back to the National Day Rally that the previous prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, had given just 30 years earlier in 1984 when he had mocked minimum wage as, claiming that Singaporeans wouldn’t be able to go to the International Labour Organisation for a job or to the World Health Organisation if they are sick as these organisations are not “bankable” and that the “only bank (Singaporeans) have is the Singapore government. If we don’t do it right, your cheques won’t be honoured.”
But when you look at how the wages of low-wage workers have barely climbed since 1995, the PAP-led government’s mockery of minimum wage and their claim of the PWM as a stronger model seems like an indirect mockery of the intelligence of Singaporeans.
While the wages of low-income Singaporeans barely climbed, since 1995, the income share that went to the richest 10% actually rose from 30% to 42% in 2011. For the richest 5%, it rose even faster from 22% in 1995 to 31% in 2011. Such is perhaps the contradiction that the ministerial salaries have also risen to the highest in the world but the wages of Singaporeans continue to be the lowest among the high-income countries.
Labour Day: Not for Labour Rights?
Which begs the question – isn’t 1 May a day to commemorate the labour of the workers? Is it not ironic that as we are to celebrate and champion the rights of workers on this day, that instead of advocating for higher wages for workers in Singapore, the government would want Singaporeans to work longer on lower wages?
Are Singaporeans thus forced into a conundrum of having to work for even longer and on yet already low wages, and even lower wages when one retires? One can’t help but wonder if Singaporean workers are being mocked at on Labour Day.
That the Singapore government would want to focus on increasing retirement age instead of increasing a “minimum wage”, even as the latter has been what Singaporeans have been strongly advocated for, shows where the government’s priority truly lies. Is the government truly working for the people’s interests?
Improving Work-Life Balance by Increasing Productivity or the Other Way Round?
The prime minister also made the call that Singaporeans cannot want to “enjoy our lives”. He claimed that in order for Singaporeans to have a better work-life balance, we have to increase our work productivity. However, what is ironic is that even though Singaporeans are working the longest hours in the world but productivity in Singapore is one of the lowest among the developed countries.
Thus if the prime minister is sincere about improving life of Singaporeans and to have a better work-life balance. Increasing productivity and economic growth without increasing work hours would be a more sensible approach.
Singapore is the Best Place to Be So Singaporeans Should Work Longer?
Indeed, when the prime minister made the bold claim that the PAP government will look out for all Singaporeans in his speech, it might perhaps not be surprising that even the audience did not the applause to such a claim – for the truth of the matter is that for the past 15 years, cleaners have only seen the real value of their wages decline.
Indeed, 30 years ago, when then-prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew mocked the idea of minimum wage, it was also in the same year that the CPF Minimum Sum was introduced that prevented Singaporeans from being able to take their CPF out, and thus effectively delaying the retirement age.
30 years on, the same tactics used – mock the minimum wage, and ask Singaporeans to work longer. In 1984, it was to impose the CPF Minimum Sum. In 2014, it is to extend the re-employment age. One but the same – extend the retirement age through indirect ways and get Singaporeans to work longer.
All this time, the tactic seems to be to tell Singaporeans how Singapore is the best place to be and how Singaporeans should be grateful and thus be agreeable to work longer. In 1984, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had said, “I believe we have the future relatively secure”.
In 2014, Mr Lee Hsien Loong made the bold claim that, “if you compare to any country in the world, I think we are doing well”. Again, another bold claim not backed up by statistics, but when analysed, shows how Singapore to be hardly the best but possibly the worse with the highest income inequality and poverty rate among the developed countries and one of the highest in the world, where 30% of Singaporean households have to spend 105% to 151% of their incomes and be forced into perpetual chronic debt.
The parallels between 1984 and 1994 don’t just end there.
2014: Government resurfaces “Communist” reference
Perhaps the most interesting parallel is how Mr Lee Hsien Loong evoked the mention of “communism” – he claimed that in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the first generation of unionists “defeated the pro-communists in the Singapore Association of Trade Unions” and the “NTUC non-communist leaders fought them to … assume NTUC’s leadership role today”. He also went on further to say that the “NTUC fought for this right to represent Singapore workers and they won it”.
In 1984, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had also brought up the memory of how in 1959, 1961 and 1963, Singapore was “fighting our lives till 63″ with the “communists” and were then “communalised” when we “got into Malaysia”.
However, the truth of the matter was that in 1963, the PAP-led government had then used the Internal Security Act to arrest more than 100 opposition party members and union members, and “sustained pressure was applied thereafter to further whittle away the viability of SATU“. SATU then “ceased to exist in 1963 when its application for registration was refused“. At that point onward, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) which already been a pro-PAP union was left as the sole trade union centre in Singapore.
But the mention of communism in today’s age is perhaps misplaced and that Mr Lee Hsien Loong see it befitting to mention this suggests a suspicious line of thinking and it would be wise to question the mention of this.
In 1984, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had all but replaced the PAP old guard in his cabinet even though some among the then-PAP leadership felt the “pace of renewal” was too fast and generated “anxiety and uncertainty among some old guard MPs”. A few days ago, Mr Lee Hsien Loong had just renewed his cabinet.
In 1984, general elections were also held and 3 years later, the PAP-led government arrested more than 20 Singaporeans and accused them of being part of a Marxist Conspiracy even as they did not know one another.
In 2014, the general elections are expected to be held in the next one to two years. The government faces a growing resistance among Singaporeans who disagree with their ruling principles and bold claims which have been hardly statistically justified.
May Day 2014: Setting the Stage for Something Bigger
The May Day Rally 2014 has to be seen in such contrasting light. On the surface, the rally looks like an innocent attempt to “help” workers who “want” to work longer. But a deeper analysis exposes not only the contradictions and bold claims which lay on empty ground, but a systematic engineering towards longer years of work and later retirement, as well as clear parallels and methods of 30 years ago.
The sudden resurgence of the mention of communism cannot be taken lightly. At the same time, the government’s continued commitment to their own PWM which clearly is unable to uplift the wages of Singaporeans, while mocking the real worth of minimum wage, even though as much as 90% of the countries in the world has already adopted it and which the International Labour Organisation “has called on its 185 member states to adopt minimum wage policies as a way of reducing working poverty and providing social protection for vulnerable employees” only shows where the PAP-led government’s priorities truly lie.
It would seem that higher wages might not be on the topmost priority of the government but that longer work is. Online critque is an irritation for them. And perhaps we might see the coming of a similar clamp down of the resistance by the claim of another communist conspiracy.
And you have to question, if the government’s focus is not on increasing the wages of workers and helping workers enjoy their golden years of retirement, is the government fulfilling its role as a protector of the people? And if not, what are they using their roles in government to do?
Speech by Prime Minister Lee on May Day 2014