May Day Message for Ministry of Manpower

By Masked Crusader

I was hoping to move on from labour issues and blog about other things. I was starting to sound like a broken record even to myself.

Then, something happened. Minister Lim Swee Say, parliament jester and Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress, gave his May Day speech.

In his speech, Lim paints a haunting future for workers in Singapore. However, he inadvertently describes the eerie present instead. He warns:

Imagine a future where rank-and-file workers are replaced by robots; Professionals, Managers and Executives become underemployed; mature workers cannot fit into workplaces that are not age-friendly; working parents, especially working mothers, face worsening work-life balance due to inflexible work arrangements; and low-wage workers are stuck in a world of cheap sourcing. If we allow these to happen, we will face higher unemployment not just because of job shortage, but also because of job and worker mismatches.

The singlish-speaking Minister, who may be preoccupied scrutinising his monthly Central Provident Fund balance, appears to be woefully out of touch with the current labour situation, which is already blighted by ageism, stressed out workers, out of work PMETs, unhealthy work-life balance, unscrupulous employers, and extremely cheap foreign workers.

Channel News Asia cites Lim, whose mantra is “cheaper, better, faster” labour, as saying:

Two-thirds of Singapore’s workforce are local, and the government hopes to keep it that way.

The above, however, cannot be found in the text of his May Day speech. As activist and number-cruncher, Leong Sze Hian, points out, the use of words such as “local” or “residents” in statements by Ministers and authorities is deliberate and often intended to inflate data and obfuscate the status of actual citizens.

Lim’s speech is targeted at workers, employers, and unionists and contains advice for all parties except the government and authorities—those most responsible for the current labour fiasco. Therefore, as inclusiveness is the flavour of the year for the government, I thought I would pen a May Day message for Ministry of Manpower staff.

Dear MOM Staff,

First, allow me to apologise for being overlooked by Minister Lim in his May Day speech. You are certainly in his thoughts but he is busy.

I know of MOM staff who started doe-eyed and full of ideals only to have their ideals eroded by a stifling work environment and the ambition to be upwardly mobile. You may be one of those. I empathise because, like professional football players who have such short careers, today’s job market dictates that you make as money as possible before you get laid off and replaced by cheaper fresh graduates and permanent residents when you reach 40.

At work, I know your hands are tied because of poorly conceived policies, catch-22 situations, fragile egos and your bosses being more concerned with their self-determined KPIs and performance bonuses.

But, I encourage you to soldier on for the cause is noble. Many workers depend on you. Use the whistleblower policy at MOM to bring unscrupulous colleagues and superiors to account. If there isn’t a whistleblower policy, fulfill that part of your KPIs which requires you to make two staff suggestions a year to propose the establishment of one. Explain that, if MOM has a whistleblower hotline for employees out there to bring abuses to its attention, well you are an employee too and need your own hotline.

In doing your work, don’t just use your standard operating procedures and hide behind them. Anyone can use SOPs. Remember, you are a PMET, you need to exercise discretion. This is why you are paid generously by the taxpayer.

Keep your eyes peeled, ears close to the ground. Ask the obvious questions. For example, why would the polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education hire foreigners with PhDs or medical degrees from third-world countries and pay them salaries at the bottom of the pay scale, salaries similar to entry-level Singaporean lecturers with basic degrees? Aren’t these foreign lecturers talented and able to demand top salaries? Why aren’t these foreigners able to secure jobs in places like universities and hospitals which they are qualified for? Is there a dearth of Singaporean lecturers that lecturers from third-world countries need to be hired?

You should know it is tempting for managers and heads of departments in the civil service and organizations to have some foreign employees in their office. These employees, whilst having similar positions as Singaporean colleagues are cheaper, compliant, quiet, fearful of losing their jobs, and will take on tasks that Singaporeans will try to avoid. These foreign employees will help the managers/HODs achieve their KPIs while Singaporeans are more focused on achieving their own. Having these foreigners around also allows management to keep Singaporeans on their toes by letting them know they can easily be replaced with more foreigners. But, none of these are appropriate reasons to hire foreigners. With the Fair Consideration Framework due to start in August, be vigilant for highly qualified, supposedly talented, foreign PMETs accepting low salaries to secure jobs.

I know you feel down, disrespected, and battered. Keep your chin up, Singaporeans are not angry with you even if it seems that way. Nor are they upset with the foreign workers, who deserve the chance to find happiness in Singapore as long as they compete fairly. Singaporeans are really only displeased with the government and their policies. You are only our punching bag.

Lastly, spare a thought for the poor migrant worker working far from home in oppressive conditions. He or she deserves the same respect and rights as any other worker. Make it so these workers return home to their countries with positive memories of Singapore and Singaporeans.

As Minister Lim has said in his Labour Day speech:

“Do not wait (for others). Be the first to change.”

Happy May Day!

This piece is made in relation to Mr Lim’s speech last year, 2014 for May Day.