COVID-19 highlights the thinness of Singapore's social protection for the underprivileged, says Yeoh Lam Keong

On Saturday, the Workers’ Party (WP) Youth Wing organised an online Zoom webinar titled, “The COVID-19 Crisis: Through Medical, Economic, and Legal Lenses featuring public health expert Dr Jeremy Lim, infectious diseases specialist Dr Leong Hoe Nam, lawyer Harpreet Singh and economist Yeoh Lam Keong.
The webinar, which was streamed live on Zoom and Facebook, was a panel discussion on how the current pandemic has and is affecting the country.
Mr Yeoh, who was a senior economist and strategist at the Singapore Government Investment Corporation (GIC) for 26 years and is heavily involved in economic policy research touched the thinness of the country’s social protection for the under privileged which the pandemic has highlighted.

Implementing an unemployment insurance system while also boosting WIS and SSS

Mr Yeoh who is also a former adjunct professor, addressed his point on social protection by first talking about protection for the working and unemployed poor.
The latter group, Mr Yeoh says, are going to feature largely in this crisis as he predicts an increase in global unemployment rate that “we have never seen probably since the great depression”.
For this group—which make up about 50,000 to 300,000 residents in the country—was already suffering before the crisis, noted Mr Yeoh.
He explained that the 20 to 25 percent increase in food prices and the fact that non-governmental organisations are unable to address these problems as they did before due to the lockdown — and specifically that the government has failed to do enough before, has caused their suffering to reach “crisis proportions”.
Mr Yeoh notes that the crisis has brought into relief, the country’s lack of an unemployment insurance system, which he says is needed to given the inevitable unemployment crisis in the aftermath of COVID-19.
“A proper one that automatically provides these automatic stabilisers that supports people out of work,” explained the economist.
Acknowledging the recent payouts by the government, Mr Yeoh said, “I know that the COVID budgets have given S$800 per unemployed person for as long as the crisis proceeds. But that’s not really enough compared to a proper well-functioning unemployment insurance system. And I think we need to go further.”
He added, “I know that the COVID budgets have given S$800 per unemployed person for as long as the crisis proceeds. But that’s not really enough compared to a proper well-functioning unemployment insurance system. And I think we need to go further.”
In line with that, Mr Yeoh noted that the one-off payouts will not go far in this environment. Therefore, he also suggested boosting the Workfare Income Support (WIS) and Silver Support Schemes (SSS) by S$500 to S$600 a month, saying “We have badly needed to do this for the last 10 years but we have not. Now the crunch is really on us.”
On how the government can afford this, Mr Yeoh pointed out that the recent payouts prove that these increases are manageable and doable.
He explained, “If we do all these things of having a proper unemployment insurance system, if we have better WIS and SSS handouts, they are going to cost what, three to four billion a year compared to what, S$63 billion that we’ve dished out in three weeks?”
“And that this three to four billion a year is well within the budget of the existing government. We’re only, after all, raising S$13 to S$16 billion from reserves, right? So it easily could have been sustainably funded on an ongoing basis and yet we are not [doing it],” he stressed.

Better housing for the underprivileged and migrant workers

Another point Mr Yeoh raised was what he described as a potential “Achilles heel” moving forward. That is having underprivileged families to live in crowded rental flats, sometimes two families within a single unit.
“This is another big area of vulnerability to infection that we seem to have overlooked together with the foreign workers, but could yet provide another Achilles heel going forward,” he said.
To address this, he suggested that “we seriously need to think about giving decent, well-spaced, sufficiently secure tenure to all our low income rentals”.
On the issue of migrant worker housing, which has been a constantly conversation recently given the massive spike in positive COVID-19 cases there, Mr Yeoh said, “I think this is where the government has badly dropped the ball,” adding that he agrees with the assessment of former diplomat Bilahari Kausikan. Mr Kausikan had been quoted saying the same thing about the matter in an article on the South China Morning Post.
Mr Yeoh then highlighted the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act passed in 2015 which provides for better housing for migrant workers and required the appointment of a commissioner to oversee the enforcement of the bill including asking operators to come up with a quarantine plan in case of outbreaks.
Mr Yeoh noted that none of these were done under three Ministers of Manpower since the bill was passed, nor was anything like that done in the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, describing it as a “rather bad botch up of policy”.
He later stressed, “There has to be proper enforced regulation of decent standards with decent hygiene to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.”

Singapore needs a ‘sane’ immigration policy

This led on to Mr Yeoh’s next point which was about the number of migrant workers in the country.
“The fact that we have 300,000 transient foreign workers that we have to house is because of another huge policy error; excessive foreign immigration for 20 years between 1990 and 2010,” asserted the economist, adding that there was an increase of 1 million migrant workers and construction workers in that period.
Mr Yeoh continued, “If we had had a more sane immigration policy during this time, our construction industry will look far more like Japan’s or Australia’s where, instead of 50 people, 40 or 30 people needed to build a house, you need two or three people.”
He asserted, “So we would not have this problem in the numbers that we have if we had a sane economic policy with regard to foreign immigration.”
To solve this problem, Mr Yeoh suggests a significant reduction in immigration to 0.5 to 1 percent.
He explained, “We do also need to significantly reduce immigration from its current 1.5 to 2 percent labour force growth—by the way, in the past we were doing three to four percent labour force growth for 20 years, unheard of in any OECD country—and we need to get that down to 0.5 to one percent labour force growth.”
He continued, “We are not doing that sufficiently now. And therefore if nothing changes, we are on track for eight to 10 million terminal population with maybe 500,000 construction workers from overseas by 2050. And imagine what sort of problem that would be when we have COVID-20, 21, and 22 which are almost certainly going to come.”
Mr Yeoh then talked about the use of public money to solve the problems relating to migrant workers, both in terms of providing better living conditions for them and reducing the amount of foreign labour used in the country.
He said, “We need to be prepared to use public money in thoughtful ways to provide as quickly as possible, this better regulated housing. And we have to be careful with this public money because we do not want to incentivise the continued use of excess foreign labour. We want to in fact disincentives it and incentivise us moving towards Australian or Japanese construction industry standards.”
Mr Yeoh stressed that while this is done, we also need to support the local poor by raising the WIS and implementing a minimum wage. He also added, “We should not stand on public money to socialise or to fund excessive profits for the operators or the developers of foreign worker housing.”
“So I think these are the principles we need to bear in mind economically if we want to both safeguard the decent housing and safety of our foreign workers on the one hand, and move the industry and the country to a more sustainable, sane immigration profile in the next 10 to 20 years,” said the economist.

Singapore’s hospital capacity is “too close to the bone”

Next, Mr Yeoh touched briefly on the country’s hospital capacity, pointing out that it is “well documented that we have severely under-invested in our hospital bed capacity compared to our Northeast Asian neighbours.
Singapore has 2.5 acute hospital beds per 1,000 population compared to 4.5 in the OECD, 5 in Hong Kong, 6 in Taiwan, 12 in South Korea and 13 in Japan.
“I think that this is running the system too far close to the bone, and if this pandemic has taught us anything, the next few pandemics will be even more virulent,” said Mr Yeoh.
This is why the country needs to “move up and step up” its hospital infrastructure to a more decent level which is closer to the standards in OECD and Northeast Asian countries which have had success in managing the current pandemic.
To read more about Mr Yeoh’s points raised in the discussion, read this other article.

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