I had expected the Prime Minister’s National Day message to be all about toughing it out during this Covid-19 period, to thank frontliners (the President did it) and to outline the country’s economic prospects. There was a bit of that, but he soon plunged into the three issues which Singapore has to tackle going forward.
PM Lee Hsien Loong talked about lifting the wagest of the poorest, which I would re-label as reducing income inequality. About tackling the constant complaints about the presence of foreigners, which I think is better described as how to be an inclusive and global little nation. About the race and religious tensions that have arisen, which is about maintaining social harmony.
These aren’t new topics but the Covid-19 outbreak has brought them to the fore. They have been simmering below the surface, but times of peace and prosperity has led us to believe that they weren’t significant except to those affected. The bad news over the past 18 months or so with people being thrown out of work or businesses failing, getting quarantined or becoming sick, and having to cut back social interaction has given us more time to, well, brood. We can’t help but voice our misgivings, whether out of irritation, frustration or a deeper empathy for those in worse straits than we are. These are the three issues of concern, without or without Covid-19, and they surpass even the earlier cause which the G took on, for more gender parity.
I argued last year that just as individuals and companies have constantly been told to take this “down time’’ to transform themselves, whether to pivot or transform work processes, change modes of work or study, or shift mindsets towards foreigners, the G should do the same. I’m quite sure that some big changes have already taken place in terms of procuring food and supplies, or within the healthcare sector to cope with the possibility of overwhelming hospitalisation numbers. The exigencies of survival made them necessary.
Not as urgent but also important are those three areas the PM highlighted. I’m glad that more attention is being paid to those three areas with committees formed to take the lead and promises of a policy review. This is the time for radical measures, while we are still in a state of flux. It’s time to see how to strengthen ourselves and not think that ever-increasing prosperity would put the lid on simmering pressures.
Every society will have low-wage workers, for example, but the question is, what is low? I think relative to other countries, our poor have it better. But this is not an excuse to refrain from looking at a minimum level of income for them to lead a certain quality of life beyond just keeping body and soul together. The fact is that our rich people are very rich, and this Covid-19 might well see even more of them enter the millionaire ranks, flanked by foreigners who view Singapore as a safe haven.
“A tripartite workgroup has been developing proposals to improve their lives and prospects. These will build on Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model to boost their incomes and create new opportunities for upskilling and job progression”.- PM Lee
While lifting incomes is good for its own sake, and that of the affected, it’s also about maintaining social cohesion and political stability. It’s not just what we have in our bank account that always matters, but what we see around us. The “haves’’ have a lot. The have-nots hide themselves in the HDB heartland.
Admittedly, the have-nots have a lot of transfers too, whether in the form of subsidies and grants like Workfare. But a society cannot be dependent on such transfers from the coffers to uplift the poor in such an artificial manner. Hence, the Progressive Wage Model enters the picture for various sectors. It’s theoretically sound to link pay to skills, but we’ve heard far less about the implementation process or about enforcing the rules on companies. It’s human nature for clients and customers to ask for the best deal for the least outlay, like for cleaning or security services, and it’s also human nature for companies to see how to cater to them by bending the rules or even breaking them. I read, for example, about the cleaning companies which had to be penalised for breaking the rules and wondered how their past and present employees are faring.
That is why so many people were delighted, or even slightly amazed, that Ravi Menon of the Monetary Authority of Singapore was in favour of a sort of minimum wage to add to the Progressive Wage Model. He pointed out that there is already a Local Qualifying Salary benchmark. Wouldn’t this be a good foundation to build an income structure?
Menon and several academics have also raised the idea of a wealth tax, which the G has always turned down as a disincentive to merit and hard work. Inherited wealth, however, is a different cup of tea. Remember that the GST will go up soon, and this medicine will go down better if the better-off look like they are contributing more to the treasury.
This will probably be derided as a “populist’’ move, but populist is not necessarily bad. Not, in my view, if it contributes to greater solidarity, regardless of socio-economic status. We need to tie the rich and the poor together, and make both sides somewhat dependent on each other.
In any case, I doubt that the G would set any tax to a level high enough to scare off the talented. It is a poor country that has nothing else to offer but low taxes.
Of course, tied to income is how the presence of foreigners affects the incomes of locals, or even their job prospects and employment, which is the PM’s second point. Covid-19 has led to an outflow of foreigners and it might be time to see how businesses coped with their absence during this period. I said “coped’’ so that we can look at the positive side, rather than echo laments about “not enough workers’’. Is there something we can learn from the agile businesses which found out that, perhaps, they could do with fewer foreigners?
If incomes are raised all round with a minimum wage coupled with the Progressive Wage Model, there might well be a bigger chance that citizens would take on work that used to be done by foreigners – and make their particular job a more productive and bigger one because they are, after all, staying in place.
We’ve seen how xenophobic sentiments have played out during this period, with the Chinese and the Indians (even locals) getting castigated unreasonably for “bringing in’’ the virus. People are keeping an eagle eye on work pass entrants and immigration controls because foreign workers are no longer deemed in competition for jobs, but also as a danger to lives. So it isn’t just the manpower and hiring policies that need a re-look. Immigration policies allowing foreign entrants need a full justification and series of checks lest the attitude towards foreigners take a turn for the worse. The G has been more forthcoming with data and transparent with changes to immigration. Witness the Parliamentary session to discuss CECA. Would that it continue to do so.
“Sometimes the locals feel unfairly treated, for instance when they miss out on being hired or promoted. Outside work, from time to time there are also social frictions, because some work pass holders and their families have not fully adapted to our social norms, nor fully integrated into our society. I understand these anxieties and problems. The Government is addressing them. We have to adjust our policies to manage the quality, numbers and concentrations of foreigners in Singapore.” – PM Lee
His third point had to do with race and religion, and how recent incidents have been given much publicity. He said that these racist incidents are not the norm. I agree. We need a sense of proportion when dealing with racist incidents. Call them out but don’t cancel people. What I have found disturbing is how segments of people do not think some people (especially the Chinese) have the right to talk about race at all. On a related note, I found Tay Ping Hui’s clarification https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/actor-tay-ping-hui-clarifies-that-he-did-say-he-had-chinese-privilege-at-dialogue admitting to having Chinese privilege, which he had described as a majority blind spot, befuddling. How is what he said or did not say, a clarification and not an error? Why the need to frame it this way?
PM Lee didn’t mention this in his speech but the G has agreed that the Ethnic Integration Policy on HDB housing needed tweaking. I would go further and suggest that the issue of maintaining race and religious harmony be given far greater attention. Are all our policies on race consistently implemented? Do they lead to further entrenchment of ethnic identity at the expense of a national identity? What is the difference between race-blind and race-neutral in a secular society? We made a step with a committee to review the use of national symbols in public, but this has to be anchored in a substratum of what that national identity is.
“It took several generations of sustained effort to bring our races and religions together, and grow the common space that we now share. This harmony did not result from every group stridently insisting on its identity and rights; it was the fruit of mutual understanding and compromise by all parties – the majority as well as the minorities.” – PM Lee.
Now, I agree with the above 110 per cent. We must continue to give and take, rather than count the cost and benefit.
We are a people.
I’m now hoping that the PM will expand on these themes on his National Day rally speech and I thank him for his insightful message.