June 26, 2017

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Authors Posts by Daniel Yap

Daniel Yap

Daniel Yap
167 POSTS 48 COMMENTS
Daniel has spent most of his career working in media agencies and enjoys the challenge of running a publication, and of building a better tomorrow. He can be reached at daniel@themiddleground.sg

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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
A PVC hand.

by Daniel Yap

The National Wages Council’s (NWC) latest round of recommendations looks rather tame. Not that one would expect some staggering revelation from the NWC, but the only significant change is insignificant – upping the $50 wage increase recommendation for workers earning under $1,000 to $60.

It sounds like another year of pointless pleading for firms to pay their workers right.

Even the mainstream Straits Times reported that the NWC has “come under fire for not having enough clout to ensure that companies accept its recommendations”. Alarm bells should be ringing.

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) reported that eight in 10 unionised companies gave the increase, but as of Dec 2012 only three in 10 non-unionised firms did so. Since non-unionised companies employ about three out of every four workers locally, it seems like NWC’s recommendation really impacted less than half of Singapore’s low-wage workers.

The circumstances around the poor showing make it look even worse: a Wage Credit Scheme is already in place to pay for 40% of those wage increases for three years. Factor in a generally positive market and it seems like many of these employers may just be stingy. The Singapore National Employers Federation  has said it was “dicey’’ to link the WCS with the NWC proposal because when the scheme expires, “you cannot take away the wage increase,” as SNEF’s Mr Stephen Lee put it. He described the current take-up rate as “an encouraging start’’!

With NWC showing more bark than bite, it is high time for NTUC to move. It has already voiced its dissatisfaction with the number of non-unionised firms that followed a similar $50 wage increment for low-wage workers proposed by NWC in May last year, and has said before that it would consider legislation to bring low-wage workers’ salaries up if firms were unwilling to adopt the NTUC’s progressive wage model. Labour MP Zainal Sapari appears to be leading that charge. TODAY reported him in its edition today as calling on the Government and business groups to lead the way by negotiating with service providers on how to raise their salaries. Low wage workers, like cleaners (some 62,000 in all) and security guards (about 40,000), are usually working on outsourced contracts. But service providers already have locked in contracts.

Mr Zainal was reported as saying: “Service providers are simple: They can give an increase if there is an increase in contract sum given to them. Without a top up to contract sum, it will be difficult to pay more to their employees.”

NTUC’s progressive wage model also sets the bar higher, rolling out a structure of tiered wages that are linked to skills/roles (and one assumes, productivity).

Still, by far the most interesting comment came from NTUC assistant Secretary-General Cham Hui Fong.

She suggested that because of the tight labour market, those who worked in profitable companies should “walk” if they were not given the $50 pay rise. NTUC also encouraged workers who were denied the pay rise to think about joining unionised companies instead.

Of course, this is more easily said than done. If NTUC wants to expand its influence, it needs to make it much easier for low-wage workers to jump ship and join the union. Low-income workers struggle with cash flow, and a gap between jobs could be disastrous. Job matching schemes and outreach need to be redoubled.

Perhaps, that is why it is holding more carnivals for low income unionised members (numbering about 15,000) this year, as reported in ST and TODAY? It has raised the income ceiling for unionised members to join the carnivals and enjoy freebies. Perhaps, the NTUC thinks this would incentivise non-unionised members to join unions. Sponsorship of the six carnivals amounts to $1.5m.

Question: Could that money have been better spent persuading low-wage workers to join unions, instead of upping the privileges of those already unionised?

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Photo By Shawn Danker
The Ministry of National Development at Maxwell Road.

by Daniel Yap

The Housing Development Board’s release of 8,000 flats for sale  and another round of Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) on housing  have put the spotlight back on the public housing situation in Singapore. The Business Times also weighed in on the news.

Apart from the sale of flats, the most notable development is the new allocation of flats for couples expecting a child, downsizing second-timers and ever-married single parents (with children).

The Parenthood Priority Scheme will be extended to first-timer couples expecting their first child instead of only those who already had a Singaporean child under 16.

Downsizing second-timers had their quota of two- and three-room flats doubled to 30% in non-mature estates. Five per cent of this quota is for divorced and widowed buyers with children.

TODAY also reported on the news, with more space devoted to the forum, which it boiled down to the headline “Scrap COVs, they say, but S’poreans also want to monetise flats” (May 31), highlighting the bind that the nation is in with regards to public housing.

Twenty eight year-old trainee teacher Sean McMenamin’s OSC group was against the idea of COVs, but admitted that HDB owners needed the option to get cash in hand from flat sales for situations like medical expenses.

The Ministry of National Development put forward three options to curb profiteering form sales but none of them received much support from participants, according to TODAY’s report.

With lack of consensus on policy changes, balancing supply and demand may be the most effective control in the meantime.

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Photo By Shawn Danker
A bull statue at Gardens by the Bay

by Daniel Yap

Singapore’s ranking in the globally-watched IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook (WCY) slipped by one place to fifth in 2013. The Straits Times and The Business Times put the poor showing down to the effects of restructuring.

Singapore’s performance fell in all four main ranking factors: business efficiency government efficiency, economic performance and infrastructure. The ranking uses a balance of hard data such as GDP and inflation as well as soft data based on surveys of executives in the economies being ranked.

Prof Stephane Garelli, director of the IMD World Competitiveness Centre, said that the global slowdown and high inflation hit Singapore’s “economic performance” ranking. Higher costs of business were said to have been the cause of poor “business efficiency”.

The drop in “government efficiency” was put down to factors such as weaker social cohesion. It was not clear from the reports what caused our “infrastructure” ranking to fall.

ST also reported poor rankings for cost of living (58th), total public expenditure on education (55th) and total health expenditure (54th).

Interviewees in both BT and ST expected Singapore’s ranking to worsen before recovering as the island tries to come to grips with restructuring the economy into a productivity growth model.

Another competitiveness ranking, The Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013 published by the World Economic Forum, ranked Singapore second.

Photo By Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
The Fountain of Wealth at Suntec City Mall

by Daniel Yap

Plastered on the front pages of The Straits Times and The Business Times is the announcement of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) spinning off a REIT for their Clementi Mall and Paragon properties (SPH to spin off Paragon, Clementi Mall into REIT, ST, May 28; SPH plans to list retail Reit in July, BT, May 28).

The lead story in ST’s “Money” section was also about the REIT (Paragon’s value up by over $100m in 6 months, May 28).

While the BT article clearly declared that SPH owned The Business Times, ST failed to include that detail in its coverage. Both BT and ST clearly have a vested interest in the deal.

Coverage by other media was muted, with TODAY running a Dow Jones report just four paragraphs long, the same length as a Reuters report run on Yahoo!.

While the numbers highlighted in SPH’s own publications look glowing, it remains to be seen if anyone else is as upbeat as SPH about the deal, as the IPO price has yet to be announced.

SPH is expected to rake in $1 billion in net proceeds from the sale of the two malls to the REIT. SPH will retain a 70 per cent stake in the REIT. SPH plans to announce a special dividend of 18 cents per share after the spin-off – a handsome 4.1% yield based on SPH’s current share price of $4.39.

SPH has seen its revenues from rental growing from 10% of total revenue in 2010 to 13% in 2011 to 15% in 2012, even as revenue from its core publishing business fell in 2012.

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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
A PVC hand.

by Daniel Yap

A Straits Times article called PM Lee Hsien Loong’s Istana guests “netizens”, a seemingly forced and vague classification (MP Lee has tea with netizens at the Istana, May 28).

It made the broad declaration of the guests’ status on this premise: “some had been featured by PM Lee on Facebook and Twitter, while others had followed or commented on his posts on these platforms”.

While the guests were indeed laudable individuals, it sounds like one doesn’t even need an Internet connection to be counted as a “netizen” these days. Just get someone else to mention your name online and a newspaper will bestow the honorary title upon you.

With Facebook listing more than 2.7 million people who “live in Singapore”, it is clear that just about anyone is easily a “netizen” these days. “Netizen” is so pedestrian that it’s hardly worth mentioning anymore.

Social media is mainstream, and just about everyone is a “netizen”. Time to come to terms with that.

Photo By Shawn Danker
AIA Singapore.

by Daniel Yap

There has been plenty of buzz over the last week about the intern who was a victim of workplace abuse, and the other intern who put a stop to it.

In addition to our latest summary of the situation, it has emerged that the alleged abuser Alan is also the owner of the company, not just a supervisor. The family has demanded $100,000 in compensation. Meanwhile, the victim has received several job offers, some at a monthly salary of $3,000 – compared to the $500 he was said to be receiving at the time of the abuse.

What is most mystifying is that nobody had thought that anything was wrong with the fact that the victim had been an intern for three whole years. No contract, no paid leave, no benefits, just plenty of abuse.

Surely, allegedly abusive bosses like this Alan must have been laughing all the way to the bank, having found someone foolish/weak/desperate enough to take advantage of for so long. It is practically free labour, and with a little psychological domination, the boss has a willing “slave”, satisfied with being underpaid, under-appreciated and abused.

MOM is investigating the case, but one wonders what they can do since there was no contract in the first place. There are few hard and fast rules here in the realm of no contracts, but MOM may still decide it wants to kick someone’s butt to send a message. The physical abuse matter should rightly fall to the police.

So employers take note: What’s the right way to hire an intern? Companies can go about this in different ways. One way would be a Contract of Service (typical employment contract), offering the position on a temporary (limited time) basis. Under this method, the Employment Act would determine the minimums for leave, overtime, CPF and other work conditions. You can see the stipulations on the MOM website. You can still pay your intern whatever you want (yes, even one dollar a month) without breaking any laws.

Watch out for one thing – although there is no minimum wage in Singapore, low wage workers (under $4,500 for manual jobs and $2,000 for non-manual jobs) are covered by the Employment Act.

Alternatively, most employers choose to “hire” interns as “contractors”. This means that instead of a “Contract of Service”, they offer a “Contract for Service” (or no contract at all). This treats the intern (or any other “employee” under such a contract) as someone outside of the company. They are not entitled to CPF, leave or any benefits. They aren’t even paid a salary – the $500 ($600 is the minimum rate these days) is actually an allowance, much like what NSFs get in the army.

There is no limit to how badly you can pay an intern and for how long, and how much non-physical (non-illegal) abuse you can subject them to. If you manage to find some rube to engage with you in some kind of perverted Stockholm Syndrome scenario, then you’ve hit the jackpot.

Interns beware! Singapore’s labour laws don’t really protect interns very much. Employers aren’t screened properly due to a lack of resources and that’s why sometimes companies like Encore eServices slip through the cracks. This is not to say that all small companies are bad places to intern at – good small employers exist and interns in small outfits have advantages too – they get to be more involved, or see a broader scope of the business, for instance.

Will MOM start to consider legislation to prevent future abuse of interns? With their apparent reluctance to legislate employment practices – opting instead for “moral suasion” – it seems unlikely.

Interns (and employees) will have to know their rights like the backs of their hands and rely on whistle-blower heroes like Yang Jiexiang, 23 – the intern who exposed the abuse – instead of waiting for the Government to act. If you can, might as well join NTUC as a member to gain access to some free legal representation and resources (even if you’re technically not employed). Oh, and discounts on groceries too.

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by Daniel Yap

Matilda Portico, Punggol, Singapore. An ST article threw the spotlight on this and other oddly named neighbourhoods that have raised eyebrows and confused cabbies.

The Housing Development Board (HDB) does the naming (which also involves the architects), and says that “the objective was to create local identities that residents can relate to and foster neighbourliness”.

While that is a noble goal, some have questioned its effectiveness, especially online. Comments left on the article’s online pages describe the names as “arbitrary”, “chim”, “atas” and “fake”. Most thought the HDB was trying too hard to brand its projects, and that made-up names did not add to a sense of community.

While the paper tells of some Punggol Spectra residents forming a community and calling themselves “Spectrans”, it remains to be seen if it was the name that built community or whether it was just a convenient moniker, clobbered into the consciousness by a massive signboard (the photo of which features prominently in the article). ‘Spectra’ are conditions or values that vary over a continuum (whatever that means). Might it be a comment on property prices?

The lack of enthusiasm for HDB’s names is understandable. You see, Singaporeans don’t really have a good track record for naming things. Take, for instance, the time the Budget Terminal was named the ‘Budget Terminal’, or the time $400,000 was paid to Interbrand to rename Marina Bay ‘Marina Bay’. The sting of the massive waste of money and effort still haunts us.

Elsewhere, HDB has named the historical “Chap Lak Lao”, meaning 16 Storey, “Commonwealth Heights”. It seems that “Chap Lao”, meaning 10 Storey, in Tanglin Halt was renamed “Commonwealth 10”, and then only because residents were involved in naming the en bloc redevelopment project and were fond of the reference. These two neighbourhoods earned their nicknames because they were some of the first public housing blocks of that height built in the area back in the 60s and 70s.

But some odd names may indeed preserve a piece of history. For Matilda Portico, its roots may come from the conserved Matilda House (also known as Istana Menanti), several hundred metres away, which did in fact have a portico, as recorded by local history buffs. The historical landmark is slated to be converted into a clubhouse as part of the Punggol Emerald development.

by Daniel Yap

As news reports pour in about the launch of the Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC), the shadow of change looms over how this major shift in data and privacy legislation will impact businesses and individuals (BT, Small firms brace for Call Me Never on Jan 2, May 16).

The obvious benefits to consumers is plain – no more calls, SMSes, messages or faxes if you register your number on the list. Those who have been bothered by unsolicited marketing (“Good-morning-sir, I’m-calling-from-ABC-Company-and-I-would-like-to-tell-you-more-about-our-credit-card…”) for years now will be able to rid themselves of such nuisances, or at least have the law on their side when reporting abuse, in the form of a fine for unsolicited calls to registered Do-Not-Call (DNC) numbers.

The Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) also comes into full force come July 2 next year, with up to a $1 million fine for those who fail to collect, store and use data according to data protection laws passed at the start of this year.

ST reported (Unsolicited Calls? Opt out via registry, May 16) that the PDPA also applies to overseas companies, but did not say how breaches by foreign entities would be dealt with. Many Singaporeans already receive unsolicited calls from foreign numbers peddling local products and services.

But the real big question is how this will affect marketing in Singapore. BT’s report shed light on the impact of a DNC registry in the United States, where some 70-80 per cent of households have indicated that they do not wish to be called. Businesses in the US have come to terms with the new equilibrium, with some even finding that cold calls become more effective in a post-DNC market.

Marketers may be forced to rely on less-regulated channels such as email or flyers, or come up with creative solutions to more effectively get the attention of consumers.

The biggest worry for companies is cost, and the fact that smaller telemarketing companies may have their business models severely affected. Currently, exact costs of compliance will be hard to estimate, but a company with a database of 5,000 numbers will have to check it monthly over the course of a year, an undertaking that could cost some $1,200 or more. Staff would also have to spend more time cleaning up and administering their contact lists.

The setup fee to use the DNC registry is $30, and the first 350 numbers checked each year are free. Checks in excess of 350 numbers a year will cost from 1 to 3 cents per number, with higher volumes at cheaper rates.

Smaller telemarketing firms currently using lists of dubious origin may be hit by the higher costs of obtaining data from legitimate sources and running that data through the DNC registry. Costs may be passed on to clients and then on again to consumers.

Whatever the final results, places like the US, Australia and the European Union have made the switch to a DNC and personal data protection laws with few bumps, and it bodes well for most consumers and businesses that treat their databases with respect. It is to be expected that some moaning and groaning will be heard from various corners, especially from businesses, but the experience of other nations bodes well for an eventual “new normal”.

by Daniel Yap

I guess you’ve heard, Singa the Lion has quit and will no longer be the face of courtesy for our island nation.

PR stunt or not, I say “good riddance”. He was failing on his KPIs, not living up to expectations, and after more than 30 years on the job, it’s time to call it a day and go withdraw his CPF or something. Find a nice retirement spot, maybe in the zoo.

(Photo by Chia Aik Beng)
(Photo by Chia Aik Beng)

Forget about him. As mascots go, this one is a failure. He barely held back the tide of angst and bitterness that is building up here in Singapore. Let him go, and let others take his place. Let the natives rise up.

This island is not his natural habitat. Pressed and stressed as we are, pushed to the limits of human endurance by people who offend our sensibilities, ask for too much, give too little, or simply enjoy making life hard for other people and doing whatever the hell THEY want.

I’m not a nasty person by any account. I never fall asleep in the reserved seat on the MRT and am eager to give it up. I’m polite in my speech. I never rush into lifts until everyone has come out. I don’t cut queues. I encourage others to do the same.

But what I’ve learnt in life is that nice guys finish last. Be good, not nice. Look at Batman. He’s principled. He’s good. He’ll kick your ass into the next comic book frame if need be. If Singa had his way with him, Batman would be delivering flowers like some weakling and trying to talk villains to death.

Singa has made us weak. Being nice never got us anywhere. All those old folks standing on the MRT, hovering above the reserved seat currently occupied by a sleeping douchebag. “Courteous” uncle or auntie never got their seat, thanks to you. Too polite. Don’t want to make a scene. It’s just a few stops. Those of us standing around – courteous to a bleeding fault. Don’t want to step in to right the wrong. We haven’t got the balls to do the right thing the hard way.

We are weak. We are nice. We are fools.

I blame you, Singa. You have disempowered the weak. You taught those who already were “nice guys” to roll over and get stepped on. The jerks got their way and the rest of us suffered. You’ve changed nothing. Bad guys get ahead, and we don’t have Batman to stop them. Maybe we have the Police, but they don’t cover every little thing, and they’re usually too polite for my liking.

We need real men and women who will stand up against jackasses, pricks, arseholes, bitches, bastards, dickheads and all their ilk. Kick (gently) the morons who sleep in reserved seats on the MRT. Ask (politely at first) others to stand up, give way, stop cutting the damn queue, let the wheelchair through, shut the heck up, stop being obnoxious, behave yourself, stop smoking at the bus stop, quit that anti-social behaviour. You tread on others – courtesy be damned.

This is war, and the first casualty is the lion.

So bring me the head of Singa the Courtesy Lion. I want to mount him on a plaque in my living room. And while you’re at it bring me the head of that productivity bee, Teamy as well. Our productivity numbers have been pretty horrible lately.

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by Daniel Yap

The New Paper weighed in on the poly/grad issue not once but twice this week (Success?, May 7; Poly grads take different paths to success, May 9) since National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan broached the topic in Our Singapore Conversation.

Minister Khaw’s remarks touched some nerves when he responded to a request to set more university places aside for ITE and poly graduates by saying that “Singaporeans do not need to be university graduates to be successful. Instead, what might be more important would be getting good jobs after leaving school.”

TNP’s stories so far have been mostly anecdotal and have done little to settle the issue. Portraits of this or that person who made it or didn’t make it as a degree holder or a diploma holder pepper the pages of the tabloid.

Can we have more facts and figures? The best data presented so far is the Graduate Employment Survey by the Ministry of Education which showed degree holders earning starting salaries that are about $1,000 more than diploma holders.

What is missing is a study comparing poly graduates who didn’t go on to get degrees with poly graduates who did. This statistic will shed more light on the marginal gain to be had from pursuing a degree over a diploma.

Let’s face it, the more attractive something is perceived to be, the more people will aspire to attain it. A degree is one of those things.

The current disposition of our society is towards a worship of the educated. To most Singaporeans, someone with a degree is more respectable than someone without one. Someone with a doctorate is more respectable than someone with a degree, ceteris paribus.

Add to that a clear statistical wage differential, a relatively low rate of entrepreneurship and a dearth of diploma holders in the top echelons of society and you have a recipe for a nation of graduates.

How many business leaders have degrees? How many top civil servants have degrees? How many MPs have degrees? How many have diplomas? To be sure, there are a few diploma holders in business leadership, but in other spheres, you will find degree holders (or higher) exclusively.

In the armed forces, diploma-qualified officers automatically have a different promotion path than degree holders, regardless of the relevance of the academic specialisation. On-the-job performance can only do so much to offset an officer’s lack of a degree or a scholarship.

It is abundantly clear that diploma holders have almost no chance of reaching top leadership positions in our society. If anyone would aspire to a lofty position (or at least somewhere on the way up), getting a degree seems to be a prerequisite.

Aren’t we in a meritocracy? If people are able to get a degree, what is stopping them from getting one? Fear that there may be too many degree holders in the job market? Mr Khaw’s dystopian “nation of graduates”? It is (hopefully) the desire of every Singaporean to always aspire to greater things, to prove his or her merits in a meritocratic society. Obtaining a degree is part of that striving.

But the fear of a degree glut is real.

If more people have access to a degree course (and increasingly we do), then more people will strive to earn a degree. Oversupply will depress graduate wages and force people to get higher qualifications to differentiate themselves. This may effectively form a dangerous qualifications “bubble”, some symptoms of which are PhD taxi drivers and unemployable graduates.

Depressed university graduate wages may well depress wages down the line as well, even though supply for diploma holders may be insufficient. The psychological $1,000 gap is hard to close.

A dearth of technical and diploma-level labour may cripple industry, or force the government to have to bring in an even larger foreign labour force, even as Singaporean graduates languish in an oversupplied graduate job market.

To hedge against such a scenario, Mr Khaw must warn against the pitfalls of degrees for the sake of degrees, and others must extol the great virtues of a diploma qualification (as PM Lee did, at Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s 50th anniversary). The $1,000 gap needs to be closed in order to encourage more diploma holders to stay in the workforce rather than “upgrade”.

Statistics that show that diploma holders who upgrade to degrees make marginal or negative gains have to be published, if they exist at all. Talented diploma holders need to be groomed and appointed to appropriate leadership positions in the government without placing on them the expectation of getting a degree. Military officer careers should not be split into diploma/degree tracks (much less scholar/lesser-scholar/non-scholar tracks), but soldiers should be promoted according to merit – merit in the field, not in the classroom.

It is a psychological war we need to wage in order to raise the profile of diploma holders, one of the effects of which is to simultaneously protect the interests of degree holders. An us/them, diploma/degree mentality will not help to balance our economy.

Most of all, we need to end our societal obsession with the paper chase, and see the value of every person apart from what education he or she has had the privilege of.