March 27, 2017


by Lee Chin Wee

DURING the Committee of Supply debates on Mar 6, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say clarified that if you work in the gig economy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a freelancer.

Mr Lim explained that there is “no official definition of the gig economy”. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), he said, instead uses the term “platform economy” to refer to workers who use online platforms such as Uber and Airbnb to find “short-term, piecemeal jobs”.

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So who is, and isn’t, protected by labour laws?

Not all gig economy (or platform economy) workers are freelancers. An employee of a transport company who uses Grab to find customers, for example, can be considered a gig economy worker but is not a freelancer. These workers are entitled to labour law protections, such as mandatory minimum leave days.

Hence, in terms of labour protections, it does not matter whether you use an online platform to find work or use more traditional avenues like taxi company rental. What does matter is your contract status – if you are a freelancer, you have entered a contract for service while if you are a contracted employee, you have entered a contract of service.

As employees are, in theory, subject to an asymmetric employer-employee relationship, a greater scope of labour laws applies to them. In contrast, freelancers are considered to be self-employed and are therefore not legally entitled to statutory protections and benefits accorded to employees. The legal rights and obligations of freelancers are largely dependent on the terms and conditions of the contract they enter into with their hirers.

What are the differences between freelancers and employees?

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) website sums up the differences in this convenient table:


Contract of ServiceContract for Service
Has an employer-employee relationshipHas a client-contractor type of relationship
Employee does business for the employerContractor carries out business on their own account
May be covered under the Employment Act Not covered by the Employment Act
Includes terms of employment such as working hours, leave benefits, etc.Statutory benefits do not apply


  1. Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions: Freelancers earning an annual Net Trade Income (NTI) of more than $6,000 need to contribute to Medisave. There is no legal obligation to contribute to the Ordinary or Special Accounts, but freelancers can do so on a voluntary basis. Comparatively, employees are entitled to monthly employer CPF contributions and also are obliged to pay into their CPF accounts themselves.
    • The median Medisave balances of self-employed persons was $21,700 in 2014, compared to $14,300 five years ago. This is still lower than the median Medisave balances of employees, which was $27,700 in 2014.
  2. Employment Act: Freelancers are generally not covered by the Employment Act. This means they do not get paid public holiday entitlements (min. 11 days per year), sick leave (min. 14 days of paid outpatient leave and 60 days of paid hospitalisation leave per year), paid annual leave (min. 7 days per year), timely payslips (monthly salary within 7 days, overtime pay within 14 days), etc. Freelancers must instead seek recourse through the Small Claims Tribunal or Subordinate Courts instead.
  3. Work Injury Compensation Act: Freelancers are generally not covered by the Work Injury Compensation Act. This means, if they get injured while performing a task or job, their client does not have to pay the legally stipulated amounts corresponding to the work injury. Freelancers must instead seek recourse through a civil suit.
  4. Union Membership: Freelancers can still be NTUC members. This means they enjoy membership benefits such as subsidised skills retraining workshops run by NTUC partners and rebates on grocery shopping at NTUC FairPrice. However, the Trade Union Act, along with the Industrial Relations Act and the Trade Dispute Act, does not apply to freelancers. NTUC will not engage in collective negotiation or mediation on behalf of freelancers, as there is no traditional employee-employer relationship.

What is the problem?

Some will no doubt argue that freelance workers in the gig economy were not coerced into taking up these jobs. The lack of labour protections, the argument goes, is not a problem as one is not subject to the same employee-employer relationship that is characteristic of contracted full-time work.

In the particular instance of companies like Uber, the question is whether the driver-Uber relationship is that of a freelancer-client or employee-employer. Uber drivers do exhibit many employee-like characteristics such as working for only one contractor, and have “fixed” working arrangements – not contractually, but in terms of the minimum hours or peak periods one must work to remain marginally profitable. It is arguable that these workers are freelancers in name but employees in substance.

The legal lacuna created by Uber has given rise to a number of lawsuits filed against the company in other countries. The claimants argue that Uber misclassifies drivers as independent contractors, rather than employees.

In 2013, 385,000 current and former drivers in California and Massachusetts launched a class action lawsuit against the company, alleging that Uber was legally obligated to give them employee pay and benefits. Uber settled for a $84 million ($100 million if the company goes public) payout, to be distributed to drivers based on how many miles they had driven. More recently, the London Central Employment Tribunal ruled that Uber drivers should be classified as employees, earn at least the national minimum wage and get paid vacations. Uber appealed, and the case is still ongoing.

Moreover, recent Ministry of Manpower statistics show that out of the 200,000 freelancers in Singapore, 19 per cent do not consider freelancing their preferred choice. This means that, in some cases, the gig economy is substituting rather than complementing the traditional economy.

In other words, someone working as a contract employee of a private transport company may have little choice but to drive an Uber: In today’s slowing economy, either he keeps his existing labour protections and takes a pay cut, or he potentially earns more by joining the gig economy but loses his employee benefits.

A further problem is that freelancers do not pay into their CPF Ordinary or Special Accounts. As the number of gig economy freelancers grows due to the proliferation of online platforms that disrupt traditional industries, the G will have to deal with increasing retirement insecurity among older workers. What this means for national savings and government investments remains to be seen.


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by Daniel Yap

IT’S been a bit of a day of thanks and accomplishment for me, when Second Minister for Transport Ng Chee Meng announced in Parliament this morning that open strollers would be allowed on buses from Apr 2. I’ve been campaigning for this change for years, alongside other parents and groups like Young NTUC.

As soon as news broke of the new rule, a mixed response of praise for the decision and anger over it erupted online. Critics of the move cited a variety of reasons, which deserve a response.

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  1. Lack of space: strollers don’t fit in the door/aisles, and some are bigger than others

Response: The idea is for strollers to board buses the way wheelchair users do. They aren’t meant to go down the narrow aisles. The Ministry has said that bus captains will make the final call on when strollers have to be folded to make space for others.

  1. Fear of abuse

Response: Inconsiderate people are a feature of life but their existence doesn’t mean that the rule is a bad one. Call inconsiderate parents out and ask them (nicely) not to abuse the system. Support others who are publicly calling out anti-social behaviour.

  1. Demand for segregation

Response: The whole reason why this rule is being changed is so that parents can feel more integrated into society. It takes compassion and maturity to welcome and cater to others whose needs differ from our own.

  1. In my day…

Response: Parents have suffered in the past, but we need to see that it is a good thing that they should no longer suffer needlessly. If a new rule comes along that benefits others, we should be compassionate and be happy for them.

  1. It is unsafe

Response: Bus companies used to cite safety reasons for forbidding open strollers, but there is no solid data to back this up, or explain why other cities in Europe, North America and Japan allow it. Perhaps the status quo was from a time before wheelchair-accessible buses, but times have changed.

It’s heartening to see the change that you fought hard for come to fruition, and to know that it points towards a more inclusive, more family-friendly future for Singapore. And it’s good to see compassion and thankfulness reign in the online comments, even though there will always be a few who disagree.


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by Bertha Henson

SO THE Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) have decided not to appeal against the four-year jail sentence for Joshua Robinson. It has put out a statement to say why: Robinson pleaded guilty which spared the girls the ordeal of going through a trial, the two girls were above 14 which means he did not commit statutory rape, and they had consented to sex.

Not rape. Not outrage of modesty. So the charge against Robinson was sexual penetration of a minor under 16 years of age, which is punishable under section 376A(2) of the Penal Code. The AGC said that this was the most serious charge that the prosecution could have brought on the case. And no, there’s no caning under this clause but a maximum of 10 years jail.

It looks like we weren’t right to say that the girls were sexually assaulted since what he did was not rape nor molest, even though one of them had a mental breakdown after her intimate encounter with Robinson. I suppose the girls were seduced by the American mixed martial arts instructor into consensual sex. Or at least some sexual grooming took place.

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The AGC’s decision isn’t going to please the 26,000 or so people who signed a petition to put Robinson away for longer. It would be quite a wonder, however, if the AGC did appeal. As I said in an earlier column, the AGC would have to concede that it was somehow wrong to ask for a jail-term of four to five years especially since it said it had looked at precedents. Changing its mind and asking for a higher sentence for Robinson means that past offenders had an easier time of it. Recall, for example, the 51 men who charged with having sex with an under-aged prostitute. They were jailed for between four and 20 weeks each.

More importantly, I doubt if the AGC wants to be shown as bowing to popular opinion or “public disquiet”, as Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam put it.

After all, this would make a mockery of the Administration of Justice Act because outside forces have caused a change of heart. (What’s pretty amazing is that no one in authority has said that it’s wrong to comment on the case given that the appeal limit is not up.)

What would the AGC do the next time there is a public outcry over a punishment that the layman finds inadequate for the crime?

Don’t get me wrong. As far as I’m concerned, Robinson should be castrated whether the girls consented to sex or not. He’s 39, they’re 15. The age gap should have nailed him, as well as filming of the sexual acts. It seems that there are gaps in the law. The AGC said it would be reviewing the law with the Law ministry.

Commenting on this latest announcement, Mr Shanmugam said: “If we don’t think the sentences, based on precedents, are adequate, then we consider what can be done. I do think that the sentences for such offences committed by Robinson need to be relooked at. That is why I have asked my Ministries to study this.”

Well, at least that’s something. It’s good that the AGC did some explaining of the law although I wished it would have said why it agreed to the sentences being run concurrently instead of consecutively.

Maybe, that’s for the judge to decide and written grounds have yet to be made public. It would make for interesting reading.


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by Bertha Henson

THE Direct School Admission (DSA) programme is doing away with its general academic ability tests.

People are going hurrah because it means that their non-Gifted kid can make it into their school of choice because they have another talent that is not exam-smarts.

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That is, if they clear the talent competition for entry. That is, if the school nurturing the specific talent pool is not on the other side of the island. That is, if the school nurturing said talent and achieving non-academic awards do not ignore Ah Boy’s academic work in the process.

That is, if Ah Boy clears his PSLE in the first place. If he doesn’t make the DSA cut-off point, will he be booted out?

Parents of Gifted children have been told their kid will always get a place based on their results. But the DSA isn’t about getting a secondary school place but a guaranteed, booked-in-advance, choped-already programme. That means, no need to worry about how PSLE results turn out, got place already. So, they will still go for the DSA route.

Parents of “ordinary kids’’ will be looking at the niche programmes and wondering if their kids have the requisite talent for, say, robotics or soccer. If not, they will think about sending the kid to enrichment programmes or a sports academy so they can ace whatever interview or competitive process. It’s a different kind of tuition.

Principals of ordinary schools will be wondering if they can even fill the 20 per cent DSA quota space. They’re not top in any sport or talent but merely struggling to bring all its students up to speed. These would be the garden-variety type of schools which, by the way, is still a good school although not the best. So shy if they can’t fill the space…

Parents and principals will be wondering if schools really have the teachers for these niche programmes. Are they experts or have at least mastered some aspects of the programme or are they themselves learning along with the kids? Does the National Institute of Education prepare teachers for such programmes? If principals decide to bring in outside experts, can these experts actually teach?

This is not to pour cold water on the Education Ministry’s changes to the DSA. It’s to show that people, especially parents, will view changes differently depending on their perspective and their knowledge of their childrens’ abilities. Change always leads to more questions.

We just have to be careful about not starting a different kind of rat race.


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The first of two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors is launched during a successful intercept test. The test, conducted by Missile Defense Agency (MDA), Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) Operational Test Agency, Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense, and U.S. Pacific Command, in conjunction with U.S. Army soldiers from the Alpha Battery, 2nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, U.S. Navy sailors aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG-73), and U.S. Air Force airmen from the 613th Air and Operations Center resulted in the intercept of one medium-range ballistic missile target by THAAD, and one medium-range ballistic missile target by Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). The test, designated Flight Test Operational-01 (FTO-01), stressed the ability of the Aegis BMD and THAAD weapon systems to function in a layered defense architecture and defeat a raid of two near-simultaneous ballistic missile targets

by Daniel Yap

THE KL-Pyongyang row over the murder of Mr Kim Jong Nam is getting out of hand with 11 Malaysians trapped in North Korea, but it’s just one part of the worsening diplomatic situation in East Asia. The fallout started with a few missiles falling out of the sky into the sea off the coast of Japan on Monday morning (Mar 6).

On Tuesday morning (Mar 7), North Korean state media announced that the four missiles, three of which landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone about 350km from shore, were drills for a plan to strike directly at US bases in Japan, where the US has stationed about 54,000 troops.

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Japan upgrades its alert level to the maximum and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe gets on the phone with US President Donald Trump. Mr Abe says that the North Korean threat “has entered a new stage”.

At about the same time on Tuesday morning, the row between China (North Korea’s biggest ally) and South Korea took a new turn as South Korea announced that it would consider making an official complaint to the World Trade Organisation over what it sees as China violating their free trade deal.

China has in recent months tried to exert pressure on South Korea by banning the streaming of K-pop performances, stopping K-pop stars from performing in China, causing the shutdown of 23 supermarkets run by South Korean Lotte Group, and ordering tour agencies to stop selling trips to South Korea. Why is China doing this? THAAD.

THAAD is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missile system developed by Lockheed Martin that South Korea and the US agreed to deploy in South Korea in July 2016. Remember China’s state-run Global Times newspaper that had harsh words for Singapore during the Terrex incident? It said that South Korea was “tying itself to the US chariot and turning into an arrogant pawn of Washington in the latter’s military containment against China.”

But why would China get upset about a purely defensive system like THAAD? Isn’t it reasonable for South Korea to defend itself, especially with North Korea going big on missiles?

China is trying to project military power across the region as part of its One Belt One Road framework. China is upset because THAAD is a projection of US power into the region and because the system will take away some of China’s offensive edge should war break out, including over the disputed South China Sea waters and islands, of which – hello – Malaysia is also a claimant. What a tangled web.

So now there are 11 Malaysians held de facto hostage in North Korea, which had fired missiles at Japan, triggering heightened tensions and paved the way for stronger US involvement in the region, which is upsetting China especially because…

We’re back to THAAD. Deployment for the system was previously announced to be completed in mid or late-2017. About 24 hours after the North Korean missiles splash down off the Japanese coast, the US Pacific Command announced that it had begun deploying THAAD overnight in South Korea, and that the system would be operational as early as April.

Quite a lot of people are going to get hot under the collar in the days and weeks to come. Expect nationalistic chest-thumping, threats, diplomatic shenanigans, strained trade, harsh words and escalations from the nations involved. And thank God war isn’t on the cards… yet.

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by Wan Ting Koh

MORE pathways are opening up for students who want to get through the education system via talent rather than grades, but with kiasu and kiasi attitudes still largely driving the education system here, will mindsets change?

In the debate on his ministry’s budget today (Mar 7), Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng outlined several enhancements to existing schemes that show the G’s efforts to shift away from a grade-centric education system.

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First up is the Subject-Based Banding (SBB) initiative that was first implemented in 12 prototype secondary schools in 2014 for lower secondary students. SBB lets students from the Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams take subjects that they are stronger in at a higher academic level. For example, a student who is in the Normal (Academic) stream, but scored an A for Mathematics in his Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), can take Mathematics at the Express level under SBB.

By 2018, the G aims to roll out SBB to all schools which are offering Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) courses at the lower secondary level. The SBB has been in place for upper secondary school students since 2003.

Mr Ng said that this approach would help students “deepen their learning in areas of strengths”, build their confidence and “opens up new post-secondary possibilities for them”.

Through an enhancement in the DSA scheme, the G will also be increasing opportunities for primary school students to get into secondary schools through their strengths and achievements rather than academic aptitude.

From 2018, all secondary schools will be able to admit up to 20 per cent of their Secondary 1 intake through the Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme. First introduced in 2004, DSA is meant to recognise students’ achievements in non-academic areas, such as sports and the arts. It offers Primary 6 pupils places in secondary schools before they sit for PSLE.

Currently, only Independent schools have a 20 per cent allowance on students they accept through DSA. Autonomous schools have a 10 per cent cap while schools with distinctive programmes can admit up to 5 per cent of its students through DSA. The general academic tests that students have to sit for as part of the DSA selection criteria will also be scrapped by 2018. While these tests allow for a comparison of students’ abilities, they “inadvertently put undue focus on general academic abilities”, said Mr Ng.

In any case, students with strong general academic abilities would already be able to qualify for secondary schools with the PSLE results, he added.

On what secondary schools could use to assess entrants, Mr Ng said: “Schools can conduct their selection via a range of assessment tools including interviews, trials, auditions and subject tests. They will also consider the applicant’s overall portfolio and achievements.”

One other change applies to the tertiary front. Polytechnics will be increasing their intake allowance for students who go in through the Early Admissions Exercise (EAE) scheme, which, similar to DSA, admits students based on their interest and aptitude, rather than academic performance.

This scheme was introduced in 2016 for Academic Year 2017, and allowed polytechnics up to 12.5 per cent intake through EAE. However, from Academic Year 2018, the allowance would be increased to 15 per cent.

What’s new is also the expansion of the scheme to Institute of Technical Education (ITE) so that ITEs will be able to admit up to 15 per cent of their Academic Year intake through the ITE EAE.

While the G is taking tangible steps to expand the education system’s focus beyond academics, mindsets will take a longer time to catch up. This problem was flagged by Member of Parliament (MP) Denise Phua, who asked what could be done to change mindsets that are geared towards grades.

Mr Ng said that while academic excellence is “a key strength of our system, it should not be over-emphasised, at the expense of other meaningful activities”.

But whether the G’s push towards a more holistic education can genuinely change mindsets remains to be seen.


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by Bertha Henson

IT’S a reflection of how powerful the G is when it gets whacked even for stuff that’s not under its purview. I’m talking about the uproar over the four-year jail sentence for American Joshua Robinson, probably the most high-profile sexual offender in Singapore.

Clearly, people don’t see the line between the executive and judiciary. Or maybe they are too afraid to slam the judge in the case because that might put them in contempt of court. If there’s anything you want to fault the G over, it’s how the Attorney-General’s Chambers had originally asked for a four to five year jail sentence. Even that, however, is debatable since the G maintains that everything is up to the discretion of the AGC.

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Asked about the matter, Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam said: “The decisions on which charges to proceed is a matter within AGC’s discretion. AGC makes the decisions based on precedents, and what kind of sentence is meted out depends on previous cases… Having said that, my understanding is that AGC is looking into this.’’

Robinson, 39, pleaded guilty to nine charges: Three for sexually assaulting the girls, five for making and possessing obscene films and one for showing an obscene film to a six-year-old girl. Another 20 charges were taken into consideration during sentencing. Among the 20 are four more counts of having sex with the minors and 12 for making obscene films.

For the first charge, the maximum penalty is 10 years jail and fine. For possession of obscene films, he could have been jailed up to six months or fined $500 for each film, up to a maximum of up to $20,000. Statutory rapists in the past have gotten sentences that ranged from five to 20.5 years.

Of course, each case is different. The heaviest sentence was 20.5 years jail time and 24 strokes of the cane.

So can we whack the AGC then?

The case is a volatile mix. A foreigner who is muscular and trained in the martial arts. Who deals with children. Who takes pictures of sexual acts and keeps the largest stash of porn police have ever seized from an individual – 5,902 obscene films, including 321 films of child pornography.

Who, despite being arrested, continued his deviant behaviour while on bail. Who even preyed on a six-year-old while her father was in close proximity.

What utter brazenness!

It’s no wonder that people are calling for his head. An online petition calling for a higher sentence said: “Is this the message our Singapore Government People’s Action Party is intending to send worldwide: “Spray paint our city or slander our government officials and you get it worse off than if you rape and sexually abuse our children”?

Threaded through the statement is a certain an animus against foreigners here: That they can’t get away with dirtying our city (think Michael Fay and the European graffiti artists) or saying bad things (think foreign journalists and authors), but they can do what they like otherwise. It doesn’t help that some foreigners have been in the news, like Yang Yin, who, on the other hand, got his jail term increased to 11 years in all, instead of six. (Please don’t speculate on whether there are different rules for “white’’ people; that’s unworthy.)

Given the public outrage, should the AGC appeal for a higher sentence even though it more or less got what it wanted? Would bowing to popular opinion be a case of mob justice? Or would it concede that it should have asked for more? Then again, it’s really up to the judge to impose the sentence, whatever the AGC might say.

Gasp! Are we interfering with the administration of justice given that the case is not yet over because there’s still a week to go before the appeal time limit is up? Mr Shanmugam, while conceding that there was “public disquiet’’, said that this wasn’t an appropriate time for him to comment on the case. And probably for the rest of us too.

The AGC has 14 days from the date of sentencing (Mar 2) to appeal. By then, we should know whether it has appealed, as well as why it did so – or didn’t.


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Lady using Pair taxi app by the road, while a blue and yellow taxis pass by.

by Wan Ting Koh

WORKING in the gig economy doesn’t necessarily make you a freelancer, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say in Parliament today, in his Committee of Supply speech on the gig economy in Singapore.

In fact, according to Mr Lim, you can technically still be an employee under contract with an employer even if you work in the gig economy. Mr Lim termed these group of workers “gig employees”. But this distinction means that gig employees should be covered under labour laws, such as the Employment Act – a right which freelancers are not entitled to.

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And this throws into uncertainty the fate of full-time Uber and Grab drivers here, who are currently considered self-employed.

Responding to questions from Members of Parliament (MPs) about the increasing number of freelancers in Singapore, Mr Lim said that whether a gig worker is an employee or freelancer depends on his or her contractual arrangement.

He raised the example of a private car driver. If this driver joins a transport company with an employment contract, but primarily takes on jobs offered via an app, he is still an employee of that company, even if he is on a short-term employment contract. In other words, gig employees are no different from those employed under “contract of service”.

Freelancers, on the other hand, are those who do not enter into employer-employee relationships. They provide service for a fee and are not overly constrained by the conditions imposed by the platform owner, or a service buyer, said Mr Lim.

Mr Lim’s announcement is timely as it follows a booming gig economy where an increasing number of workers are turning to “on demand” gigs to gain an income, instead of conventional, stable nine-to-five jobs. The phenomenon raises issues of employment rights for a group of workers who often go unprotected by labour laws.

Although there is no official definition of the gig economy worldwide, said Mr Lim, gig workers are commonly referred to by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development as workers who work on the “platform economy”. This “platform economy” refers to online platforms which match service buyers with workers who take up the short-term jobs.

New survey findings released by Mr Lim in Parliament showed that there are about 20,500 gig workers here. Of these, around 10,500 come from the private car driving industry such as Uber and Grab, while workers from the professional services, creative services, delivery services and media and communications make up the rest.

The survey also found that of a total of 200,000 freelancers here, some 167,000 freelanced as their main job, while the rest did it part-time alongside other jobs.

A further breakdown of survey findings revealed that more than eight in 10, or 81 per cent of freelancers chose freelance work as their preferred job, while the remaining 19 per cent did not freelance as their preferred choice.

The survey also asked freelancers their top concerns or worries, and these were: The lack of income security, the lack of employee benefits and savings for housing and retirement, and the possibility of untimely payment from clients, said Mr Lim.

The growing numbers of freelancers are enough to make the G look into providing more employment protection for them, so the G will be forming a tripartite workgroup, comprising of representatives from the labour movement and employers, to study the issues they face.

He said: “While these concerns may not be new to freelancers, we are taking them seriously. This is because the number of freelancers may grow in our future economy, in tandem with the growth of the platform economy.”

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) has also been giving freelancers some coverage. It set up the Freelancers and Self-Employed Unit about two years back to provide a range of benefits for members for a fee of $117 per year. Read our article about it here.

Even though Mr Lim did not mention any names, his example of the private car hire industry brings to mind the situation of Grab and Uber drivers in Singapore. They are currently considered self-employed, that is, they do not have CPF contributions, are not equipped with insurance, and have no leave days.

With distinctions between gig employee and gig freelancer being made, Uber and Grab might have to do something about their practices here, which might conceivably affect their bottom-lines. Hopefully, this won’t affect their fares. Conventional taxi drivers, who often complain about the competition, will be pleased though.


In other countries, the employment status of Uber drivers has become a source of contention between drivers and their employer.

In the US, a group of drivers representing 5,000 Uber Technologies drivers in New York filed a lawsuit against Uber last June, accusing the company of depriving drivers of various employment protections by misclassifying them as independent contractors. On one hand, drivers say they were promised decent wages, but a majority of earnings went toward company surcharges and vehicle payment. On the other hand, Uber insists that their drivers are self-employed and hence have no contractual obligation to subsidise rental or surcharges.

By October, two drivers had successfully sued to be considered employees of Uber rather than independent contractors. The court’s decision meant that the two would be entitled to unemployment benefits from their work with Uber, according to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

In the UK, a landmark ruling by a London employment tribunal last October ruled that Uber drivers are not self-employed and should be paid “national living wage”.

The ruling by a London employment tribunal involves a case taken by two drivers, Mr James Farrar and Mr Yaseen Aslam, who argued on behalf of a group 19 Uber workers that they were employed by Uber, rather than working for themselves. Uber said in response that it would appeal against the ruling.


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Photo By Shawn Danker
Singapore Parliament.

by The Middle Ground

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong took to Facebook on Saturday evening (March 4) to praise the quality of Mr Kok Heng Leun’s speech in Parliament, as well as those of Nominated MP Randolph Tan, Nominated MP Ganesh Rajaram, and even WP chief Low Thia Khiang

Of the NMPs, Mr Lee said: They are not in politics, and would not otherwise have had a voice in Parliament. But they have brought their expertise and experience to bear, and enriched the public discourse,” and that their speeches “exemplify the purpose of the Nominated MP scheme”.

He said NMP Kok Heng Leun “spoke on how arts and culture can help bond and build resilience in our society, at a time of upheaval and uncertainty”.

He said that “some opposition MPs made good speeches” and ended his Facebook post by saying that “this is how Parliamentary democracy is supposed to work. Sometimes we fall short of this ideal, but in the case of these four speeches, we have not done badly”.

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Here is Mr Kok’s speech in full:


Thank you Minister Heng for preparing this budget for 2017.

I recall my experience last year, the first time I stood before the House to speak about the budget. I had noted that culture was not mentioned in the speech. This year, I am thankful and happy that the arts and culture are mentioned, although in only one paragraph… on the good news of the boost of the Cultural Matching Fund.

So, for the next few minutes, I would like make art and culture my subject: Upheavals, Displacement and The Art of Resilience.


We are all acutely aware that we live in a complex world today. We have been forewarned that the times ahead will be difficult. There will be displacements to our seemingly orderly lives.

Last month, I attended a seminar organised by the Salzburg Global Seminar. This organization was set up 70 years ago after World War Two, gathering thinkers, practitioners and policy-­‐makers to consider world issues, articulate problems and propose broad strategies to deal with these problems. For the 2017 iteration, 40 fellows from various part of the world (including myself) participated in the seminar, which was held in a beautiful palace, the Schloss Leopoldskron. The palace is famous because it is the location site of one of the beloved musical film, The Sound of Music.

During the seminar, while overlooking the idyllic lake, we shared and listened to stories and experiences that were at times harrowing, heartbreaking and deeply disturbing.

One fellow from Uganda shared that her brother was abducted by rebels, and how her family had to keep silent, despite knowing that he would become a child soldier. Another participant shared about the unbearable lightness of existence—the result of her experience of war and blood shed.

Our American friends said they feared waking up to another executive order that would bring the U.S. closer to isolation. Yet, within the same country, we heard about another crisis, this time from a Native American, through songs and rituals, demonstrated the solidarity of her relatives in their bid to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

There were also stories about other urgent global issues, from climate change to social and income inequality. So many issues, so many crises and so many stories of upheavals, which resulted in a huge sense of loss and displacement.


As I listened to these sharings, I realised that back in sunny Singapore, although we are cushioned from the immediacy of these crises, we cannot deny that they will undoubtedly impact us. For many Singaporeans, myself included , the Rohingya crisis seems far away, when in actual fact, it is really close, refugees in Johor, needing help and support.

A community that is hurt and injured is a world that is not at peace.

Let us also not be complacent and imagine that such upheavals is too far away, or will never happen to us.

For now, while we may not experience such gut-­‐wrenching upheavals, we have our own issues of displacement: Migrant workers who have come to Singapore to make a living despite their personal sense of dislocation; single parents and their children who do not enjoy the same benefits of other traditional family units, and who struggle to make ends meet; workers who feel that their jobs are at risk because technological advancements and artificial intelligence might make their roles obsolete, losing their sense of place at home, in the society, and with themselves.

Displacement comes with change. In physics, displacement maps out the relative change of the position of an object, moving from one point to another. But it does not reflect the distance and time one need to take to move from this point to the other. Just like in real life.

For some it is a straight line, quick and fast. Or others, it is a path with a lot of derailments, bringing them through ups and downs, and in some instances, they never arrive.

Naturally, we want the change that we experience to be good, that it bring us forward and upwards, in a straight line—in other words, positive displacement. But most of the time, negative displacement within our society is real and undeniable. With the widening income gap, the lower to middle income groups constantly feel the squeeze as they try to keep up with change.

At the same time, their lack of resources has resulted in derailment. When they are reminded to catch up or be left behind, it sounds as if the problem is that of a personal failing in their lack of trying, rather than a systemic one.

Change favours the privileged. Privilege comes in different forms. All of us here are privileged because we have the power to affect change. Or so I’d like to believe. You can be privileged in terms of wealth or education… or even as a race. It is thus the responsibility of those who are privileged to speak up for those who are not – those who do not earn as much, those who are not as educated, those who are sidelined by our laws.

In a society that celebrates achievement and progress, no one wants to be seen as a failure. Failure results in alienation. People who feel alienated, who feel helpless, become angry. We see the outcomes of such unhappiness on social media, often resulting in an echo chamber effect, reinforcing collective discontentment.

The frustration that stems from material, emotional and psychological insecurity creates a further polarisation of society. We begin to fear the other. This pervasive sense of threat is dangerous. It not only prevents us from being empathetic and compassionate, but encourages selfishness, and can even make violence and brutality justifiable in extreme situations.


The government is aware of these concerns and addresses them through pro-­‐business policies and enhancing the safety net. In an immediate term, pro-­‐business policies may retain create and jobs, but it might not ensure a trickle-­‐down effect on the economy to individuals. Standards of living may still stagnate.

While the government’s extended social safety net will help, with no substantial increase in income, the reliance on social support may be protracted. But self-­‐esteem is directly related to self-­‐reliance. Rather than hoping the safety net is wide enough to catch them, people would generally prefer to lead a self-­‐sustainable, dignified life, earning a respectable wage that ensures their independence. The late British sociologist, Peter Townsend, once said,

“It may be worth reflecting, if indeed a little sadly, that possibly the ultimate test of the quality of a free, democratic and prosperous society is to be found in the standards of freedom, democracy and prosperity enjoyed by its weakest members.”

I and many others believe this to be true, and in difficult times, we must be ever more attentive to those amongst us who fall through the cracks.

As such, I wish to hear more from the Minister on how the livable wages of the middle income and lower income can be raised.

This brings me to the next point: while the Committee for Future Economy focused on economic strategies, it is essential that a study on the cultural impact of these economic strategies be made. Every economic structural change affects individuals, family, society, politics, infrastructure, environment, the tangible and intangible heritage, and the arts—in other words, the culture of our society and the city state as a whole.

We must take a proactive approach to anticipate the impact of these structural changes, rather than react to them when they arise. To give an example: technological advancement has progressed so rapidly beyond our imaginations that we as humans are trying to grasp hold of the changes and manage them well without falling behind. Another example is that the impact of the expansionary immigration policy of the 90s to early 2000 could be mitigated if we had done a cultural impact study earlier. Cultural impact of economic strategies will therefore put us in good stead to manage changes and their effects on society.

I would now like to unpack a term I have heard numerous times in the House since our debate began: “deep skills”.

What is deep skill without deep thinking?

What is crucial here is a culture of creative and critical thinking. Such a culture cannot manifest overnight through new state funding schemes. There is no better time than now to scrutinise our current education system, and incorporate opportunities for creative and critical thinking within it, to develop our next generation and generations to come. The government can create scaffolds and support structures for innovation, but the root source of innovation lies in the people.

We often talk about software or HEART-­‐ware, as opposed to HARD-­‐ ware. Software is not just about skills, it’s about human interaction. How lacking are we these days, in the art of conversation? We have reduced our exchanges to monosyllables: ‘Can’. ‘Want’. ‘K’. I’m not talking about language. I’m talking about connecting.

How do employers and employees connect? How do strangers converse? How do we settle a public disagreement in a multiracial and multi-­‐religious society? How do we manage the increasing moral panic? How do we not see ourselve as helpless individuals, alienated, or a powerless observer to surrounding injustice? How do we see ourselves as active change agents for our society and the world?


This leads me to my next point on resilience. To manage change and displacement, we as a society must become stronger; we must actively develop the art of resilience. In trying times, resilience in individuals is key in helping us repulse fear, resist and reject the injustice and oppressive status quo. Resilience embraces difficult yet transformative changes. It takes courage and conviction; it encourages objective and critical thinking. At the same time, it enables empathy, compassion and a greater sense of hope.

I have attended a number of forum last year’s and there was always this call to artist to response to this trying times.

In Salzburg Global Seminar, policy makers, thinkers, NGOs and rep from C40 etc made the call for arts to be the active change agent and building resilience.

In Weimar, a conference on Sharing and Exchange, political scientists, economists, philosophers also stress the importance of collaboration and inter-­‐cultural exchanges.

In Malta, NGOs, CEOs of arts council around the world made the call for resilience and more arts to heal, to repair, to imagine.

As an arts practitioner, I can attest to the fact that the arts can develop resilience, because it opens us up to critical thinking processes, be it as a spectator or audience, participant or creator.

To give an example: Mr Ong, an audience member of my community forum theatre play, shared:

“I used to be a very impatient person. But after watching forum theatre play, when I get into a disagreement with my spouse, I will remember you, Heng Leun. I remember when you will conduct a forum theatre play, and when a crisis happens, you will say, ‘Stop! Take this moment to think, to reflect.’ So I do it. I stop. I think. I reflect. It makes me less impatient, and of course with that, there is less arguments and more discussion.”

For creators, the arts is a means for articulating difficulties otherwise left unvoiced and seething beneath the surface. Take for instance my friend from Uganda, Beatrice Lamwaka, who wrote stories that helped her heal from her pain and trauma of living through arduous times. I urge you to read her award-­‐winning work Butterfly Dream, which can be found on the internet.

At home, we have witnessed the lyrical poetry of our migrant workers in Singapore, who have given us an unflinching glimpse into their lives here. Take Bikas Nath from Bangladesh, a poet and shipyard worker who won first prize at the 2016 Migrant Workers Poetry Competition. He shared that when he is lonely, “the pen and paper are my friends. So when I have the time, I try to write down my feelings.” I quote from his award-­‐winning poem, “Why Migrant?”:

I long to run back

into the warm embrace of my homeland

Among loved ones

Laugh over a steaming cup of home-­‐made tea

to the sound of the impatient strumming of a guitar somewhere

Wearing my blue school uniform

I want to lose myself

Back into my childhood

Like a stubborn child on a rainy monsoon day

Hiding under the safety of Taro leaves in the swamp

What the arts offer is a world of imagination, and in that, the seed of hope. In art-­‐making, an individual encounters the power of art to heal, repair, and bring hope in difficult times.

Aside from individual resilience, we need to build on community resilience. By that, I mean a community that comes together to listen to differences, mediate and recognise that each differing point of view deserves respect and understanding. The resilient community will never neglect the individual voice within the sea of voices.

Again, the arts compel us to be engaged through active listening and collaboration, which are essential building blocks that inform creation. Active listening allows us to develop empathy and to experience views beyond our comfort zone and echo chambers. I therefore urge the House, that WE, continue to listen and give, with respect. More communication, more openness. Less groupthink, less judgement.

Beyond our own communities, we must also build on inter-­‐ community resilience, so that we do not become insular and self-­‐ serving. We live in an inter-­‐connected world, and we therefore need to look out for others, because their circumstances will have an effect on us. To develop inter-­‐comunity resilience, we must create platforms for active engagement between communities that allow for good, honest and deep dialogues. The arts is one such platform that not only entertains but also educates. It presents scenarios within safe spaces for the public, making us aware of narratives that are often concealed in our midst, and inspiring us to be the change we want to see in society

Similarly, in building inter-­‐community resilience, we need to build such safe spaces where rules of engagement are adhered to, to ensure that our dialogues remain respectful yet robust, critical yet compassionate, passionate yet measured and non-­‐violent.

therefore urge the House, that WE, continue to listen and give, with respect. More communication, more openness. Less groupthink, less judgement

Beyond our own communities, we must also build on inter-­‐ community resilience, so that we do not become insular and self-­‐ serving. We live in an inter-­‐connected world, and we therefore need to look out for others, because their circumstances will have an effect on us. To develop inter-­‐community resilience, we must create platforms for active engagement between communities that allow for good, honest and deep dialogues. The arts is one such platform that not only entertains but also educates. It presents scenarios within safe spaces for the public, making us aware of narratives that are often concealed in our midst, and inspiring us to be the change we want to see in society

Similarly, in building inter-­‐community resilience, we need to build such safe spaces where rules of engagement are adhered to, to ensure that our dialogues remain respectful yet robust, critical yet compassionate, passionate yet measured and non-­‐violent.


It cannot be stressed enough that leadership plays an important role in motivating and inspiring citizens to take greater responsibility for our shared growth, instead of just focusing on individual success stories. This means being politically motivated to gain a better

distribution of wealth and success. It cannot be achieved merely through business-­‐oriented measures or short-­‐term handouts. Rather, in developing long-­‐term strategies to reduce the income gap, our leaders can reignite self-­‐belief, meaningfulness and dignity in the people.

Likewise, an enlightened leadership must respect the differences that exist within our society—not tolerating, not co-­‐existing with, but embracing and celebrating diversity and plurality of views, lifestyles and people. In an era where there is increased polarisation sparked off by religion, politics and class, our leaders have ever more important roles as beacons of reason and mediation. To be resilient is to never allow communities to splinter into us vs. them ideologies, but rather, to make people see that there is a “u” in “us”. We are in this together

As we move our nation forward with the proposals by the Committee of Future Economy, let us remember to become positive forces of change, to find new ways of seeing and listening, and to always be resilient and compassionate to those who fall through the cracks of the system. If we are to become a community of hope in these difficult times, we cannot merely focus on straightforward success stories, but must engage with those who feel most sidelined and marginalised, so that we can become more robust and resilient, together, and never alone.

In Pig Earth, part of a trilogy written by later John Berger, about peasant’s trying to survive under capitalism, there is a scene of a old peasant playing a mouth organ in the mountain, while he was trying to save an old cow. And John Berger wrote, “All music is about survival, addressed to survivors.” Hence, by extension, all art is about survival, addressed to survivors.

And only with that, I support the bill. Thank you.


Featured image by Shawn Danker.

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by The Middle Ground 

WHAT’S good about Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Randolph Tan’s speech? Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took to Facebook on Saturday evening (March 4), and said that his speech, as well as those of NMP Koh Heng Luen, NMP Ganesh Rajaram, and even WP chief Low Thia Khiang, showed the quality of Singapore’s Parliamentary debate, even though the House is not as dramatic as it is in some other countries.

Of the NMPs, Mr Lee said: “They are not in politics, and would not otherwise have had a voice in Parliament. But they have brought their expertise and experience to bear, and enriched the public discourse,” and that their speeches “exemplify the purpose of the Nominated MP scheme”.

He commented that NMP Randolph Tan is “tracking our restructuring efforts closely”. He ended his Facebook post by expressing that “this is how Parliamentary democracy is supposed to work. Sometimes we fall short of this ideal, but in the case of these four speeches, we have not done badly”.

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Here is Mr Randolph Tan’s speech in full:

Budget 2017 Debate

Speech by Randolph Tan, Nominated Member

Mdm Speaker, thank you, for allowing me to join in this debate.

Madam, I strongly support the current Budget proposals. They address ongoing challenges in the economic restructuring process and, despite the changes the last year has brought, reiterate the vision of a secure future that Minister Heng has set out from last year’s Budget.

The circumstances we face are undoubtedly unique, but there are important lessons from the experience of other countries that we only ignore at our peril. We could just as easily become trapped in our own lost decade, exhausting our limited resources on a dispersed agenda without heed to strengthening our economic foundations. Our priority, therefore, should be to provide a footing for future generations that is even more secure than the one we now have.

Madam, to me, this Budget is about seeing beyond the uncertainty, taking leadership responsibility in issues that matter, and possessing the courage of our conviction to complete the restructuring task at hand.

This Budget takes a strong lead in shaping the environmental agenda. We have enjoyed our entitlements of clean air and clean water for as long as we remember. But the unwelcome reality brought about by changes in our world is that not only are both in short supply, the two are growing sources of contention in an increasingly fractious world. Singapore has developed a lead in clean water technology and we can do the same with green technologies in general. A fundamental element in managing the competing access to clean water and air is to correctly price their availability. The long-term consequences of mispricing water and pollution are severe and incompatible with the direction we intend to take for our future economy, as well as for our society. We should not leave future generations unprepared to confront a problem that is developing now.

The issue is not how much clean water we still have or where the current threats to our environmental air quality lie. The issue is much broader and has to do with our collective responsibility for the environment and societal development. Hence, I would like to urge the Minister to consider price corrections in other areas in urgent need of attention as well. Areas such as electronic waste generation, should be incorporated into a comprehensive strategy for responsible environmental advocacy. By ensuring that pricing is imposed on both water and pollution, Singapore is not just taking a responsible leadership role in pushing forward the agenda for dealing with climate change, we will also be putting in place incentives for nurturing the development of technologies whose global economic potential is rapidly expanding. These lie on the path of our future economy.

Madam, there are some areas, however, where I feel that further clarification on how the long-term vision could be achieved would be useful. The first of these is our manpower policy. We should strengthen the connection between our manpower policy and our skills framework.

Foreign workforce growth has been slowing since 2011. Although the recent weakening in demand has been partly due to economic conditions, there is little doubt that the primary mechanism bringing about this shift is the system of levies and dependency ratio ceilings (DRCs).

Our policy on foreign manpower should not just be about restrictions. It should be about promoting long-term economic competitiveness for the benefit of our overall workforce. In order to realise this objective, we must be open to the type of skills we lack and incorporate foreign manpower contributions into a comprehensive strategy for filling our skills gaps.

The indications are that we have made promising improvements in this direction. In the third quarter of 2016, the number of work permit holders in manufacturing and construction declined, contributing to a rare quarterly contraction in total employment in Singapore. As a result, preliminary statistics from MOM show foreign employment (excluding foreign domestic workers) shrinking over the course of 2016 as a whole, the first time this has occurred since the global financial crisis for the whole year. At the same time, labour productivity measures depict improving performance. Full year 2016 figures show real value-added per worker hitting 1%, after having remained stubbornly negative in the preceding two years. And the quarterly statistics show the improvement was sustained throughout, with fourth quarter real value-added per worker hitting 2.4%. What is reassuring is that these changes occurred gradually, despite the fluid environment and turbulent global backdrop.

The work is far from done, and the productivity challenge is an ongoing one. The delicate balance of maintaining robust domestic employment, ensuring global standards of openness to deep and diverse skills, and injecting momentum into the productivity drive is a challenge that all countries face.

Given the limitations of our domestic labour market, the magnitude of the challenge we face in Singapore is far greater. That is why robust yet flexible policy instruments are so important. There is no doubt that our foreign manpower management policy has encountered enormous challenges. This should not detract from the tremendous success it represents as well. Compared to many other countries, we have taken a lead in this area and we should recognise its effectiveness.

Going forward, we should re-orientate our policy to move away from restricting inflows and focus on growing skills sets that our domestic workforce alone will be too slow to achieve on its own. This idea is not new. The “triple weak” system promulgated by the Minister for Manpower for monitoring companies’ with poor hiring practices already contains essentially the same key ingredients, which is that companies should be assessed on a multi-dimensional metric, rather than a single- dimensional measure.

The predecessor to the CFE, the Economic Strategies Committee, originally proposed the system of levies and DRCs. The CFE has developed the principle further. In its report, it recognises the need for foreign talent with specialised skills sets and calls to develop a more differentiated foreign workforce policy. To achieve this differentiation, instead of using the number of workers as the basic unit of measure, we should measure skills instead, and determine levies based on the extent of the skills gap that an employer encounters within the existing domestic workforce, as well as the changes in the gap over time.

The measurement of skills sets and skills levels should be carried out in coordination with the skills framework constructs being developed by SkillsFuture Singapore. The resulting system should be validated by the needs of the Industrial Transformation Maps (ITMs), merged with the current levels of foreign workforce passes, and used to assess the extent to which gaps at the company as well as sectoral level can or cannot be filled by the existing local workforce supply. Such a system can also be used to track whether the gaps are effectively closed over time through training, and how fast this is occurring.

The system of foreign manpower levies and DRCs forms a clear set of rules for managing foreign manpower participation. In recent years, including the current Budget proposal, the system has been used to moderate the impact of manpower cost pressures when economic conditions are poor. As a counter-cyclical tool, the system of levies and DRCs can be adjusted by sector. On this basis, levy rises in the marine and process sectors have been frozen, while those in construction have been allowed to proceed as earlier announced. And compared to alternatives, such as the CPF cuts that were used in the past, this approach is much more amenable to fine-tuning.

My second concern is about the challenges of scale that we, in Singapore, almost uniquely in world, face. Whether we are prepared for the reality of competing against countries much larger than us, this is something that we will have to deal with as a result of the proposals set out in this Budget. This Budget makes a significant push for internationalisation. This will increase the companies and local talent being given greater exposure to global competition and will serve us well in the long run. While programmes, such as the Global Innovation Alliance (GIA), can help Singaporeans gain a foothold in overseas markets, as well as a better appreciation of our global competition, there are adjustments that individuals have to make. Hence, the transformative impact of the GIA will take some years to become visible.

The issue of scale has always been something of a challenge for Singapore’s economy. We have pushed near to saturation point in many of our efforts, but the competition can harness vastly larger numbers without batting an eyelid. This fact is visible in every aspect in which we compete internationally, from trade figures to our workforce composition, to even our robot density.

In 1984, China’s share of manufacturing exports in the world’s total, 1.1%, equalled ours. In 2015, as the world’s leading exporter, China’s share had grown 16 times, to almost twice that of its nearest rival, Germany. Our share, of course, has also grown, more than doubling to 2.3%. Between 1984 and 2015, the share of the US in world manufacturing exports fell by a third. These developments have redefined the global economic balance. They have also brought about the tremendous groundswell of reaction that ranges from the Brexit vote outcome to the repudiation of the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP).

In 2015, world manufacturing exports shrank more than 8% in nominal terms.

Singapore’s trade performance suffered as a result.

The options we have in reacting to these changes are determined not just by our preference, but also by the choices made by the countries we compete against.

China is also the world leader in high-technology manufacturing exports.

However, Singapore’s share of global high-technology exports is about a quarter of China’s, which makes this sector more important to us than general manufacturing.

Across all regions of the world and in many countries, the proportion of manufacturing classified as high technological activity is on the rise. A comparison across countries reveals a visible correlation between this rise and the increasing use of robotics.

As the Minister for Finance Mr Heng had already pointed out last year, China is the world’s largest buyer of robots. And other countries are keeping pace, including Singapore. According to a recent update from the International Federation of Robotics, between 2010 and 2015, the operational stock of industrial robots in Asia rose 70%. The same report placed Singapore within the top ranks of countries in the world, in terms of robotics density, just behind South Korea, and nearly five times ahead of the average global density.

Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are just two of the things that are often mentioned in the same breath as Uber and Grab when discussing technological changes and disruption. These two groups are obviously very different. However, what concerns those who cite them as examples in the same breadth is not necessarily their economic or technological novelty but the loss of control workers feel in facing the rise of these innovations. This fear of loss of control is the most important reason why ordinary workers today identify with the notion of being caught up in an industrial revolution beyond their control, no different from the original one.

Research supported by the International Federation of Robotics argues that while there have been job losses, their magnitudes are small, compared to the increase in employment over the same period.

Regardless of whether one believes in net gain or loss of jobs due to the introduction of new technologies, such as robotics, there is little doubt that existing jobs will have to give way to new ones and the workforce must, therefore, be prepared to adjust to this reality.

Although we cannot be certain about the precise rate and impact of the change on all jobs, the pattern of change and the nature of jobs of the future are becoming increasingly evident. Job creation is increasingly concentrated in domains requiring high intensity of knowledge and skills. In R&D, for instance, across countries and with very few exceptions, the number of personnel has seen strong upward trends. This is true both in absolute terms and as a ratio of the population.

Singapore, of course, as usual, faces the limitation of size that our competitors do not. Between 1996 and 2012, the number of persons employed in R&D in Singapore rose 265%, way ahead of the 50% gain in the US, 160% gain in China, and even 216% gain in South Korea.

But as a result of our population limitations, our R&D personnel numbers are already among the highest in the world on a ratio basis. China’s ratio is only one sixth of ours, despite boasting the largest number of R&D personnel globally today. This means that in Singapore, we have a far smaller pool of workers from which to draw, and if we continue to grow the numbers in order to keep up with global competition, domestic sectors in need of skilled manpower will be squeezed further. The only solution is for our workforce to push beyond the existing frontiers of skills acquisition that other countries take for granted. To remain competitive despite our limitations, our workforce must be prepared for a continuing process of advancement and workplace transformation.

Madam, Budget 2017’s push to develop Singaporean workers into regional and global leaders will take us out of our comfort zones. Singaporean workers, many of whom juggle their regular jobs with important roles, such as family caregivers, will have to add regular overseas postings to the list. This is what we have to do as an innovation in order to overcome the limits of scale.

Given our size, we are already at the boundaries of what we can reasonably achieve if we go by norms. Both in R&D personnel and in robot density, we are already at the limits. Countries whose sizes are multiples of ours have a lot more scope for expansion in absolute terms, and will reap further economies of scale. Internationalisation will, therefore, expand the potential space within which our companies and workers operate, but not completely overcome the fundamental disadvantage of scale that Singapore has always faced.

It is not just workers who will be challenged. SMEs will also feel the discomfort in operating outside of their comfort zones. The question I am trying to ask is: are the internationalisation initiatives a realistic option for local companies who do not have the basic capacity to scale up beyond their set-up in Singapore?

Madam, my last concern is about the timeline for restructuring. The timeline this time around will, I believe, turn out to be the greatest challenge. Many of the past restructuring efforts had tangible end-points such as the challenge of a recession that it could take reference from.This particular restructuring is a long drawn out process, and it is going to be challenging to focus minds on the intangible aspects of the strategy. Although the restructuring is aimed at addressing the challenges caused by disruption, as the timeline for restructuring lengthens, it will heighten uncertainty among companies and workers. For some, the distinction between restructuring and disruption could begin to blur.

The completion of this restructuring will not be readily marked by new buildings or highways. Instead, it is a process of transformation. Success will probably mean not just an end-point but an on-going process of change.

Hence, in closing, I would like to thank Finance Minister Heng for staying the course in this restructuring journey as well as for providing a personal model of resilience through adversity.


Featured image from TMG file.

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