March 23, 2017

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by Kwan Jin Yao

THE rate of volunteerism in Singapore almost doubled from 2014 to 2016, rising from 18 to 35 per cent. And this trend – according to the Individual Giving Survey 2016, conducted by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) – “could be related to the resurgence in informal volunteerism” (emphasis mine), through which Singaporeans volunteer directly without going through an organisation. In its press release, NVPC then detailed examples of social and ground-up movements in Singapore, to illustrate a second point that the number of volunteers who serve informally has increased from 25 to 51 per cent, over the same time period.

Straits Times christened this “a resurgence of the kampung spirit” (Mar 16). TODAY quoted NVPC director for knowledge and advocacy, Jeffrey Tan on this “giving revolution”, “where people are volunteering and donating informally, directly with beneficiaries, without going through the formal routes” (Mar 16). Notwithstanding the questionable hyperbole, everyone seems to take for granted this causal relationship between the rise in the volunteerism rate and the increase in informal volunteerism. Correlation is not causation. In fact, we still appear to know little about what exactly drives volunteerism in Singapore, and how it can be sustained in the long-term. NVPC said it could be informal volunteerism, but we do not know for sure.

And in its current incarnation, the NVPC’s Individual Giving Survey provides few useful answers.

Volunteer rate and sample size

In the 2012 survey, when it was found that 32 per cent of Singaporeans volunteered – the previous high – the cited reason was also informal volunteering. In the 2010 survey, when the rate increased to 23 per cent from the previous high of 17 per cent in 2008, no explicit reasons were offered. And likewise nothing insightful was offered in 2014, when the volunteerism rate fell by almost half from 32 per cent in 2012 to 18 per cent. The accompanying media release in 2014 briefly mentioned the lack of time as a top reason for non-volunteers, as if it was a new finding, yet this concern was already established from the very first edition of the survey in 2000, when 74 per cent of the respondents said that “no time” was their main reason for not volunteering.

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Just knowing how the national volunteerism rate has changed from survey to survey is not enough. If the intent is to encourage more Singaporeans to volunteer – and to make sure they keep volunteering – then the NVPC needs to better understand the needs and the motivations of volunteers and non-volunteers alike, and to shape endeavours accordingly. Suppose the NVPC is absolutely convinced that informal volunteerism does cause higher volunteerism rates. It should therefore channel its resources to more financial grants for these community groups, for instance, to facilitate capacity-building and to reach out to more in Singapore.

Such causal findings will be productive for government agencies too. The Ministry of Education can ascertain whether learning experiences through Values in Action – in different permutations, such as within-school or community activities – increase the likelihood of volunteerism in the future. The National Council of Social Service, with similar information, can better advise the volunteer-management units of charities, in terms of how they can appeal to and retain long-term volunteers.

Comparisons of the findings across the past eight editions reveal something more troubling about the sampling size. Only 389 respondents were interviewed for the 2016 survey compared to the 1,828 interviewed in 2014. The mean or average across the eight biennial surveys from 2000 to 2014 was 1,698 (the median was 1,752), and so the sample size for 2016 is barely one-quarter of that. The disparity raises obvious questions about the sampling method, the representativeness of the findings and if it can be generalised for the whole population, and whether comparisons can be fairly made across demographic or socio-economic indicators.

Further doubts emerge when the 2016 is compared with the World Giving Index 2016 – released by Britain-based Charities Aid Foundation – which found that only 20 per cent of Singaporeans volunteered their time and efforts for a cause in the past year. In this particular area Singapore ranked 54th out of 140 countries, compared to its ranking of 19th for donating money to charity. The World Giving Index collected questionnaires, face-to-face, from exactly 1,000 Singaporean respondents. But like the Individual Giving Survey, it provided no additional details on the potential factors which will prompt more to volunteer.

So in addition to the woeful sample size, what changes can be made to the Individual Giving Survey? Or what more can it do?

Three related proposals. First, having determined the reasons for non-volunteerism – from the lack of time to the difficulty of balancing work and family commitments, for example – focus group discussions with existing volunteers will allow for the aggregation of practical perspectives or good practices, on how to overcome these challenges. Second, with these perspectives and practices, the NVPC can better design interventions for Singaporeans of different age-groups, in different industries, and for different beneficiaries, and use the survey as an instrument to measure the effectiveness of these implementations. In other words, did a new volunteer programme or an awareness campaign drive more Singaporeans to actually volunteer? And for how long?

And finally, a longitudinal component to the Individual Giving Survey could yield valuable information too. In an experimental set-up like this, having identified a representative sample, NVPC will track the same group of respondents over two, four, or even six years, measuring their rates of volunteerism and how they respond to volunteer programmes or awareness campaigns. If implemented effectively, the NVPC could even track the impact of nation-wide policies – such as the inception of the Youth Corps and the changes the MOE made to the community involvement programme in schools – over the same time-frame.

The Individual Giving Survey and its top-line figures may have sufficed in the past 16 years. Much more is desired – and needed – if we want to turn Singapore into a more compassionate nation of regular and committed volunteers.

 

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by Daniel Yap

SINGAPORE is engaging in a long-term war, with high stakes. It’s the war for our health and overall well-being, and for disease prevention which has long-run payoffs – better quality of life, reduced costs, lower risks. The details of NurtureSG, a Ministry of Health plan to instill healthy habits in our children, will be announced later this year, but any plan needs to consider potential obstacles.

The first thing standing in the way of healthier children is unhealthy adults. We need no reminding that children are most influenced not by what they are told by their parents and teachers to do, but by what they see their parents and teachers doing. Thus, any aim to change the health-wise behaviour of the next generation must take into account the behaviour of this generation.

It may be straightforward enough to try to drill healthy habits into our children, but how then can we incentivise adults, whose habits have already been formed and practiced for decades, to change? We would not want to train our children up a certain way only to have them slip back into an unhealthy adult lifestyle because they were following their parents’ footsteps.

Adults need to replace old habits by forming new ones, and new habits are formed by repetitive behaviour. Without long-term goals, such sustained change would be difficult.

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For starters, we need to address the psychology that defeats long-term goals: affective bias, risk discounting, and hyperbolic discounting.

Affective bias, that is, bias that is rooted in our emotions, causes us to hear only what we want to hear. For example, the strong emotion associated with comfort eating can cause us to put too much stock in a “reduced fat” label on an unhealthy snack…and there goes the diet.

Uncertainty about the goals we set is what leads to risk discounting, where we downplay the risky effects of our behaviour. If you didn’t know how much you needed to eat to lose weight, would you have chicken nasi briyani for dinner, and a large bag of potato chips at the movie afterwards? Probably. But if you knew you had to eat under 1700 calories a day to lose weight, then it would be immediately clear to you that the 900 calorie nasi bryani and the 1000 calorie bag of chips would completely wreck your goals, especially if you already had a typical 500 calorie breakfast and “diet” 400 calorie lunch.

Hyperbolic discounting is the cognitive bias that favours short-term gains – why someone would choose to get $50 now than $1,000 a year later. It is why diet plans fail, why savings plans fall through, why we won’t cut our carbon footprint even though we know we put the future in peril.

How can children and adults get past these roadblocks to a healthier life? First, the emotional appeal of a long-term healthy lifestyle needs to stay strong. We need constant reminders that this is good for our family, good for our children and good for our silver years. Strong campaigns and culture-building are key to achieving this.

Then, we need instant gratification for our efforts. This is the short-term counter to short-term temptations, and this has so far been the hardest to achieve on a national scale.

This is why people post their workouts and gym bods on social media – to soak up the likes and encouragement as fuel for the next workout. This is why wearables are effective, because they are a constant reminder on your wrist of whether you’ve covered your 20,000 steps today, or gotten enough sleep, or pushed your heart rate frequently enough this week.

Instant gratification is why we need incentive programmes like the national steps challenge, in-house corporate fitness or weight-loss competitions, or programmes for individuals like AIA Vitality to reward workouts with vouchers, send encouragement, form support groups, set reminders, and do anything necessary to keep our eyes on the short-term goal for as long as it takes to reach the long-term one.

We are all, in one way or another, attracted by short-term gain. And if healthy living isn’t attractive in the short-term, then unhealthy living will win out. And what happens in the short term determines who wins the long-term war for our well-being. If we lose the war for our own well-being, we’ll be putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of the G’s push to make our children healthier.

 

This story is part of a series with AIA Singapore.

AIA Singapore is invested in the health and wellness of Singaporeans and has launched AIA Vitality, a comprehensive wellness programme that rewards members for taking small, everyday steps to improve their health.

 

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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
A corridor at the campus of NUS Yale.

by Ong Lip Hua

UNIVERSITY admissions season looms again, and as a university admissions professional with over a decade of work experience (in NUS and SIT), I get plied with questions from would-be students and their parents.

What I’ve come to realise is that the questions that potential students ask are usually off the mark. Perhaps it has to do with the media’s fascination with rankings (which reflect research, not teaching quality), graduate pay, and employment numbers.

While these may form a part of the answer to the question “why should I choose this university”, most of us go to the university to pave the way for a future career and the career prospects of a graduate are not sufficiently represented by these metrics.

A successful career is sustained more through a university’s “after sales” service, which most applicants are not aware of. This “after sales” service is performed by several offices in the university that often go overlooked.

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Here’s what else you might want to ask about at the next admissions talk:

The Placement Office: This is the department that organises career fairs, gives you job advice, and teaches you how to write your resume. They are known by many other names. How strong is the University’s Placement Office? Which sector do they have hiring partners in? What type and amount of assistance does the Placement Office provide?

Internship programmes: The Faculty Office or Placement Office typically handles internship placements. There is only so much you can learn about the working world and an industry from the safe confines of a lecture hall or tutorial room. Before we graduate, we need to be “inserted” into the industry network. An early foray into the environment where you’ll be spending the next 40 years of your life can pay off more than an impressive Grade Point Average.

Internships get you into the network and industry lingo so you can better know what and why is that thing on page 1905 of the reference source number AI76. Great internships put you in the same office as industry leaders and key personalities: distinguish yourself there and you’ll have the makings of a priceless industry network.

The Alumni Office: Getting our first job is only the first step in what we hope will be a long career. Good pay prospects and employment ratios are good to have, but the more important question is: where do I go from there?

Strong Alumni Offices are also good after-sales service centers. They provide you with the network to get into higher level positions, make business connections for you to start or expand your businesses, and can give you access to ideas, funds and links for your project or research break-through.

How active or strong are the university’s Alumni Offices? What events or activities are held? How committed is the alumni community? What are this office’s beliefs and objectives?

One more question: What is your student profile? This is a question especially for universities abroad, or for locally-awarded degrees from overseas institutions. This tells you who you get to network with while you are in school. If you can’t get a straight answer, spend some time roaming the campus talking to, or observing current students.

At some point in life, co-operation becomes much more valuable than competition. The friends and frenemies you have made during your school years can translate into doors that are open or shut to you later in life.

These “after sales” functions of universities will become increasingly important as the world churns out even more graduates, as work/jobs become more transnational, as technology, mergers and acquisitions reduce number of jobs and increase competition.

So at your next university admissions talk or open house, don’t just ask about cut-off points, or why this course is better than another. Ask questions that span 40 years into your future, because that’s probably what you are getting an education for.

Ong Lip Hua was in University Admissions for a decade and being passionate about the career of students he admits, decided to pursue a career in HR Recruitment. He was a minor partner in a recruitment firm before going in-house. He is still crazy about providing education and career advice.

 

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

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by Ryan Ong

EMPLOYMENT regulations have come a long way in Singapore. Earlier in our history, this was a country with a strict “no-strike” policy and a lot of power vested in employers; all part of an early-days survival method. But with the step into first world status, Singapore’s employment scene has become more progressive by the year:

 

1. TAFEP and the Fair Consideration Framework

In 2006, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) was set up to promote responsible employment practices. The “tripartite” element refers to co-operation between employers, unions, and the Singapore government to further this goal.

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One result of having TAFEP is the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF). The FCF ensures that hirers stick to merit-based hiring, using competence as the deciding factor instead of elements such as age, gender, and nationality.

One example of this is the Jobs Bank. Before hiring an Employment Pass (EP) holder, a company must* advertise the job on Jobs Bank for at least 14 days, making it available to Singaporeans. Only after this period can the company apply for an EP.

This ensures that companies cannot show an unfair preference for hiring foreigners. They must show they tried to hire a Singaporean first.

(*Some exceptions exist, such as if the company has fewer than 25 employees, or only needs to fill a temporary position for no more than one month. You can see the list of exceptions here.)

In addition, anyone can report to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) if they see a discriminatory job advertisement. An example would be an ad that says “only foreigners”, or imposes restrictions irrelevant to the job (e.g. requiring a worker to have certain religious beliefs, for an accounting position).

Furthermore, TAFEP has an online system for complaints about workplace discrimination. Employees who feel they are treated poorly, or penalised for non-work related issues (e.g. age, gender, religion, political views, sexuality) can raise a complaint (their confidentiality is protected).

 

2. The Human Capital Partnership Programme, to encourage good workplace practices

The Human Capital Partnership (HCP) programme is an initiative open to companies with a good track record in employment and workplace practices. Companies that are part of the HCP (called Human Capital Partners) commit to investing in the development of Singaporean employees across all levels.

In return, Human Capital Partners enjoy priority access when having work passes processed, and have a dedicated hotline for transactions with MOM. Human Capital Partners will have privileged access to government support and resources, and have the right to display the “Human Capital Partner” mark, which helps to attract needed employees.

Human Capital Partners, for example, have account managers assigned to them from HCP to cultivate good workplace practices. This ensures that the concept of fair employment cannot just be a temporary front.

This is in stark contrast with old-school methods; traditional systems of employee protection just use penalties and fines as threats, which places the burden of fair employment on government regulators.

HCP instead provides positive incentives for companies, to encourage the hirers themselves to maintain good practices.

 

3. Skills Transfer Initiatives

One of the HCP’s goals is to turn foreign workers into a complement to our workforce, instead of competition. The formula is:

1/3 + 2/3 > 1.

That refers to how one-third of our workforce is composed of foreigners, and two-thirds are Singaporeans. By having the two complement each other, we develop synergy and results that are greater than the sum of our parts.

One example of this is skill transfer programmes that HCP encourages. 3M, the manufacturer of the famous Post-It notes, is engaged with this initiative. The manufacturer has several programmes in which foreign workers can teach or transfer skills to local employees (and vice versa). This ensures that each worker is more versatile, and can be moved into new roles quickly. The result is a more nimble and adaptable company.

Endorsing skills transfers is a progressive take; rather than set up an adversarial relationship between locals and foreigners (the old “they’ll eat our lunch” argument), Singaporean employers are instead encouraged to merge the two, to make our companies more competitive.

A more competitive company means better wages, more room for career advancement, and greater job security.

 

Building the workforce for the new era
The Singaporean worker today is, by and large, no longer an easily replaced resource. As we see more talented programmers, engineers, managers, and salespeople, it is clear the dynamics of the workplace will change.

No longer are employees wholly dependent on the whims of their employer; rather, the reverse is often true. Many companies are now dependent on the skills and talents of their workers, who have no shortage of options when it comes to finding work elsewhere.

In light of this, any adversarial relationship between employer and employee will be a tremendous disruption to local business (and by extension, the wider economy). It’s time we discard outmoded notions of “worker versus employer”, lest all of us fall behind.

The simplest way to do that is not with over-regulation and fines, but to ensure that companies themselves see the value of treating employees right.

 

This article is part of a series on employment in partnership with the Ministry of Manpower.

 

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by Lee Chin Wee

THE Labour Market Report 2016 released today (Mar 15) revealed that the annual average resident unemployment rate rose to 3.0 in 2016, after holding steady at 2.8 per cent for the last four years. This is the highest figure since 2010, when the resident unemployment rate was 3.1 per cent.

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Compared to data from 2015, residents aged 30 – 39 (2.3 per cent unemployed, up from 1.9 per cent), and 50 & over (2.7 per cent unemployed, up from 2.4 per cent) were particularly affected, while those aged 29 & below saw the unemployment rate decrease from 5.1 per cent to 5.0 per cent.

 

Taken from Labour Market Report 2016, Ministry of Manpower

 

Part of the high unemployment rate can be explained by seasonal and frictional unemployment due to the cyclical nature of the global economy. Singapore tends to be buffeted by forces outside our control. The manufacturing sector, for instance, shed 15,500 jobs in 2016 because of flagging global demand for products. This figure would have been far worse, had it not been for the manufacturing sector unexpectedly expanding by 6.4 per cent in Q4 2016. Plunging oil prices have also badly affected the offshore marine industry, with retrenchments picking up in 2015-16. One would expect unemployment figures to improve as the global economy recovers.

However, the unemployment rate can also be attributed to structural unemployment: As Singapore adjusts to the disruptive impacts of new technology on traditional businesses, people’s skills no longer match up to market demand. Singapore’s continued economic transformation, therefore, may lead to underskilled or wrongly-skilled workers left by the wayside. As firms reorganise and restructure to become manpower-lean, longstanding jobs like accounting and secretarial work may be cut, while new business interests – financial technologies, for instance – are developed.

There are now 17,000 long-term resident unemployed (refers to those unemployed for more than 25 weeks), compared to 12,700 in 2015. This figure is the highest since 2009, when the 2008 Financial Crisis led to thousands of Singaporeans losing their jobs.

 

Taken from Labour Market Report 2016, Ministry of Manpower

 

Most worryingly, the long-term unemployment rate for degree holders rose to 1.0 per cent in 2016, the highest since 2004. Does this mean that more university graduates now hold paper qualifications that are ill-suited for the modern economy? Possibly. A bachelor’s degree in programming or software engineering received 10 years ago, for instance, may bear little relevance to the sought-after skills of today. Without a constant push for skills upgrading and on-the-job training, many graduates will find themselves either underemployed, or out of work.

As the economy becomes more complex, the need for specialised skills has soared. This has challenged the traditional view that higher education guarantees a stable career, as demand for specialised skills can change overnight with the introduction of new technology or sudden industry transformation. Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMETs) formed 75 per cent of all residents made redundant in 4Q 2016 – a disproportionate figure.

Statistics seem to suggest that there is a growing mismatch between employee skills and job requirements; especially at white-collar managerial and technical levels. And even when tertiary-level education does meet market demand, the rapidly-evolving jobs landscape means that employees must be willing to continually upgrade themselves. Given this context, policies to help workers gain new skills or encourage businesses to leverage new technology are extremely important.

Whether Singapore will be able to bounce back stronger from this period of slowing growth and higher unemployment depends on how well we can react to technological disruption. If our workers and businesses do not stay ahead of the curve, one should be prepared for more grim news ahead.

 

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by Lee Chin Wee 

BUCKLE in, because public transport fares are likely to rise. Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan hinted as much during his Ministry’s Committee of Supply debates last week (Mar 8). Addressing Parliament, he said that the Public Transport Council (PTC) was reviewing the current fare formula, which is due to expire later this year.

In December last year, the PTC had revised fares downward due to lower energy prices. However, Mr Khaw noted that “the PTC cannot always bring good news, sometimes they have to adjust fares upwards. And when they do, I hope commuters will be understanding.”

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Many Singaporeans, especially those in lower income brackets, will soon be feeling the pinch. A month ago, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced a 30 per cent hike in water prices – the first time water prices have risen in 17 years. It also comes on the heels of increased Service & Conservancy charges in 15 PAP-managed town councils, and higher parking charges at public car parks across the island.

Of course, every fee increase must be evaluated based on its own merits. It is not enough to say that the cost of living has gone up – in the case of public transport fares, any increase should be measured against real wage growth in Singapore and the trend pattern of public transport operating costs.

 

Is it expensive to keep trains and buses running?

To obtain a better understanding of public transport operating costs, we studied SMRT’s annual reports from FY2011 – 2016 as a case study.  Of particular interest were the rail/light rail and bus businesses. We isolated the annual figures for operating revenue and operating profit in these areas.

 

 

Operating profit for core public transport services is not high; in fact, it is a negligible portion of SMRT’s overall profit. In 2016, SMRT recorded an operating profit of $138.5 million. Out of this sum, only $13.3 million was from the rail/light rail and bus businesses – barely 9.6 per cent of total profits. The other 90.4 per cent can be attributed to SMRT’s other business interests, such as advertising and property rental. For instance, SMRT owns Kallang Wave Mall.

Not only is operating profit already low, it is decreasing due to operating costs rising at a marginally faster rate than operating revenue. Why might this be the case? Because in recent years, SMRT has been investing in renewal works for key infrastructure, and the acquisition of operating assets. For instance, from August 2013 to December 2016, 188,000 timber sleepers were replaced with more durable concrete sleepers. To prevent further power faults, SMRT is also replacing the third rail system which supplies electricity to trains. The cost of financing these projects is not directly passed on to the consumer, as fare prices are set by the PTC.

 

Can Singaporeans afford a fare hike?

When fares rise, consumers end up shouldering more of the operating costs. The key question is, can Singaporeans afford it? In comparison to other countries, our public transport fares are very affordable. A 2016 study by UniSIM showed that, for a 10km train ride, Singapore’s train fare was the sixth lowest out of 35 major world cities. It costs a commuter SGD$1.33 to travel 10km on train, whereas the global average (after Purchasing Power Parity adjustment) is around SGD$2.30.

Tracking real wage growth against changes in public transport fares, it also appears that public transport fares are reasonable. Since 2011, real wage growth has broadly kept pace or surpassed increases in fares. This, however, does not account for the period of 2012 – 2013, where fare changes were temporarily suspended as the PTC reviewed its pricing structure.

 

 

Should public transport fares be going up?

Someone’s got to pay for the cost of running our trains and buses. When SMRT was still a publicly listed company, there were three parties who could do this: (1) the consumer of public transport, who pays through fares; (2) the G, who pays through taxpayer monies; and (3) the retail investor, who buys SMRT stock. Since SMRT was acquired by Temasek Holdings, we are now left with options (1) and (2).

Clearly, consumers of public transport are also taxpayers. But not all taxpayers are consumers of public transport. Hence, when the G subsidises operating costs, people who are under-consuming public transport will be cross-subsidising those who use public transport frequently. Some view this as good, because those who under-consume public transport tend to be rich anyway, and their taxpayer dollars should be used to make sure others can have cheap MRT rides. Others view this as bad, because people should contribute based on how much of a service they consume.

Another point of view is that SMRT and other transport operators should use their profits from more profitable business sectors to cross-subsidise rail and bus services. The argument here is that instead of raising fares, transport operators should be willing to take losses on its core business (that is effectively a public service) in exchange for making large profits on advertising, overseas consulting, and retail business. However, there is a limitation to this model – transport operators only have secondary interests in these other business areas, and cannot sustain such an internal cross-subsidy if operating costs continue to mount.

Regardless of what one believes, everyone would agree that high operating costs for public transport are unavoidable if we want to ensure our trains and buses become more reliable and less fault-prone. And even if public transport fares were held steady, taxpayers would still feel the pinch – either directly in the form of higher taxes, or indirectly as money that would otherwise have gone to other G services is now used to subsidise public transport.

Come this April, though, when the PTC convenes to announce changes to fares, I’ll still be hoping that my daily MRT rides get cheaper. One can dream, right?

 

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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.
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  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.
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  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.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Featured image by Flickr user Vaping360. (CC BY 2.0)

by Daniel Yap

SENIOR Minister of State for Health Amy Khor’s answer to WP Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leon Perera’s question about heated tobacco products exposed a weakness in the Ministry of Health’s policy on alternative tobacco products, and its approach to science. Smoking is a big risk for our healthcare system, and if alternative products can lower that risk, then perhaps we need to consider them more carefully.

Heat-not-burn tobacco may be strange to Singaporeans because it is banned here, but it accounts for more than five per cent of the tobacco market in Japan after being on the market for just two years, and is catching on in many major markets worldwide. Its popularity is due to rising fears of the effects of second-hand smoke and also smokers’ desire to quit or reduce harm to themselves and their families.

But since Singapore plays host to research and development facilities of tobacco companies, it’s odd to think that we know so little.

How Philip Morris International's iQOS system works
At least we know how Philip Morris International’s heat-not-burn iQOS system works

Plus, since we are at war with diabetes (of which smoking is a major risk factor), it behooves us to be interested in even preliminary studies of products that claim to reduce risks, including e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn products.

I have family and friends who smoke and I would like to know whether this product (or any other, like vaping) could reduce the harm they are doing to their bodies (and to mine). I would think every smoker’s family does.

It takes time, of course, but Dr Khor did not say that studies were underway. Are they? I know the budget is tight, but this is a budget for the future, isn’t it? Why not spend a few million now to potentially reduce future healthcare costs by billions of dollars?

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1. Don’t know means don’t know, not “no”

Dr Khor’s reply sounds like a defence of the G’s policy of banning heat-not-burn products, along with e-cigarettes and non-smoking tobacco. If a lack of information exists for an issue as important as smoking, then it is the duty of the G’s scientists to go and find out more.

If we don’t know, we should be open to trying. I’m not saying we should completely legalise alternative products to all and sundry. Even Mr Perera’s suggestion to start with giving these products to smokers trying to quit will be a start.
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2. Citing nicotine levels as a reason why heat-not-burn is bad

Mr Perera was asking about the overall risk of heat-not-burn products. Dr Khor answered with how nicotine levels were comparable to regular cigarettes. This answer is strangely off-track.

Smokers are addicted to nicotine but killed by tar and other chemicals. Shouldn’t the answer be about tar and carbon monoxide instead? Or at least one of the many other chemicals in cigarettes that could harm your body?

And if lower levels of other chemicals are detected in heat-not-burn products, then the same level of nicotine would be a good thing because it would be easier for addicts to switch products because they get the same high while causing less harm to themselves and others.

We practise “reduced harm” policies for other vices. If heat-not-burn products and e-cigarettes reduce harm, we should allow them, and the health authorities should commit to this and then go research it.
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3. Criticise the research, not (just) the researcher.

Dr Khor is a little too dismissive of the research done by tobacco companies when she says “while there have been claims that such tobacco products are less harmful…these claims are made by the tobacco industry”. It is one thing to know that a person or organisation is an interested party in a study or has lied in the past, but that isn’t what makes a study true or untrue.

Research done by tobacco companies on heat-not-burn stretches back to 2008. And it is extensive, with publicly available methodology. Philip Morris, for example, has submitted a two million-page dossier to the US Food and Drug Administration on the effects of heat-not-burn. If heat-not-burn is as harmful as cigarettes, as Dr Khor presumes, then we need to dive into the research, not ignore it.

Since there is currently no research to disprove the tobacco companies, why not peer review their studies? Why not attempt to replicate them? Why not conduct independent studies? That is how one refutes (or proves) another’s research, not by a mere claim that the other party is an interested party. That’s what we do with big pharma, so apply it across the board.

Good science was responsible for linking cancer, diabetes, heart disease and a host of other ailments with smoking. We need to drop the lazy rhetoric and do the hard work of science.
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4. “There is no safe level of tobacco use”

This was the answer Dr Khor gave to Mr Perera’s query about trialing reduced-risk products to help smokers who have registered for smoking cessation programmes quit.

Not only does it fail to answer Mr Perera’s question, the answer hides behind a truism. Of course there is no safe level of tobacco use. There is also no “safe level” of particulate pollution. There is no safe level of red meat consumption. But we know that a PSI below 50 is considered “healthy”. We know that one can eat a moderate amount of red meat and not be considered “at risk” by doctors or insurers.

We want to know whether heat-not-burn is safer than cigarettes, not whether tobacco is bad for you. Big tobacco is claiming that heat-not-burn is safer. There are no claims that it is safe.
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5. The “gateway effect” and other “evidence from other countries”

Dr Khor says that “evidence from other countries” shows that heat-not-burn products have emissions that are not too different from cigarettes. However, a November 2016 Ontario Tobacco Research Unit report on heat-not-burn products comes to this conclusion:

“To date, we have not found new independent science that has assessed the harm reduction potential or the acceptability of the current generation of heat-not-burn products… If independent science finds that the new heat-not-burn products do indeed considerably reduce harm and are widely acceptable to smokers, an opportunity would arise for eliminating the sale of the higher risk combustibles.”

So other “evidence from other countries” so far is a well-documented seven-year-long and counting study by UK health authorities disproving Dr Khor’s “gateway effect” fears, and showing the exact opposite.  Dr Khor mentioned the study but didn’t have the time to explain why she didn’t accept its findings.

Instead, her evidence backing up the “gateway effect” is only half a story – that adolescent e-cigarette use in the US is growing quickly (ten-fold since 2011). The other side of the story, which she left out, is that there was a sharp decline in conventional cigarette use over the same period. I’ll not be one to confuse cause and correlation, but telling only one side of the story robs us of the facts.

Add to that the fact that the UK government has concluded that e-cigarettes are definitely less harmful than regular cigarettes and you’ve got to ask: Could the Ministry of Health, in their over-zeal to protect Singaporeans from “potential harm”, also be holding us back from potential benefits? All I know is that we can’t justify our policy positions with bad, bad science.

 

Featured image by Flickr user Vaping360. (CC BY 2.0)

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by Lee Chin Wee

Singapore and the United States

SG - US

MP VIKRAM Nair asked what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) position was on US-China relations, while MP Low Thia Khiang asked what Singapore could do if the US and China didn’t get along.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan agreed that US-China relations are the “key bilateral relationship” that will affect “peace, prosperity, and security in our region”. He noted that competition between the US and China is “inevitable”, but also noted that “never before have two (large) powers been so interdependent, intertwined economically”.

Responding to Mr Low, Mr Balakrishnan said that Singapore wants to be part of a “common circle of friends”, and develop “win-win relationships” with both countries. However, he also admitted that Singapore “has no say” over the US-China relationship, and should “avoid choosing sides for as long as possible”. He said Singapore should remain an “honest broker” who says “the same thing” to both the US and China.

MP Cedric Foo wanted to know how “the new Trump Administration and its America First foreign policy” would affect Singapore, which “relies heavily on open and free trade”. He also asked if Singapore would be working even closer with the United States for “mutual benefit”.

Mr Balakrishnan was “confident” that Singapore will be able to develop a “win-win partnership with the United States”. He pointed to how Singapore-US relations were “strong and enduring over the past 51 years”, and have persisted through “five Republican and four Democratic administrations”.

Mr Balakrishnan argued that the “strategic imperatives that underpin America’s involvement in the region remain unchanged”. He also said that “new areas of convergence” were emerging to supplement existing mutual interests, pointing to a 2016 memorandum of understanding regarding cyber security that Singapore signed with the US.

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Singapore and China

SG - China

MP Cedric Foo noted that despite “the strong political, economic, and social ties” between Singapore and China, there would invariably be “occasional differences” between the two countries. He asked how Singapore plans to manage these differences moving forward.

Mr Balakrishnan argued that Singapore-China relations are “fundamentally strong”, and cautioned against “overreaction”. Noting that differences are “not unusual even amongst close friends”, he said that “our shared interests far outweigh these differences. Singapore will not allow differences to derail longstanding co-operation.”

MP Sun Xueling cited a quote by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, where he described the Singapore-China relationship as an “all-round cooperative partnership progressing with the times.” She asked how the G interpreted these remarks and wanted an update on Singapore-China relations.

Replying, Mr Balakrishnan said: “Singapore has long been a steadfast friend of China. I would describe our bilateral relationship with China as ‘in good working order’.”

Mr Balakrishnan used the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative and the China-Singapore Forum on Leadership as examples of joint projects between Singapore and China that bring the two nations closer together. He said the “high frequency of interactions at senior leadership level has conferred a high degree of resilience and strategic trust in our relationship.”

 

Singapore and Malaysia

SG - Malaysia

In light of Malaysia’s application to the International Court of Justice to re-open the Pedra Branca case, MP Amrin Amin wanted to know if it “has affected the overall tenor of our relationship.”

MP Baey Yam Keng had a similar question, asking the minister to “elaborate on Singapore’s response to Malaysia’s application, and whether this case (would) affect bilateral relations with Malaysia?”

Mr Balakrishnan replied that “our relationship with Malaysia is as good as it ever has been”, as evidenced by the landmark agreement over the Singapore-KL high-speed rail. He also revealed that Singapore is trying to reach an agreement with Johor over a Singapore-JB rapid transit system.

Regarding the Pedra Branca case, he said that it reflects both Singapore and Malaysia’s willingness to resolve differences “amicably, and according to international law”. He assured Parliament that “Singapore is committed to resolving this issue amicably” and that “relations with Malaysia are good, and will remain good”.

Singaporeans, he said, “should not be disconcerted by these developments”, because “even with the best diplomatic efforts, one can only expect other states to act in their own self-interest”.

 

Singapore and Indonesia

SG - Indo

MP Amrin Amin wanted to know what some of the recent highlights of Singapore’s relationship with Indonesia were, and also the Minister’s assessment of Singapore’s relationship with Indonesia.

Mr Balakrishnan replied that Singapore-Indonesia relations were “strong”. He pointed to a successful leaders retreat between PM Lee Hsien Loong and Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Semarang last November, and said that “Singapore was Indonesia’s top foreign investor in 2016”.

MP Chia Shi-Lu, noting that Singapore and Indonesia will be celebrating their 50th anniversary of bilateral relations this year, asked: “I would like to (know) whether there are plans for Golden Jubilee celebrations with Indonesia.”

Said Mr Balakrishnan: “Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi announced the start of official celebrations (for the Golden Jubilee) last month during her visit to Singapore.” More details will be unveiled by the MFA soon.

 

Singapore and ASEAN

SG - ASEAN

MP Low Thia Khiang asked: “What is the status of ASEAN integration? Has the South China Sea issue effectively blocked any progress towards integration? Are the Philippines really embracing China, and if so, what are the implications for ASEAN unity, given that the Philippines is ASEAN chair this year?”

Replying, Mr Balakrishnan admitted that ASEAN’s cohesion and unity have been “tested by difficult issues, not just last year, but many times before”.

But he pointed out that “(Singapore) upgraded the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement in 2015” and “facilitated the successful and substantive ASEAN-China 25th Anniversary Commemorative Summit in 2016”. He promised that Singapore will “work closely” with the Philippines to ensure a successful ASEAN chairmanship, and also lay the groundwork for Singapore’s own ASEAN chairmanship in 2018.

MP Liang Eng Hwa queried what Singapore was doing “to maintain strong links with our fellow ASEAN countries.” He also asked: As the ASEAN chair in 2018, how can Singapore help to advance economic integration within ASEAN, and with its key partners?”

The minister said that Singapore would “explore ways to help ASEAN ride the technological wave of the fourth industrial revolution”. He added that Singapore would “continue to partner with organisations like the Singapore Business Federation and the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises to help our businesses maximise the economic opportunities that ASEAN presents.”

However, he cautioned: “the events unfolding in the European Union are a salutary reminder (for ASEAN) to not reprise their problems.” ASEAN “must be pragmatic and practical in maintaining (the) pace and scale of economic integration”, or risk falling apart.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Wan Ting Koh

THE long-awaited Guns N’ Roses concert on Saturday (Feb 25) drew barbs for its poor organisation, from a glitchy sound system, to the snaking queue for food and beverages.

One of the biggest gripes was about the use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) wristbands that concert-goers needed to pay for food and drinks at the venue. RFID devices, similar to bar codes and magnetic strips, give their objects or users unique serial numbers for easy identification. Apart from the logistics sector, the popular technology has been applied across a range of industries with success.

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On Saturday however, the RFID wristbands failed to impress. Not that the system was faulty; it was just ineffectively used. Some Guns N’ Roses fans at Changi Exhibition Centre didn’t even get to use the bands. They’d queued for at least an hour for food and drinks only to discover that stocks had run out.

To make matters worse, concert organiser LAMC Productions had not intended to refund unused credits that were loaded at the event site, and the online top-up option had closed 48 hours prior to the event. LAMC has since apologised on its Facebook page and promised that it will be refunding unspent RFID credits.

What is RFID?

RFID technology involves the use of radio waves to read and capture information stored on an object’s tag. The tag has a transmitter and a receiver and its RFID component has two parts: a microchip that stores and processes information, and an antenna to receive and transmit a signal.

To read the information encoded on a tag, the reader emits a signal to the tag using an antenna. The tag responds with the information written in its memory bank. The reader will then transmit the results to an RFID computer program.

Security issues

RFID devices require readers to read its data. But unlike bar codes and magnetic strips, which have to be in view to be scanned, RFID allows for a distance of a few feet between the readers and device and can scan the device even if it’s hidden from view.

RFID technology’s ability to work from a distance also means that it poses a security threat to those who carry RFID-enabled documents with sensitive information, such as credit cards and passports, around. According to news articles, pickpockets armed with the right equipment can use RFID technology to steal your credit card or passport information, simply by being close by.

RFID readers, or even mobile phones with the right apps, can do the deed. If a reader or a smartphone with an RFID app is within range, it can pick up the wireless signals transmitted when that card is being used to buy a product.

Experts suggest using RFID wallets that can block signals to store your credit cards. You can also wrap individual cards in aluminium foil to disrupt the signals.

Digital theft aside, here are some other things that make use of RFID technology:

1. Library books

RFID technology is used to keep track of the books, magazines, and audio-visual materials you borrow from the library. It was first introduced in Bukit Batok Community Library in 1998 to reduce the time taken for users to borrow their books.

RFID tags are attached to library items and are activated when users use the self-checkout machines where the item is read, recorded and processed electronically. Through RFID, library queues were shortened without the need for extra staff to help check out library items. The technology was provided by ST LogiTrack, a joint venture between ST Electronics and ST Logistics.

RFID is also used for book drops and book sortings. In March 2012, the National Library Board (NLB) upgraded the RFID system to handle multiple checkouts simultaneously, so users were able to check out up to six items at a time.

2. Pets

Remember how your dogs need to be licensed in Singapore? That includes having them injected with a microchip so that they are traceable in case of a rabies outbreak. Microchips allow lost dogs to be traced back to their owners through their unique identification numbers. When a lost dog is found, the authorities use readers to detect microchips, usually embedded in the loose skin at a dog’s neck. These microchips transmit information by RFID.

The microchip works through emitting a radio code to a reading device which is able to show a 15-digit identification code. If this code is registered with AVA, the owner’s data would be found within AVA’s database.

From May 2001, dogs imported into Singapore were required to have a microchip implanted in them before they get here, in order to help the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) – to tell that the animal is healthy and has been vaccinated.

3. Malaysia’s Vehicle Entry Permit (VEP) scheme

Apart from the RM20 (S$6.32) road charge that Malaysia levied on Singapore-registered vehicles entering Malaysia from Nov 1 last year, Malaysia also intends to impose a VEP fee at its two land checkpoints with Singapore.

This scheme, announced as early as July 2014, would require Singapore vehicles to register with Malaysia’s Road Traffic Department and to pay a one-time fee of RM10 to install an RFID chip, which would be valid for five years.

According to Malaysia, each vehicle lane at the checkpoints will be equipped with cameras and sensors to read number plates and RFID tags.

The VEP scheme has been delayed repeatedly due to technical issues and registration was delayed last November as the website discontinued registrations. A quick check of the Road Traffic Department website showed that users can now continue to register for the VEP. It is unclear, however, when the VEP scheme would officially kick off.

The website added that the venue and time for RFID tag collection will be announced through online media at a later date.

4. Tray-return system

Over at One North, Timbre+ hawker centre uses an RFID tray-return system in order to encourage diners to return their trays. Diners pay a $1 deposit for an RFID-tagged tray at food stalls. After they finish their meals, diners get their deposits back when they return their trays to the conveyor belt.

The conveyor belt is equipped with an RFID reader which detects that the tray has been returned. A machine then returns the deposit while the tray is moved to the washing station.

The tray-return system cost $280,000, but thanks to the RFID technology, Timbre+ only needs three cleaners instead of eight, as over 95 per cent of diners return their trays after meals.

5. Clothes 

RFID tags are commonly used for clothes in retail stores to prevent shoplifting. Tags which require special equipment to remove are placed on clothes so that sensors at store entrances can detect merchandise that are removed without being paid for.

While RFID tags are used in retails stores to prevent shoplifting, a gym started applying the same concept to its gym clothes and towels in 2015 to prevent users from “accidentally” bringing home their linen.

Fitness First started tagging its clothes and towels as it was losing some 10 towels a month. These towels cost between $3 and $10 each, depending on their size and quality. The RFID tags work the same way for the gym towels as they do for merchandise at retail stores.

A user who walks out of the club with these RFID-tagged items will trigger alarm beeps and flashing lights at the club entrance so that staff will be alerted.

 

Featured image RFID Logo by Flickr user Christiaan ColenCC BY-SA 2.0

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