June 25, 2017

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chan chun sing

Bertha in coffee shop

by Bertha Henson

SO SOME people are kicking up a fuss over what Minister Chan Chun Sing said about the above question while referring to jobs. It seems that he was trying to tell his audience of polytechnic students not to keep thinking about landing their dream jobs immediately but to find meaning in whatever job they’re in. Is this a good analogy? Many people are trying to stretch the analogy, which I was told was made in a spontaneous speech. You have people castigating the minister for suggesting to young people that they can pick anyone to marry, or that he was telling them to be content with whatever job they have. Worse, some are making it “personal’’.

I have been wondering about my own career after graduation and whether I married the one I love or love the one I married. I can say that in my undergraduate days, I was actually infatuated with banking and flirted with the idea of working in a bank and counting money. I had a couple of bank suitors after graduation but eventually plumped for journalism. Not because I love journalism. I didn’t know a thing about it and wasn’t even sure I’d like him/it. I decided on him/it because he/it would make a better provider. Serious. It paid better.

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Maybe it’s because I belong to a generation where being able to provide for the family – I mean the first family with Mom and Dad – was a deeply ingrained duty of children. Even if there was no romance in the job, I told myself I would stick it out – and succeed. A decade later, I was asked to list a hobby for a company book. I wrote that “work is my hobby’’, to the astonishment of my colleagues then. Maybe they thought I was trying to curry favour with management. I don’t care. It was the truth.

More than two decades later, I am still wedded to journalism although I’ve divorced the company. I sometimes ask myself if I should have worked in a bank, which was, after all, my first love even though not as good a provider. The thing is, you never know if you’ll be happy doing your dream job unless you’ve tried it out. It’s like a couple for whom the honeymoon is over and business of living together starts. You could get along comfortably with each other, or you could grate on each other’s nerves.

I have come across too many people who wish they’re doing something different from what they originally wanted to do. For them, I advise a trial separation or a long holiday, like no-pay leave or a sabbatical, to re-charge their life. But since marriage is a death-do-us-part affair, it does mean that people have to make the effort to work at it. Effort which must start from the day you made your marriage vows. It’s no point starting a new job with a long face and making yourself feel worse by focusing on the things you don’t like.

I don’t think this is said often enough because we’re now so concerned about living the dream rather than making a living: people are being PAID to do a job and that job, however dis-likeable, should be done well.

If the unhappiness is overwhelming and affects your ability to justify your salary, then get a divorce. Play the field or maybe there is already a suitor waiting in the wings. Okay, I too am guilty of extending the analogy and no doubt, have succeeded in riling up some people. Just allow me this: Get an internship in your dream job, then you’ll find out whether you can live with the person you love. If you can, the question posed above is moot.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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skillsfuture_300x250

by Bertha Henson

Try as I might, to get Mr Chan Chun Sing to talk about a working class in Singapore, he wouldn’t be drawn into it. The term is in vogue, given the perception that it was the working class who deserted the Democrats and went for a Trump presidency in the United States.  Mr Chan, who heads the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) prefers talking about working people, that is, anybody who earns money from work which is like 70 per cent of the labour force.

Which is probably a more accurate position for the NTUC to take given that the traditional employment structure of taking home a monthly paycheck as a full-time employee looks like it will be challenged by a burgeoning gig economy populated by freelancers, contract workers and pay-for-service people.

Plus, the supposedly disaffected people in the US are blue-collar workers who find jobs scarce. In Singapore, it’s the professionals, managers, executives and technicians group (PMETs) who are getting pink slips.

This isn’t a group a union can flex its collective bargaining muscle over. And given the aim to increase the proportion of PMETs and the university-educated citizens here, more of such working people will be outside the fold of the National Trades Union Congress.

It’s not something that Mr Chan is fussed about.

Asking an aide for pen and paper, he started drawing the conceptual framework of the NTUC. It’s a labour movement, he said, laying stress on the two words. Not a union.  For a while, I had visions of NTUC Fairprice supermarkets and NTUC Income. I braced myself for an exposition on how such social enterprises benefit all working people, not just those who draw regular paychecks. But no. The labour movement he was referring to goes beyond unionised members to include professional types, workers in small and medium-sized businesses and people like freelancers or agents who get paid only for the service they provide.

The letter U rolled off his tongue as he demonstrated how the movement incorporates these groups:

  • U Associates – for professional groups or “trades”. The NTUC is like Changi Airport, he said, it connects airlines.  Just like NTUC links accountants and lawyers and others so that the rest of the world sees Singapore as a value-added hub.
  • U SME – 70 per cent of workers work in small outfits which make it difficult for NTUC to move into to organise workers. So the NTUC needs to partner bosses and HR on other measures to help workers, by raising productivity, for example.
  • U Freelancers and Self-Employed – the growing pool of freelancers and individual contractors working in the share economy, where the implicit social compact in which employers take care of workers’ health benefits or retirement are “externalised”.

NTUC needs to partner these groups of people to make sure working people continue to get work. He appears to worry most about individuals whose jobs can be done by someone cheaper elsewhere or by a computer program. They don’t know what’s about to hit them. They don’t know they have to get ready.

Mr Chan took over the labour movement from Manpower minister, Mr Lim Swee Say, in May 2015. He is as folksy as Mr Lim, splicing his statements with terms in Chinese dialect, Mandarin and pasar Malay. His army background, he was a Major-General, showed in references to army terms like hentak kaki. Touted as a contender for prime minister, he runs not just the NTUC but also the People’s Association. During the interview in NTUC headquarters at Marina Boulevard, I mistook the Passion Card, which entitled holders to discounts, for an NTUC initiative. “That’s my PA lah. My other hat,” he said.

I had asked him at the beginning of the interview about whether there were any parallels between workers here and in the United States. In answer, he started sketching a graph which pitted income levels against working people. He then proceeded to lecture; I could hardly get a word in. Stagnant incomes, the income gap and income transfers tripped off his tongue. He explained every point on his graph. I started thinking of a former professor of mine who was earnest and assiduous in making sure his class understood everything he said.

In a nutshell, the real incomes of Singapore’s working people have gone up across the board, including the middle group although not as much as the bottom and top groups. Still, it’s gone up. In the United States, salary levels for the middle group had stagnated or even regressed over the years. So it isn’t quite comparable.

What’s true for all economies is the importance of keeping the income of this middle group or sandwiched class (my words, not his) grow. The bottom group is well taken care of with abundant transfers, while the top can take care of itself. The irony these days is that it’s not the  worker in menial jobs who is getting retrenched, but professionals with degrees. Mr Chan said that these same workers know most about the importance of training and upgrading, simply because it has been drummed into them for years. But those who consider themselves above average think they are immune.

He isn’t pessimistic. More jobs will be created along the supply chain even as jobs are being destroyed. So a retail manager, for example, can move laterally to another aspect of retail, like managing e-commerce. That’s where training, preferably training which they themselves opt for, rather than company-driven, comes in. His pen started moving over the paper, about how to get a person from Job A to Job B. Will it be in one smooth jump or will it take several steps?

The “kancheong index” must go up, then these workers need to know where the “lobangs” are. And Singaporeans being pretty smart, they will know what to do to. Code-word: SkillsFuture.

We had a protracted exchange about people who work in the share economy. He called me an autocrat for suggesting that people who weren’t able to fend for themselves by, say, settling their own insurance or health benefits, shouldn’t be doing pay-per-use jobs: “Eh, come on man, you must let people try lah… Why you so autocratic one? You don’t try, how I know you cannot?”.

Plus, it would just add to the cost of digital companies if they had to take on employee benefits, and destroy their business model. These workers, I argued, have to weigh the downsides against the reward of freedom and flexibility. “Free market, flexibility is all good. But free market at its extremes also got issues, especially if we want to optimise for the long-term,” he replied. There can’t be total regulation, he said, but a new social compact has to be drawn up at some point or somebody else would have to deal with the burden of people who didn’t plan long-term for their old age.

He’s right in saying that not everyone is capable of being very “steady” and disciplined in fending for themselves. They might not even have enough information to know if they are being treated right.

It’s a strange new world for the 40-somethings and above. Will it be too late for them to make a switch? What about their current financial commitments? And what about the young people who are immersing themselves in the gig economy? Will they think long-term for themselves given that it’s only human to care about the present?

There is plenty of help for the older workers and plenty of information for the younger ones. Better that they arm themselves with information, make preparations and not be drowned by successive technology waves. Which is why I will do Mr Chan this favour and quote him: “There’s 1-800-CallNTUC.”*

 

*And the real number is 6213 8008.

Read the other pieces from our interview with Chan Chun Sing:

  1. Chan Chun Sing: Your job is NOT safe
  2. Chan Chun Sing: Making sure freelancers aren’t fleeced

 

 

Featured image Business professional’s handshake by Flickr user uberof202 ff (CC BY 2.0)

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by Suhaile Md

We interviewed Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and head of the labour movement, on the profound changes affecting the job market and the NTUC’s role in the new economy. This is the second of three parts. Read the first part here.

JUNE is usually the month to look forward to for freelance netball coach, Mr Justin Teh. The month-long school holiday meant his charges could train without the worries of a classroom weighing them down. A golden opportunity for growth.

But there was that time when his plans for player development gave way to disappointment. The school cut his time from four weeks to two. He was lucky. Some coaches have their time trimmed to zero and their income for the month disappears.

Said Mr Teh: “This throws the freelancer off. Because you committed to certain expenditure, certain payments that you have and suddenly you’re robbed of an income that you thought you were going to have in the future.”

Factor in the year-end holidays plus exam periods and a 12-month contract for $12,000 could well be worth only $9,000. Trouble is, the terms of their contracts allow this. Schools are the primary sources of income for them, so freelance coaches have little say when thrashing out contractual terms.

Unlike the usual employer-employee relationship where a worker has one contract with one company, freelancers have to consider multiple contracts with multiple companies. For that one person, “where got time, where got energy, where got capacity,” asked Mr Chan Chun Sing. Basically, there’s an “asymmetry in the capability and resources,” he added.

Freelancers have to consider multiple contracts with multiple companies. For that one person, “where got time, where got energy, where got capacity,” asked Mr Chan Chun Sing.

Which is why the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) set up the Freelancers and Self-Employed Unit about two years back. It was around this time that Mr Teh decided to approach the NTUC to help set up the Sports Coaches Association (SCA). The SCA was officially registered in March 2015.

There were only 10 members at the start. Now there are 200. The vast majority (70 per cent) earn at least 80 per cent of their income through freelancing. Membership fees are relatively low – $117 a year – for the benefits: Death and permanent disability insurance coverage and discounts at medical clinics among other things. Besides these benefits, SCA also arranges for members to attend workshops like income tax filing, and sports-related legal education.

It is “tough” to grow the membership base, said Mr Teh. Freelance coaches “don’t even know we exist”. Those who do know, are “skeptical” about a young association. Some don’t even see the need for the SCA. Well, not until they run into problems themselves at least.

Freelancing covers an endless spectrum of services, from bookkeeping to writing, photography, and driving to name a few. The freedom to pick up jobs as and when, and to do it within a person’s free time is appealing to many. Some pick up extra income while others do this full-time. Full-time freelancers keen to accumulate as many contracts as possible might pass over the benefits applicable to those in a normal employment structure, such as medical benefits.

But Mr Chan wondered if they could answer questions like what would be the competitive rate for service? Or what terms and conditions should be attached to a contract.

For example, is insurance covered? Who’s liable to what extent on matters of safety? Different clients can have different contracts with different terms. “One pay me if I sprain my [right] ankle, the other one pay me only if I sprain my left ankle… very difficult,” he said.

Furthermore they “must know what are some of the basic things” to plan for in the long term, like retirement, medical and insurance.

A relatively new phenomenon has entered the picture: the rise of the gig or share economy which has resulted in an overturning of the employer-employee relationship. Should someone doing courier/delivery service for an online platform or driving an Uber taxi be defined under a contract of service or contract for service?

The United Kingdom “recently passed rules that uber must treat [drivers] as employees” and Canada ruled that while Uber drivers were not employees, they “must pay some equivalent social security” to its drivers. This is so that Uber as a company does not “externalise the social cost,” said Mr Chan.

This concern of externality echoed Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s view at a forum last month. He said that while it provided jobs, such a model “serves the interest of the company because they’re really pushing risk onto the contract worker” and it was not a good social model. Read more about the pros and cons of the gig economy here. 

Some Uber drivers, Mr Chan found out, did not realise that Uber pegs its prices to supply and demand. So a drivers income would vary week to week. But they “lock themselves into a fixed price [car] rental” at the start because they did not realise it before hand.

Like freelancers, those who are part of the share economy do not come under the protection of the Employment Act – they are not employees. So they have no health or retirement benefits.

“There’s nothing wrong with the gig economy so long as you’re disciplined enough to take care of yourself, your retirement,” he said. But the fact remains that plying their trade outside the cocoon of an organisation have little protection and not everyone is disciplined. “So you assume that most people can ka ki kor ka ki (be self-sufficient) but there will be some that society has to chip in and support.”

 “So you assume that most people can ka ki kor ka ki (be self-sufficient) but there will be some that society has to chip in and support.”

In the United States and Europe, between 20 and 30 per cent of workers do some form of freelance work according to a McKinsey report this year. In Singapore, 14 per cent of all resident workers are self-employed, said Manpower Minister Mr Lim Swee Say in Parliament on Feb 29.

Over half of the self-employed operate their own business or trade without any paid staff. While the world grapples with such changes, Mr Chan thinks that two steps must first be taken.

First is to get freelancers to come together and “share the information… where are the opportunities, what are the things to look out for,” what to do or not to do, said Mr Chan. The kinds of things they can take of care by themselves first. Educate each other on their legal rights, financial considerations and so on.

The second step can then come into play, where they can attend NTUC organised conferences, and seminars to “keep abreast” of issues as well as upgrade themselves. The NTUC’s Freelance and Self-Employed unit is already looking into this.

For Mr Teh, it is clear that the collective voice is louder than the lone shout. Mr Teh did not go anywhere with MOE when he aired his concerns to officials as a freelancer. But with the organisational clout of 200 coaches, the SCA is now in talks with MOE to address the issues and technicalities on freelance coach contracts.

Naturally, having a larger pool of members would be better. Added Mr Teh: “The hope is that coaches will come together, because there has been and there will be competition among coaches… but by coming together we can actually make the community better and make sports more vibrant.”

 

Read the other pieces from our interview with Chan Chun Sing:

1. Chan Chun Sing: Your job is NOT safe

3. Chan Chun Sing: It’s working people; not working class

 

 

Featured image by Natassya Diana.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

by Suhaile Md

We interviewed Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and head of the labour movement, on the profound changes affecting the job market and the NTUC’s role in the new economy. This is the first of three parts.

YOU’LL be hearing this pretty often: Preparing tomorrow’s unemployed for tomorrow’s jobs. Sounds catchy but what does it mean?

Tomorrow’s unemployed does not refer to new job entrants. It refers to people who think they’re in a cushy job now. National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) chief Chan Chun Sing thinks today’s employed, including professionals, have to start asking themselves if they would still have a job tomorrow.

Like the accountant who knows only book-keeping, which can be done more cheaply elsewhere.

Or the sales assistant who can be replaced by an online ordering platform.

Or the real estate agent who finds that more people are buying and selling apartments on their own steam.

Maybe not hair-dressing, Mr Chan said semi-seriously. “How to cut hair through the Internet?” It is a service restricted by distance and geography.

So if you’re doing a job that is routine and can be traded through “the wire”, that is, done online by someone else or something else like a computer programme, you’ll be watching your wage being “competed downwards” and your job will eventually disappear.

So if you’re doing a job that is routine and can be traded online, your job will eventually disappear.

This isn’t far-fetched. Nearly 8,500 workers were retrenched in the first half of this year – the highest since the financial crisis in 2009. The number stood at 5,840 last year and 4,600 the year before for the same period.

Finding jobs soon after is not easy. Only 45 per cent of residents who lost their jobs in the first quarter were employed by the end of the second quarter in June.

The bulk (68.7 per cent) of the 4,800 who lost their jobs in the second quarter were professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMET). Nearly 40 per cent were degree holders and 64 per cent were above 40 years old.

 

Guild the lily

It’s a knotty issue for the NTUC because the people most at risk belong to a category of workers who aren’t allowed to have union representation.

Which is why it has been offering associate memberships to professional associations. There are 40 such members so far, including the Youth Work Association (Singapore) and The Institute Of Internal Auditors Singapore .

It is a return to the system of guilds, with an emphasis on getting the guilds to dive deep into their core-skill set – think T-shape – while amassing a breadth of “wrap around” skills so that they can offer more than the “standard package”.

This is why, he said, those employed by the Big Four accounting firms will have a secure job, because the companies offer a lot more than just book-keeping.

The smaller firms however don’t have the same breadth of services. “Today you cannot survive on the deep narrow skills, you must provide value added services”, he said. While the professional associations will help them develop the depth, NTUC helps to increase their breadth by connecting “professionals to professionals to widen their competencies”.

 

Lost in transition

The trouble is, while people can see the looming problem, not many think it will happen to them, said Mr Chan, referring to his discussions with real estate agents and accountants.

The real estate agent who told him his own job was secure thinks he can always post more pictures of his client’s house. But this middleman role will be beaten by the home owner who puts up a video or gives a virtual reality tour of his own home, Mr Chan noted.

If, however, he gives buyers and sellers value by offering them financial advice or helping them with their legal documentation, his job would have a better chance of survival. “The computer still cannot do all these kind of personal concierge kind of services”, said Mr Chan. In short, don’t be a “one-trick pony”.

Technological disruptions are changing the nature of work and placing jobs on the global door-step. It means that working people will have to keep thinking about whether they have the skills to expand their job scope or change line – and at a more rapid place.

Mr Chan praised the cultural mindset of the Germans and the Swiss who take stock of their skills every few years because they want to stay employed.

Here, SkillsFuture and the various G initiatives like professional conversion programmes (PCP), place and train, and so on, comes in.

A bus driver for instance, in anticipation of driverless buses, can enrol in courses and learn how to operate and manage bus scheduling systems. A sales person might want to pick up skills to operate an e-commerce platform. Even as front-line jobs vanished, new jobs are created at the other end of the supply chain, he said.

This is where “provision of information is important”, said Mr Chan. Singaporeans are “very clever”: Once they sense their jobs are threatened, they will look for opportunities. Inform them where and how they can be trained, they will go for it, he added.

There are practical difficulties, he admitted, for those with families. A person trying to move from one type of work to another must expect a bumpy ride. It would not be a straight-line progression with higher and higher salaries. Pay cuts must be expected during the transition.

 

Continuing education

Then there is the difficulty of predicting the types of new jobs that would be created.

While there used to be the Vocational and Industrial Training Board in the past to prepare a workforce for whatever the Economic Development Board has managed to bring on shore in terms of jobs, things are just happening so fast these days.

“Investment comes in, can start up in three months, six months” and waiting “two years” for workers to be trained is not feasible. There’s a need to “identify new industries, new skill sets, new businesses.”

Which is essentially what the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) is addressing. Mr Chan is the deputy chair of the CFE. It looks into five broad areas: future corporate capabilities and innovation, future growth industries and market, future of connectivity, future city, and future jobs and skills.

So how do you prepare for this new economy where you will have multiple jobs in your career and you’re required to learn and relearn? Adopt the mindset of “continuing education” and not “compulsory education”, where you anticipate the next challenge and prepare for it.

“Why would today’s employed start to embrace this culture and say that… the kan cheong index better go up a bit. Tomorrow somebody might move my cheese,” he added.

 

Read the other pieces from our interview with Chan Chun Sing:

2. Chan Chun Sing: Making sure freelancers aren’t fleeced

3. Chan Chun Sing: It’s working people; not working class

 

 

Featured image by Natassya Diana.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

Satu Langkah Ke Kanan
Illustration By Sean Chong

by Daniel Yap

Labour Chief Chan Chun Sing wants to give the order: satu langkah ke kanan! No, it’s not a military drill, it’s how he hopes to be able to fill gaps in the the job market and move people from shrinking industries to growing ones.

IT’S been a tough period for the economy: slow growth, weak exports, and a rise in redundancies. The nice word for it is “restructuring”, which really means we are going through an economic shakedown.

Weaker companies will shrink and wither, like dead leaves on a tree. New ones sprout. Some jobs will disappear, and others will be created. These shifts create structural unemployment – people unable to find employment in their old jobs even though jobs are available in other sectors or disciplines.

Mr Chan gave the example of how this affects retail. “Maybe the shoe salesman will lose his job as e-commerce grows, but that doesn’t mean there are less jobs… When some jobs are lost, others are created, let’s say for example for e-retail – there may be an opening for a cyber security engineer.”

The question is how we can get the shoe salesperson to fill the cyber security job. The answer? “Some you can; most you can’t.” says Mr Chan, “You can’t throw a shoe salesman into e2i (NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute) and expect a cyber security engineer to come out.”

NTUC Secretary General Chan Chun Sing shares his concept of "satu langkah kekanan"
NTUC Secretary General Chan Chun Sing shares his concept of “satu langkah kekanan”

So how? Mr Chan’s military background showed when he shared about satu langkah ke kanan, a military drill to move everyone one step to the right, at an NTUC townhall event on Wednesday evening. How is this supposed to help? The shoe salesman retrains – not into a cyber security engineer, but into another job related to retail sales, hopefully further up the chain. The person he replaces in his new job also moves on – maybe upwards, but maybe sideways into a related industry. And so on and so forth, with someone else eventually moving into the seat of cyber security engineer.

What it needs, though is a willingness for everyone to move from their current jobs, says Mr Chan. The moves may not be linear, that is to say workers should not only be thinking of getting a ‘promotion’, but career moves can be lateral as well, for example into purchasing, which welcomes people from a variety of work backgrounds. People who get too comfortable or who think that their job will still exist five, 10 or 15 years from now put themselves at risk of becoming redundant as times change. Workers, Mr Chan said, always have to be thinking of what other jobs they can or want to move into and pick up knowledge and skills to prepare themselves for such a possibility.

But the situation is not only going to be remedied at the marketplace. “If e2i is too busy, (it means that) upstream there is a problem,” said the Labour Chief. “We also need to get students into jobs that they like and can do.” This will help ease structural unemployment challenges “not just for today, but for tomorrow”.

One participant at the townhall, Ms Shamantha Yan, 30, agreed. The director of a training and coaching consultancy is working on a project called Growthbeans and part of their objective is to help people just entering the workforce to find a good fit.

Ms Yan sharing about Growthbeans at a booth during the event
Ms Yan sharing about Growthbeans at a booth during the event

“We are seeing that quite a few people are not comfortable in their jobs and after a few years they want to switch careers.” Growthbeans plans to work in collaboration with Young NTUC to provide part-time coaching and mentoring to students and younger workers. Volunteers who are currently working will share their employment experiences with others who are thinking of switching to their industry.

This will complement the current system of career coaches, who may have been working full time in career coaching for several years and, while skilled at their jobs, may not have the most up-to-date knowledge of what workers are facing.

Mr Chan also advocates for workers to consider how they can apply their skills sets in addition to their knowledge and work experience. He related an example of one company which found a pool of talent for quant trading from an unusual source – it seems that highly-skilled cyber gamers have the potential to become good quant traders because of their speed on the computer, ability to focus intensely for extended sessions and analyse movements in data intuitively.

Who says learning new skills can’t be fun?

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Bertha Henson

YOU can hear the snickering…

So Minister Chan Chun Sing is practically swearing that the People’s Association (PA), where he is the deputy head, is non-partisan. “I will be the last person to ever allow the PA to be politicised.” Sure, it’s not an arm of the People’s Action Party (PAP). It’s just a statutory board under the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) and executes the orders of the G.

“The PA does not check on the political allegiance of the participants of our activities, nor does anyone know their voting preferences. It is not relevant to our work,” he said.

I was wondering how he would respond to Workers’ Party Sylvia Lim’s question on Wednesday about whether the PA, which did start out as a mobilisation arm of the PAP way back in 1960, had deviated from its original objectives of building social cohesion that “transcends sectional loyalties’’.

She said: “An unhealthy culture seems to have developed within some quarters of the PA, who see its role to include advancing the ruling party politically, and undermining the work of opposition MPs. PA activists being mobilised to campaign for PAP candidates at elections is just one aspect. As Opposition MPs, when we try to advance our residents’ welfare through infrastructure projects, we learn that the government agencies like MND and HDB will only recognise PA organisations such as CCCs and RCs as ‘the proper channels’.” (CCCs stands for Citizens’ Consultative Committees; RC, Residents’ Committees.)

Yesterday, Mr Chan asked Ms Lim for evidence, assuring her that he would take care to rectify things if there was proof. Ms Lim gave a personal example of trying to get information from the Ministry of National Development on upgrading projects in Aljunied GRC, but was told to go to the CCC instead.

“I then wrote several times to the CCC, but it seems that my letters do not even merit a reply,’’ she added.

To this, Mr Chan said he has “heard from both sides accusing each other of being uncooperative” and urged both town councils and CCCs to put the interests of residents first.

“When things get done, there’s never a shortage of people who will claim credit. When things are not done, there’s always a shortage of people who will claim responsibility. This is not the way we want to go. This is bad politics and this is not leadership,” he said.

But it seems that she will get a reply now – because Mr Chan said so.

This is an old, old issue, one that has been thrown into sharp relief because there seems to be two power centres at the grassroots level – the MP-led town council and the community leaders that come under the PA umbrella.

Seriously, who cares about the voting preferences of participants in a community centre’s activities? It’s the community leaders who should be put under the microscope, not the people who join yoga and cooking classes. It’s the people who comprise the grassroots alphabet soup of CCC, CCMC, RC, and the like.

I am sure not all PA activists are PAP activists and vice versa. And I am sure that I will be criticised for not appreciating such volunteers who spend their time and energy for the neighbourhood. I acknowledge that there are plenty of altruistic people who don’t think of politics when they organise a dance class or give a talk.

My problem is with the structure of the grassroots network on the ground, which leaves elected representatives out in the cold.

Who are these people to whom even an elected an MP has to write to for information about the ward? Aren’t these the people who are in charge of approvals for certain projects in the constituency and even have money to organise activities? Aren’t they the ones who organise Edusave bursary giveaways?

Already, some people are trotting out evidence of activists being mobilised for election campaigns, like aunties being bussed from community centres to PAP rallies, etc. You can even point out heads of CCCs who are PAP branch leaders. Hey, some of them even move on to stand for election on the PAP ticket!

There’s nothing wrong if a person wears two hats – if he or she is clear about which hat he is wearing when.

So the PAP MPs are advisers to the CCCs – are these two different hats? Can the chairman of the CCC countermand his adviser-MP? In opposition wards, it’s not the MP who is the adviser but a PAP member, like the unsuccessful candidate in the last round or would-be candidate for the next round.

The PAP or the G or whichever combination can swear till it is blue in the face that no electioneering is allowed by PA members or at PA’s premises. But you don’t have to wave banners or chant slogans, you just have to bring a politician on stage in front of plenty of people. This stage is denied to the opposition MPs, simply because he or she wears the wrong party colours. That doesn’t strike me as being non-partisan. .

It might be too much to expect that politicians will not make use of its grassroots connections to further their partisan interests. You might even say that the opposition should build its own grassroots network rather than expect to walk in and take over a machinery that has been painstakingly built up by a political party which happens to form the G.

But something sticks in the throat when a person who has been elected by the residents is not the person who has the final say over what happens in the constituency (subject of course to official rules and regulations that apply to everyone). Instead, such decisions are left to a bunch of grey, mostly Chinese, anonymous men – whom residents did not select or don’t even know of.

Mr Chan is right to say that town councils and CCCs must work together. In fact, they probably work very well together – if both are led by PAP MPs. I am waiting for the day, however, when the community leaders and the MPs in the opposition wards sit together to thrash out what residents need on the ground and establish some rules of engagement.

Is this good politics, Singapore style? Or is it bad politics because no party has an advantage over the other because there is no politicking?

 

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By Felix Cheong

TRY talking through both sides of your mouth.

It’s tough, it feels like pulling teeth but it’s possible. Just watch the G in action (or inaction) this week.

First, you have the labour chief (alias: Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office) who urged Singaporeans on Sunday (Apr 3) not to adopt a “transactional” relationship with their country.

“Is your staying in Singapore conditional on certain factors, particularly material or otherwise?” Mr Chan Chun Sing rhetorically asked participants at a dialogue session in Geylang Serai.

Naturally, any right-thinking person with left-thinking ideas would ask the same of the good minister. Especially since the grounds for ministerial salary has always been “transactional”: Able men and women will not come forward to serve if they don’t get the salary they deserve.

Kee Chiu if you reckon all this talk is not lip service.

Not to be outdone, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said in Parliament on Monday (Apr 4) that naming the people responsible for last year’s Hepatitis C outbreak at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) will create a “blame culture”. The outbreak was linked to the death of eight people. In all, 16 senior staff – 12 from SGH and four from the Health Ministry – were punished.

Wait a minute. So, according to Mr Gan, we have a smoking gun but a shooter with no name, like the Clint Eastwood character in that spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)?

Or maybe the shooter has disappeared under Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility. See, he’s there; you’ve just looked right through him.

Which gives new meaning to the G’s constant refrain of transparency: You’re only as transparent as you’re invisible.

Equally puzzling is the doublespeak from the Land Transport Authority (yes, these things come in threes!). On Monday (Apr 4), it announced that while the number of major train breakdowns had gone up last year – an increase of 40 per cent from the previous year – the rail system was “more reliable” than it has been since 2011.

It explained that last year, a train put in an average of 133,000km before a delay of more than five minutes occurred. This was up from 93,000 in 2014 and thus, the system was overall (and I’m overawed) “more reliable”.

Say what? By this reasoning, if you beat your wife within an inch of her life on five occasions this year, up from three last year, but her injuries are not as life-threatening as before, then technically, you’re a more loving husband?

So, you see, there’re times to keep mum. And there’re times the dad should keep mum. Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau hasn’t quite reached this level of Zen mysticism. This week, he’s been teasing fans on his official website about whether his wife is pregnant: “If the dream comes true, I must surely share. Having become an artist like myself, who needs more?”

Yes, Mr Lau, more obfuscation please. Say it like you don’t mean it.

Which is exactly my sentiment when I read that Japanese skincare brand, Fancl, is making a comeback in Singapore, after closing all its 13 stores two years ago due to continued losses.

Now operating through a Singapore company, Fantastic Natural Cosmetics (Singapore), Fancl products will soon be available at counters in department stores and standalone shops.

The company’s managing director, Mr Christopher Chan, told The Straits Times: “We know people have missed us… Now we want to be in Singapore forever.”

Consider the enormity of his promise. Not just a five- or even 50-year plan, but forever.

Long after you and I have turned to dust, Fancl will still be here. A comforting thought, even if I’ve never used their products (and don’t intend to start).

That’s the wonder of doublespeak. It’s really a fairy tale for adults.

 

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by Daniel Yap

“ASK not what your country can do for you”. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing echoed the sentiment of then-US President John F. Kennedy, and asked Singaporeans to shed a “transactional” national identity, thinking instead of what they would do for Singapore. Did the question hit home?

I think we Singaporeans are a calculative bunch because Singapore has always taught us to be that way. Seldom is there room for sentiment as we count every dollar and ask what’s in it for us. We only “follow the rainbow” as the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew implored us to, because we expect a pot of gold at the end of it.

We have an identity problem.

Our national identity is a challenge that PM Lee Hsien Loong already identified in his speech at the Ho Rih Hwa Leadership in Asia Public Lecture Series on 30 June 2015, and which he repeated to Time magazine the following month.

Staying or quitting?

It was ESM Goh Chok Tong who made much of “stayers” and “quitters” in his 2002 National Day Rally speech, and Mr Chan brought to mind some of that when he asked whether Singaporeans would stay when times got tough. Today, more than in 2002, I fear that Singaporeans have become more transactional: that is to say that we don’t do anything out of sentiment for this nation – only for what we can get out of it. It is how we have been trained to think and it is the stimulus that we are constantly fed.

This problem took root long before Mr Chan entered the political scene, so he can hardly be blamed for its existence. The G has been carrot-and-stick-ing Singaporeans as its preferred method of achieving outcomes since 1965. I prefer to think instead that Mr Chan mentions it because he wants us to see the problem that he sees and be part of some big changes to the way Singapore works. We rely on people in his position to lead the way in changing our transactional relationship with this country by changing this country’s transactional relationship with us.

How do we wean ourselves off this broken mindset so that we can last another 50 years?

Our transactional nationhood

We live in the cold halls of Singapore Incorporated, where the air-con is turned down to 16 degrees and the walls and floors are clad with shiny stainless steel. Where Singlish is often frowned upon (officially) and everybody tells you that art and culture are pointless. Where universities, parents, and teachers extol the income benefits of a degree above the value of learning and which offers us money for babies and wonders why we our Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is still low (answer: children are fundamentally sentimental choices, not transactional ones).

But the frontline of transactional Singapore is our citizenship policy: how we welcome new citizens and especially how we treat our ex-citizens.

Ex-Singaporeans face institutionalised prejudices that border on paranoia. Why this is so is not clear, and nobody seems to want to ask. Many Singaporean sons and daughters have left, never to return, so that they could pursue an overseas education (I know one young man who served his NS, but whose place in an overseas university depended on his holding citizenship there – Singapore revoked the citizenship that was his by birth), or because of family reasons (international marriages, extended families needing care abroad), or to further business opportunities (we are asked to venture out, but Singapore draws the line at us gaining advantages through other citizenships, even if it ultimately benefits the country of our birth).

Are there good reasons for those who are Singaporeans at heart to give up their citizenship here? Of course. Are there good reasons for us to be sentimental and welcome any returning ex-Singaporean with open arms? I don’t see why not. That is how a loving mother would treat her wandering children; that is how a motherland should treat her erstwhile citizens.

Mr Chan is spot-on when he raises this point about being “transactional” about the benefits of citizenship. He is clearly saying that Singaporeans’ attitudes should change. I assume he is also trying to say, politely, that the G’s policies should change too.

Even while remaining frustratingly opaque (because Singapore considers the door to citizenship some sort of weakness that will be exploited), Singapore’s criteria for citizenship is utterly transactional – good education, good income, good assets, good ethnic profile. Our immigration authorities seem to give scant credit to those who can trace their roots to this nation, or who have spent the bulk of their lives building it, or who have given birth to a generation of Singaporeans. When we deal transactionally with our new citizens, we tend to attract the transactional-minded. But if we give room for sentiment in citizenship, our people will learn that loving Singapore will not go unrequited.

Then, perhaps, we stand a chance of meeting Mr Chan’s challenge – of getting to SG100.

But for now Singapore remains mostly cold to the children who really love her, who find only small pockets of warmth in each other’s company, or in the small changes (but not enough) that are now happening with regards to how we care for our underprivileged – changes that Mr Chan himself oversaw during his years as Minister for Social and Family Development. But whenever we ask our leaders to push for more compassion and more sentimentality in policymaking, the consequential bogeyman of moral hazard is waved at us and the transactional status quo is retained.

I think that it is time to dismantle our transactional nationhood and suffer the short-term consequences so that we will survive in the long term. We should be ready to face hardship (while the going is still pretty good) so that we can weed out the risks associated with transactional thinking in Singaporeans as well as in our national policies.

Until that happens, all those who love Singapore are fools because she does not love us back, but seeks to transact with us instead. And unless Mr Chan’s hope for a heartfelt national identity can be realised, unless we change the transactional heart of Singapore Incorporated, it will be only fools left here when tough times finally roll around.

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Crowd at National day Parade. Image sourced from Flickr user: Brian Jeffery Beggerly

by Bertha Henson

SO IT seems some young people at a dialogue yesterday were asking why they should settle down in Singapore when the cost of living is so high. My answer would be: Our standard of living is pretty high too. And good luck on finding yourself a nice paying job that would similarly pay for the living standards here plus all the other benefits of safety, efficiency, and cleanliness that comes with life in Singapore.

Some people will be shaking their heads at my very impolitic answer and respond with examples of a better life elsewhere. Okay sure. But, hey, a view is a view okay?

I liked Minister Chan Chun Sing’s reply on whether citizenship should be reduced to a transaction: What has this country done for me lately? I think the issue deserves further probing. People don’t usually phrase discontent in terms of what the country has done or will do – but what the Government has done or will do. The transaction is between the government and the governed, not quite between the State and the people.

There is a handout mentality that has seeped into the people’s consciousness despite the G’s welfare allergy. You see it when people argue over why they should get more or the same subsidies as others, when they quibble over means-testing criteria or when they bemoan the lack of benefits, which is usually euphemistically dubbed as “support”. The G must be seen to be scrupulously fair to all citizens, regardless of wealth or housing type, before anyone can truly, truly be happy. In fact, it is the lowest common denominator mentality, or a dog in the manger approach.

Mr Chan gave an anecdote which illustrated his point that social cohesion can only come about if people accept that some need more help than others. He juxtaposed two cases who turned up at one of his Meet-the-People session: An elderly man asking for ComCare aid and an angry newly-wed couple who did not qualify for additional housing grants because of their combined income of $12,000 a month. Was the couple chastened by the example of the man who earned just $1,000 a month? Perhaps. But their original complaint was probably based on “how come other married couples can get and we don’t get?”. Plus, I assume, the final resort of all: “Aren’t we Singaporeans too?”

It is bad. And the G is much to be blamed for this, just as much as the people, because of its overwhelming presence in Singapore society. It accounts for the way the people here always think and say that the G should do this or that, or fix this or that whenever anything goes wrong – never mind that civil society or the private sector would be more able to respond than the G. It also comes from the way the G positions itself and its portrayal in the media, as if it must always have the first – and last – word. I have always thought the G should change the nomenclature from Government to State. It is not the G which will be paying for this or that programme but the State. When people say that the G is “very rich” or has “a lot of money”, they really mean money that belongs to the State, that is, all of us.

I’m sure people will say that the distinction will be too subtle but I am suggesting the G newsmakers make a start, especially with the Budget debate. There must be a greater consciousness on the part of the people about where the money is coming from. As Mr Chan said: “If every one of us wants to take the maximum for ourselves, because we believe we are entitled to it, then we have a challenge. No matter how much resources we have, it will never be enough.”

Now, all of this is being said in the context of building a national identity, which cannot be “transactional”, based on the benefits of citizenship or even, as Mr Chan put it, defined through markers like race, language, or religion. He suggested ideals such as meritocracy and multiracialism.

Frankly, I’m not even sure we need any kind of markers at all. We just need to feel that we are “at home” in Singapore. We need to know that we can walk anywhere in the country and feel that we belong here. Familiar faces. Familiar buildings. Familiar ties.

Okay, I know people will point to the foreigners in our midst, still increasing in numbers but at a slower pace. I can only say that they are needed economically and that the G is well aware that there is a tipping point when foreign-ness will displace familiarity.

I am a Singapore citizen because I feel at home in Singapore. May I always feel that way.

 

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Daniel Goh to Enter NCMP
Daniel Goh to Enter NCMP

by Yoong Ren Yan

AFTER taking one look at the piece of paper that had been handed around, she crumpled it and threw it behind her.

That was how Workers’ Party (WP) Chairman Sylvia Lim responded to a proposed amendment, which accused her party of a “political manoeuvre” in trying to fill its third non-constituency MP (NCMP) seat. While WP MPs, caught off guard, were forced to discuss what to do on the House floor, People’s Action Party (PAP) MPs smiled and looked on.

In a dramatic evening in Parliament, a WP motion to fill ex-MP Lee Li Lian’s NCMP seat was first amended, and then adopted. But all seven WP members present voted against the PAP amendment, and after some confusion, then abstained on their own motion as amended.

What happened?

As the ‘best opposition loser’ at GE2015, Ms Lee was offered an NCMP seat but declined to take it up. The WP then announced that it would seek to fill the seat with a candidate from its East Coast GRC team, the next-best losers – specifically, Associate Professor Daniel Goh.

But doing so required a parliamentary motion, and thus the support of the ruling PAP. What would the ruling party do? Last Monday, leader of the House Grace Fu hinted that things wouldn’t be so easy for the WP, saying that Singaporeans “would want to understand the basis of [Ms Lee’s] decision”.

And true enough: this evening, across its three speakers, the PAP responded: ‘yes, but…’

PAP’s amendment

Its first speaker, Mr Charles Chong, defeated Ms Lee in Punggol East last year. Mr Chong said that he was “disappointed that the House will not benefit from Ms Lee Li Lian’s presence”. He supports the NCMP scheme, adding: “I believe the House would be worse off with one fewer.”

However, he accused the WP of trying to “game” and “abuse” the system for appointing NCMPs, saying it could not “pick and choose” who it wanted to take the seat.

Dr Lee Bee Wah, speaking in Mandarin, sounded the same tune. She called out the WP for “saying one thing, and doing another” (shuo yi tao, zuo yi tao): rejecting the NCMP scheme, but seeking another NCMP seat. “What is their real position?” she asked.

Finally, Government Whip Chan Chun Sing defended the Prime Minister’s proposals to expand the NCMP scheme, saying: “This very act is an embrace of diversity.” He added: “No one should doubt that we are willing to fill the last NCMP seat.”

Yet Mr Chan took issue with Ms Lee’s reasons for giving up the seat, because (in Ms Lee’s words) “there are better people in the party that we should showcase.” Mr Chan questioned whether the WP’s motivations were in line with what the electorate had voted for. “What troubles us is the manoeuvring behind it,” he added.

With that, he moved to amend the motion to “reflect the truth”, adding a third clause to the WP’s motion – to laughter from the chamber. The amendment reads:

That this Parliament… regrets that Ms Lee Li Lian… has now decided to give up her NCMP seat to another candidate from her party with a lower vote share, contrary to the express views of the voters; and the Workers’ Party supports this political manoeuvre to take full advantage of the NCMP scheme, even as its Secretary-General criticises NCMPs as just ‘duckweed on the water of the pond‘.

 

WP’s response

WP chief Low Thia Khiang, pre-empting the PAP’s line of attack, started the debate on the defensive. He declared that the WP continued to oppose the NCMP scheme as “chiefly for the benefit of the ruling party”. But, calling his party “rational” and “responsible”, Mr Low said: “the struggle for a functional democracy… must be fought within the existing system.” The WP takes NCMP seats just like it contests in GRCs, he said, even though it opposes both.

Responding to Mr Chong’s comments that the WP was trying to “game the system”, the WP’s Ms Lim and Mr Png Eng Huat noted that the PAP had moved to fill an NCMP seat in 1985 after WP candidate MPD Nair turned it down.

Ms Lim also pointed out that Ms Lee had been Punggol East MP, but was voted out of office, and hence lost her mandate. “If I were in her position,” said Ms Lim, “I would have done the same.”

After the amendment was moved, NCMP Leon Perera rose to speak, accusing PAP MPs of trying to “construct a narrative” that “the WP are bad people”. He argued that the scheme sent the message that “you do not need to vote for any other party than the PAP”. This earned a retort from Mr Chan: if the NCMP scheme endangers Singapore, “why do you want to be a party to it?”

But through its four speakers, the WP couldn’t break out of the bind that they opposed the NCMP scheme in principle, but for practical reasons took up NCMP seats. And the PAP exploited this, exposing the apparent contradiction to full effect by amending the motion – and prompting Ms Lim to crumple it.

What now?

Beyond the parliamentary drama, however, the two sides did not engage on how Singapore should address the thorny issue of NCMP seat transfer. What qualifies as an adequate personal reason for not taking up an NCMP seat? Should defeated incumbent opposition MPs return to Parliament as NCMPs?

Given the PM’s proposals concerning NCMPs, instead of more chatter about duckweed, we hope these questions get resolved.

In the meantime, congratulations are in order for Prof Daniel Goh. What a welcome to Parliament.

 

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