March 23, 2017

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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.

 

Featured image by Pixabay user niekverlaan. (CC0 1.0)

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by Daniel Yap

The Labour Market Report for the third quarter of 2016 shows signs of a gloomy season for Singapore.

Total employment for the period was down by 2,700 – while it isn’t a big number in itself, it shows growth dipping into the negative for the first time since Q1 2015. The previous time it dipped was during the 2008/2009 downturn.

Total employment growth in the first three quarters of 2016 is also the lowest since 2009, at 14,500. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said that the job losses affected mainly Work Permit holders and was due to contractions in manufacturing and construction.

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Layoffs up until September are also the highest since 2009. But a small positive counterpoint to that figure is that resident re-entry rates (re-entering the workforce after a redundancy) have bucked a nine-month long slide to come in at 49 per cent, an improvement of over 45 per cent compared to three months ago.

Long term unemployment (more than 25 weeks) for Singapore residents also rose from 0.6 per cent to 0.8 per cent compared to the same period in 2015. Seasonally adjusted overall unemployment stayed level between the second and third quarters at 2.1 per cent.

The Manpower Ministry’s conclusion: “The contraction in total employment, heightened redundancy levels and decline in job vacancies to unemployed ratio reflect the current subdued global economic conditions and ongoing economic restructuring.”

And with the global outlook showing no signs of improvement, that means tough times ahead.

You can find detailed numbers from the report on MOM’s website.

 

 

Featured image Singapore CBD by Flickr user Brian EvansCC BY-SA 2.0

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2004 Gabrielle Benenson This technician is in the process of correctly placing a Mantoux tuberculin skin test in this recipient’s forearm, which will cause a 6mm to10mm wheal, i.e., a raised area of skin surface, to form at the injection site.

The Mantoux tuberculin skin test is used to evaluate people for latent tuberculosis (TB) infection. In the United States, this skin test consists of an intradermal injection of exactly one tenth of a milliliter (mL) of tuberculin, which contains 5 tuberculin units. Correct placement of this intradermal injection involves inserting the needle bevel slowly at a 5° to 15° angle. The needle bevel is advanced through the epidermis, the superficial layer of skin, approximately 3mm so that the entire bevel is covered and lies just under the skin. A tense, pale wheal that is 6 to 10mm in diameter appears over the needle bevel.

by Suhaile Md

SHOULD the Tuberculosis (TB) screening for foreigners who want to work here be more stringent?

A pre-school trainee teacher from the Philippines, employed by Bridges Montessori pre-school, was originally cleared to be “medically fit” but as it turns out, she had active TB, The New Paper (TNP) reported. Ms Jen Chng, the pre-school principal, said that the teacher in question was hired in July and was there for about a month reported TNP. The pre-school director Ms Irene Toh added that the teacher was eventually released from her contract by “mutual understanding”.

To be clear, the medical report that certified her as “fit” did have a clause stating that the teacher may not be free from active TB. And the school acknowledged it did not notice the clause at first. But how is it possible that someone can be certified medically fit yet may not be free from active TB?

Infectious-diseases specialist Dr Leong Hoe Nam told TMG that if just the chest X-ray was done, then all it does is show that at “that specific point in time” there is no lung TB. But this does not “exclude anywhere else” in the body like the gut for example. He added that latent TB can be in the body from two months to 90 years. The risk that latent TB – in an otherwise healthy person’s body – will develop into its active form is 10 per cent. For diabetics, it’s 30 per cent. And for those with HIV, 60 per cent. In short, the weaker the immune system, the higher the chances of latent TB activating. This means that when the medical check-up was done, the trainee teacher did not have active TB in her lungs. But that did not mean she was free of latent TB, which has a 10 per cent chance of activating – hence the clause.

According to the MOH: “Not everyone who is infected with TB develops TB disease. The body’s immune system ‘walls off’ the TB bacteria, and allows it to lay dormant in the body. This is called latent TB infection. Individuals with latent TB infection do not have symptoms and are not infectious. They cannot spread the TB germs to other people.”

The TNP report however did not state where the medical check-up was conducted – was it done in Singapore?

According to TODAY, Ms Toh said that the trainee teacher had undergone medical tests – including one for TB – before arriving in Singapore. But the teacher was referred for further examination after a pre-employment medical at the Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association (SATA) spotted a “scar” on her lungs.

The trainee teacher had sat in for classes to observe. So last Tuesday (Aug 23), 29 pre-schoolers and seven staff members from the school were screened for TB. At least one student, a two-year-old girl was diagnosed with latent TB, TODAY reported.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) regulations require foreign workers who are work permit holders to be medically examined by a Singapore registered doctor within two weeks of arrival. That includes a TB test. The work permit is issued only after the worker clears the medical tests.

The teacher however was under the S-pass scheme. S-pass holders are typically mid-skilled foreign employees, like technicians, who earn at least $2,200 per month. According to the MOM website, an in-principal approval (IPA) is issued. On the MOM site, it’s stated: “The IPA gives you 60 days to bring the candidate to Singapore and get the pass issued. It also states if the candidate needs to go for a medical examination, which can be done after arrival in Singapore.”

Interestingly, the issue of more stringent tests for TB detection came up before in 2012. In a letter published in TODAY, Dr Vincent Chia asked if like the US, additional tests like blood tests or skin tests should be added to the usual chest X-rays Singapore. The MOH replied: “The United States does not require a chest X-ray with blood test/skin test for lung TB screening. Our screening policy is, therefore, consistent with the US Centre for Disease Control’s recommendation for diagnosis of lung TB.”

MOH further added that individuals with ambiguous chest X-rays or scarring are referred to the national TB Control Unit at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. This was in 2012. You can read the letters in full here.

Dr Leong Hoe Nam however, said that while it may not be a blanket rule by the US government, many US universities require that foreign students have the blood tests done. He should know: he said he has certified many Singaporean students going to US universities to be TB-free. He added though that Singaporeans who go to the US for work don’t usually require blood tests, which costs between $150 and $200. The difference in the prevalence of latent TB in the two countries may be a factor, he said. He added that only 4 per cent of the US population has latent TB but over 20 per cent of Singapore residents have it. For comparison, the rate in India is about 50 per cent. As for the Philippines, Philstar Global, a news agency there, reported in 2012 that nearly 80 per cent of Filipinos had latent TB.

Should the tests be more stringent then? TODAY reports that according to the MOH, active TB cases involving long-term resident foreigners decreased from 643 in 2012 to 502 last year. So it seems current procedures are not ineffective.

However, maybe it should be more stringent for certain groups of foreign employees: those whose jobs require them to be in contact with large groups of people, especially if where they lived previously had high proportions of latent TB in its population. Teachers hired from the Philippines, for example.

 

Featured image Mantoux tuberculin skin test by Wikicommons user Greg Knobloch. (CC0 1.0).

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skillsfuture_300x250

HOT off the press: The by-election for Bukit Batok was called yesterday (April 20), with Nomination Day set for next Wednesday and Polling Day on May 7. After Mr David Ong from the People’s Action Party (PAP) resigned his post last month, the fight for the hot seat looks to be between the incumbent party’s Murali Pillai and Dr Chee Soon Juan from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).

Not since its recurrent problems with rats has the estate been more in the spotlight – here’s our lay of the land, as well as Bertha’s thoughts on some interesting points about this by-election.

Speaking of points, we have a bunch of graphs that may help you to understand the redundancy report released by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) yesterday. White-collar workers were burnt pretty bad: They lost the most jobs and took the longest to find new ones after they were retrenched last year, the report said.

Still, jobs went up in smoke across all broad sectors with manufacturing taking the top spot for being the most vulnerable, ahead of the service and construction sectors.

Workers in these sectors looking for new jobs better find some shade in the day – the weather has been incredibly hot and temperatures soared to 36 degrees on Tuesday, marking the day as the hottest day on record with an average temperature 30.6 degrees. Last week, it had soared to a 10-year high of 36.7 degrees.

It felt like a furnace – but this was literally so at an oil tank on Jurong Island yesterday, where 150 firefighters took five hours to put out a blaze that raged from about 3pm. The fire was so intense, it caused the oil tank belonging to the Jurong Aromatics Corporation (JAC) in Tembusu Road to buckle. No deaths were reported and JAC has yet to comment on the fire.

 

Featured image by Kong Chong Yew. 

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by Yoong Ren Yan

MORE than a week after the accident that left two SMRT maintenance staff dead, on Wednesday (March 30), the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced “interim instructions” for track maintenance work while trains are running. On March 22, SMRT trainees Nasrulhudin Najumudin, 26, and Muhammad Asyraf Ahmad Buhari, 24, were fatally struck by a train near Pasir Ris station, in the line of duty.

MOM-LTA interim safety instructions

a) No trains should run in automatic mode for the sections of the track where personnel are required on the adjacent track walkway. Trains on such sections of the track should be operated manually, and at low speeds;

b) The section of the track where all works are taking place including maintenance or repair, should be isolated (i.e. no trains are allowed to approach) to provide a safe zone before any personnel is allowed to proceed to that area;

c) There should be robust authentication procedures between the personnel deployed on the tracks and the Operations Control Centre to verify the track isolation;

d) Measures for isolation must be continuously in place until staff have left the work area and trackside; and

e) Watchmen should be deployed to alert personnel on the tracks of oncoming trains from both directions of the track.

In adopting the five safety measures, the agencies said they aimed “to prevent the recurrence of a similar incident, specifically with a view to enhancing the safety of staff”, while investigations continue. While that is welcome, the measures also add the list of questions we’ve had since the accident last Tuesday.

SMRT intends to complete internal investigations next week, and we hope some answers will emerge then.

1. Are these new rules?

Is this simply a gentle reminder from the G about existing protocols? Of the five measures announced, most are already in place at SMRT, according to ST. There is one exception: work sites have not been isolated before. Before yesterday (March 31), trains could still run while workers were fixing faults, but had to be driven slowly and manually.

 

2. Which protocols were violated last Tuesday?

SMRT acknowledged a lapse just a day after the accident: the 15-strong maintenance crew had not coordinated with the signal unit before crossing the tracks. But there was more. The train which struck the two men had been on auto mode, when it should have been on manual, according to ST.

And that’s probably not all. Since safety protocols are designed to be redundant, erring on the side of caution, there must have been multiple lapses for an accident to happen. Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong left open the possibility that the accident could have been “an unforeseeable mishap, an individual lapse or a system problem”. Which it was remains to be seen.

 

3. How many previous violations have there been, and how serious?

Having safety protocols isn’t any good if they aren’t followed. What were SMRT, MOM, and LTA’s audit processes, to ensure staff were complying? How many lapses have there been over the years? When does SMRT go public – only when actual injury occurs?

 

4. How are the rules enforced?

Are staff given adequate training and periodic reminders about safety protocols? What disciplinary action does SMRT take when lapses occur?

 

5. What actions did SMRT take after a similar incident in 2010 on the Bukit Panjang LRT?

On October 17, 2010, SMRT technician Chia Teck Heng, 48, was struck by an LRT train while conducting maintenance. Mr Chia later died from his injuries. Two years later, his widow sued SMRT for $507,000 in damages, but SMRT claimed that the deceased technician had himself violated its safety measures.

But then the media went quiet: we could find details about neither the lawsuit, nor the results of SMRT investigations. How similar is this case to last Tuesday’s? And what, if anything, did SMRT do after Mr Chia’s death?

 

6. Who makes the rules?

MOM and LTA clearly have a stake in workplace safety in the train industry, and of course, so does SMRT. But do the agencies check SMRT, a private corporation? Has the G been issuing instructions to SMRT, or mere guidelines? Who is ultimately answerable for a poorly-made safety rule?

 

7. Do the rules apply to the other train operator, SBS Transit?

The wording of the MOM-LTA statement suggests not. SBS Transit runs the North East and Downtown Lines, which are fully underground. Are rules about track maintenance the same for underground tracks? Does SBS Transit regularly conduct maintenance while trains are running too?

 

8. How much caution is appropriate?

By ordering SMRT to “isolate” tracks where maintenance staff are working, the risk of any further incidents is lower. But how safe should we be? SMRT revealed last week that maintenance work is carried out while trains are running two to three times a day, to ensure “a high level of reliability” of train services. It insists, however: “At no time do we compromise the safety of staff and commuters in our efforts to keep up the required service standards.” Should work be temporarily confined to late hours, when no trains are running?

 

9. What happens next?

SMRT says it will hand over a report to the Police and MOM “for their statutory investigations”. If SMRT violated workplace safety legislation, there will also be a Coroner’s Inquiry. Will it get more serious? MOM says it’s “too early” to comment on whether a Commission of Inquiry will be convened. We may have to wait for results of the investigation – the more serious the lapses, the bigger a deal this will be.

 

10. Will the families be compensated?

SMRT says it remains “in close touch” with the families of the two deceased staff. It has refused to discuss reparations so far, but has said it takes responsibility for the accident. Has SMRT admitted that it is fully liable? Will compensation be predetermined or negotiated with the families?

 

Featured Image by Natassya Diana.

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YOU know you have to do something, but you’re afraid you’ll forget. So what do you do?

Write yourself a list.

That’s one way to make of the five “interim” safety instructions issued to SMRT last night (March 30) by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) after two staff members were killed in a train collision while working on the tracks last Tuesday. You can read the full statement here.

Apparently, all of the safety measures save one are already in place. Which makes you wonder if this is what the G is really trying to say: Oy, don’t forget, can?

Here’s how the mainstream media put it. In The Straits Times (ST): “SMRT ordered to ensure on-track work safety”; and in TODAY: “SMRT directed to implement safety measures after accident”. The Business Times did not run a story on the joint statement.

Whatever more the G has to say will likely come after SMRT concludes its internal investigations next week. Its report will then be handed to the police and MOM for their own statutory investigations under the Workplace Safety and Health Act. Asked if it would call for an independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate further, MOM said it was “too early” to comment, said ST.

As for whether a corner’s inquiry will be held, nothing was said in the papers.

What the investigations reveal will hopefully shed more light on the incident – if it was indeed a one-off “safety lapse” or perhaps a more systemic problem that will need more than a friendly reminder from the G to be addressed.

While the public wait for answers, here’s a question that SMRT could answer now, but has chosen not to: If it has made any reparations or offered compensation to the two young employees’s families. It has, after all, publicly said it was at fault and responsible for what happened.

Maybe it needs a reminder for that too.

 

Featured image by Kong Chong Yew.

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PMETs Budget
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Yoong Ren Yan

THEY say you won’t know how it feels until it hits you. There have been signs of an economic slowdown for some time now, but the warnings remained warnings – until now. According to the latest manpower report, 15,580 workers were laid off last year, the highest number since 2009 when 23,430 were made redundant at the height of the global financial crisis.

Why is all this happening? A combination of a gloomy global economy, and restructuring efforts in Singapore, none of which show any sign of changing. Layoffs are actually picking up with a third of last year’s layoffs happened in the last quarter. Our relatively low unemployment rate – 2.9 per cent for Singaporeans – may not hold steady for much longer.

But what might be a cause for greater concern is whose jobs are at stake. Of those made redundant last year, 71 per cent were professionals, managers, executives, and technicians (PMETs), many from the professional services, wholesale trade, and finance industries. About 65 per cent were aged 40 and above.

It’s little wonder that Silver Spring, a social enterprise which focuses on professionals, managers, and executives (PMEs) aged between 40 and 70, has seen applications on its job portal spike 50 per cent over the last six months. Also, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) helped 50 per cent more PMEs over the past year than the year before.

But targeted job portals or programmes can’t solve the problem if there aren’t enough jobs.

Prospects for those laid off aren’t rosy. Vacancies fell to their lowest level in four years. There are still more vacancies than unemployed people, but only just with 1.13 vacancies per unemployed worker. And just half of those laid off could find jobs within six months, down from 59 per cent a year ago.

As always, PMETs and older workers face the most difficulty in getting another job. PMET vacancies fell by 23 per cent between March and December last year. A quick check on Silver Spring revealed just 39 PME jobs available.

So the skills of those jobless don’t match the jobs available, and thus they are staying out of work longer. These are classic indicators of a structural problem in our labour market – one that the G is already aware of, and is responding to.

West Coast MP Patrick Tay, who is also NTUC assistant secretary-general, has suggested a “sectoral approach” to help industries where job losses are concentrated. NTUC is also giving PMEs union representation to better serve their needs. For instance, as part of NTUC’s U PME programme, the Association of Banks in Singapore now has a jobs portal for retrenched workers to find employment at other banks.

Of course, if banks are retrenching en masse, it’s difficult to see how a jobs portal would help. Instead, workers may need retraining to join other growth industries, including healthcare and information and communications technology.

That’s the objective of the multi-billion dollar SkillsFuture initiative, which may be put to an early test given these employment numbers.

And to incentivise companies to hire middle-aged PMEs, the G is piloting wage subsidies as part of the Career Support Programme. For a 50-year-old PME unemployed for more than six months, for instance, the G is offering a year-long subsidy for jobs that pay more than $4,000 a month. It will pay up to $2,800 for the first six months, and up to $1,400 for the next six months. It already funds PME retraining through the Professional Conversion Programmes.

The G’s response will be clearer come tomorrow (March 24), when Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat presents his first Budget. Mr Heng has promised a “strong focus” on the economy, including help for the “variegated landscape” of small and medium enterprises here.

But what about workers? While the global financial crisis was far more severe, the 2009 Budget might offer clues on what the G has planned. As part of the Resilience Package, then Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced a temporary Jobs Credit, which subsidised the wages of all employees by up to $300 per month. Such a broad-based policy can weather a recession, which we may be due for this year. But it is very costly seeing as the G tapped into the reserves to fund it, and may not even be appropriate if jobs and workers are mismatched.

In 2009 as well, Mr Tharman rolled out the Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience – the predecessor to SkillsFuture – with highly subsidised PME-level courses. Some tweaks to SkillsFuture, targeted at middle-aged PMEs, may be on the cards this time round.

These are trying times to be presenting the first budget of a new term. Mr Heng has already said the G plans to be “particularly prudent”. So while the spike in layoffs is a concern, expect any policy changes to be targeted and incremental for now.

 

Featured illustration by Sean Chong

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Some Data I Used To Know
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Yoong Ren Yan

CRIME statistics have been trickling in over the past week. According to the Singapore Police Force (SPF), commercial crime was up 47 per cent last year, driven by online scams, while some other crimes like robbery and snatch theft fell to 20-year lows.

But we were curious: what about the sex crimes so often in the news?

The annual crime brief is silent, aside from noting that “crimes against persons”, which include sex crimes, decreased slightly last year. Since 2007, the SPF have reported statistics on six “crime classes”, and only go into specifics where these are “areas of concern”. Anyone who wants to know how many outrage of modesty cases there have been over the last decade, for instance, has to consult court records, or ask the SPF.

We asked the Home Affairs Ministry, and found out that there were 1,302 outrage of modesty cases and 161 rape cases last year, both slight decreases from the year before. So our impression that sex crimes are more prevalent turned out to be false.

Before 2007, we wouldn’t even have had to ask.

Back then, the SPF directly reported the numbers of “index crimes” instead, which included outrage of modesty and rape. These nine index crimes were selected for their “reliability and higher reporting rates“. We don’t know what prompted the shift to reporting six crime classes – perhaps they are more comprehensive and stable as indicators. However, we know less about the prevalence of specific crimes than we used to.

The fact that there is data we used to know, but is no longer released, is surprising. More datasets than ever, it seems, have been released on the G’s snazzy new data portal. Yet coverage is uneven: crime statistics are completely absent. And no timetable exists for data to be made available to the public.

We found several other pieces of data that we used to know. Give us a shout if you can find these, or if you know other statistics once made public that have since disappeared.

 

Wanted: Prevalence of specific crimes, including outrage of modesty and rape.

Last seen: Before 2007, when the SPF reported nine “index crimes”, and occasionally when they deem some crimes to be of special interest in particular years, in an ad hoc fashion.

Reasons for going missing: A shift to reporting broader “crime classes” from 2007, perhaps motivated by the need for more comprehensive and stable indicators of crime, or to avoid over-interpretation of crime statistics that may fluctuate randomly from year to year.

Reward: Long-term trends in specific crimes will be plain to see, and when used responsibly, can contribute to public knowledge and debate about policing and its priorities.

 

Wanted: Some statistics broken down by race, for example, on labour force participation.

Last seen: We’re not sure exactly when labour force participation by race stopped being published, but an ST commentary (“Concerted effort needed to help Indians progress”, Dec 16, 1989) cites figures from the 1988 Labour Force Survey: “51.7 per cent of Indian women are in the labour force as compared to 47.3 per cent Chinese women and 43.4 per cent Malay women.” The 2015 Labour Force in Singapore report contains no race-based data.

Race-based statistics still exist in particular for educational attainment, including exam results, marriages, and divorces, as well as for social issues such as drug abuse.

Reasons for going missing: The G remains very cautious about fueling racial sentiments, and this caution extends to statistics which show objective disparities between races.

Reward: On the other hand, the facts, when used judiciously, are essential to understanding the full picture of where we stand as a multi-racial nation. This information can prompt productive debate about how to bridge remaining gaps.

 

Wanted: Trends in the beneficiaries of, applications to, and rejections from the Public Assistance (PA) and ComCare schemes.

Last seen: Singapore’s modest welfare schemes are the subject of numerous and persistent parliamentary questions, from opposition and ruling party Members of Parliament alike. From parliamentary questions by People’s Action Party Member of Parliament (MP) Fatimah Lateef, we obtained the total number of households on PA, and the number of newly admitted cases, from 2007 to 2010. We also have figures on applications and rejections from 2006 to 2012, from parliamentary questions by Workers’ Party (WP) MPs Faisal Manap and Chen Show Mao.

Reasons for going missing: Traditionally, the G has resisted publicising its welfare schemes because it is worried about sending the wrong message to potential recipients. However, after recent enhancements to PA, the G may have the opposite concern, as Singaporeans debate how high social spending should go.

Reward: A realistic picture of who, why, and how many households are on the dole is central to any discussion about welfare in Singapore. The facts may challenge ideological assumptions on both sides.

 

Wanted: Executions per year, by nationality and crime committed – perhaps even a list of names.

Last seen: We have three sources of information. First, statistics on executions were not publicly available until former Non-Constituency Member of Parliament J B Jeyaretnam asked a parliamentary question in 2001, for a breakdown of executions by year and crime committed between 1991 and 2000. Then, in 2009, executions by year and crime committed began to appear in the Singapore Prison Service Annual Report – giving us data from 2007 onwards. Third, a parliamentary question in 2011 from newly-elected WP MP Pritam Singh yielded a breakdown by year and nationality, but only between 2004 and 2010.

We don’t have any figures for the three years of 2001, 2002, and 2003. We don’t have a breakdown by crime committed between 2001 and 2006. And finally, we don’t have a breakdown by nationality before 2004, and from 2011 onwards.

Reasons for going missing: The death penalty is an internationally contentious subject. In the 1990s, with up to 76 executions per year, Singapore earned the dubious honour of being “world execution capital“. As recently as 2014, then-Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam defended Singapore’s continued use of capital punishment at a United Nations hearing. A list of names would also make it easier for advocacy groups to question individual cases where the death penalty was used.

Reward: Individual news reports are not comprehensive, and as with crime statistics, may give false impressions. So as it stands, the public has little to go on when debating the death penalty or tweaks to its use, such as the 2012 amendments to the mandatory death penalty for murder and drug possession.

 

Wanted: Candidate expenditure records from the Elections Department (ELD).

Last seen: ELD releases records of candidate expenditures after elections are held, for a period of six months. But these records must be viewed in person, at the cost of $2 per candidate record. The public therefore gets its information from the press – TMG included. But after April 28, records for the 2015 General Elections (GE) go into hiding. The public also cannot view records from previous elections.

Reasons for going missing: No idea. If election results can be viewed in perpetuity, why can’t expenditure records? Why only in person, and at a cost?

Reward: Singaporeans will know how election campaigns are run, and how they have changed over time. Disclosing as much information as possible about the democratic process can foster trust and support in the system – and help us retain the right kind of politics.

 

The G has made clear its objective to “make more data available in ways that are consistent with the need to protect individuals, enterprises and the public interest”. And some progress has been made. But while the broad direction has been set, the status quo leaves much to be desired.

Reinstating information that was once released, but has now disappeared, seems like the minimum the G can do. Of course, in some cases, there may be fresh reasons for withholding information – then it should say what these reasons are.

Sometimes the G does provide information, after prompting by the media or by parliamentary questions. We’re glad that the G deems these statistics innocuous enough. Nonetheless, it still raises the question as to why journalists and MPs need to do the prompting? Why is this data still not released – regularly, comprehensively, and automatically – to the public?

And other times, the G is even less forthcoming.

Last November, we put together a list of public consultations the G conducted between the 2011 GE and 2015 GE, based on what we could find online. And because records online weren’t comprehensive, the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources had to contact us to say it held 24 more consultations than the three we had listed. The numbers of public consultations are, strangely, not public.

That same month, the Media Development Authority lifted the ban on 240 publications, but refused to hand over a list of the un-banned books, leaving us to guess. So we can’t know which books we can now read.

All this irony does not negate the steady efforts the G has made in recent years, which are laudable. What it does suggest is that on data transparency, we still have a long way to go.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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NOBODY likes people who overstay their welcome – and certainly not the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA).

The good news is, the number of arrests for overstayers has come down – by about 6 per cent. Same for illegal immigrants – down by 11 per cent. ICA says this is due to their “sustained tough enforcement and proactive public education” – well, good on them, if these numbers are statistically significant. It’s hard to tell because the authority gave only 2014 and 2015 figures in their latest annual report released this morning – but, according to the report, the number of overall arrests for immigration offenders has steadily gone down over the years.

By tough enforcement, ICA is probably also referring to it tightening the screws on employers and harbourers of these immigrant offenders. The stats show the combined number of arrests against these two groups went up by 59 per cent. In 2014, 250 harbourers were arrested, compared to last year’s 419 – nearly double. Employers arrested went up from 69 to 91.

What’s noteworthy about this is that almost half of the harbourers arrested last year were Singaporeans, the report said. These errant employers were from various industries such as construction, food and beverage and cleaning services. These industries, by the way, are the ones with jobs which Singaporeans just aren’t that interested in – according to the recent labour report released earlier this year by the Manpower Ministry.

The penalty for overstaying or illegal entry is a jail term of up to six months plus a minimum of three strokes of the cane; first-time offenders found guilty of hiring foreign employees without a valid work pass may face a fine of $5,000 to $30,000, or a jail term of up to one year, or both.

Two other items highlighted by the ICA report – the number of arrests for marriages of convenience, and the number of smuggling contraband cases detected.

In the first, the fall is pretty dramatic – 62 per cent, or down to 64 cases last year from 170 in 2014. As for smuggling, the number remained mostly the same – 93,380 cases in 2014 compared to last year’s 95,677 (about a 2 per cent increase).

Interestingly though, more people seem to be doing the smuggling via online purchases: The number of contraband cases relating to parcels and packages shipped into Singapore went up from 14,289 in 2014 to 18,419 last year (about 30 per cent), noted the report.

Some of the common contraband articles detected included stun guns and sex enhancement pills. (Hopefully not used together… Ouch! Ooh la la! Ouch!)

 

Featured image by Reuben Wang

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work, rush hour, jam

by Ryan Ong

RISING underemployment is the big issue right now. We started noticing in 2012, and in typical Singaporean fashion we swiftly responded. By complaining about it until 2015. Yeah, it’s a problem alright – after one $30,000 degree, the peak of your career is to correctly remember between spicy or original at a fried chicken stand. While I don’t mean to belittle that part of the problem, it is pretty serious. I mean, I wouldn’t want a stock analyst driving my taxi – they can barely predict movements when only two directions are possible. But after inflating the problem with so many imaginary components, it has become almost impossible for us to deal with.

 

What is underemployment?

There is an official definition by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM):

“Underemployment reflects underutilization of the productive capacity of the labour force. Time-related underemployment, which is the only internationally accepted statistical definition of underemployment, examines the extent to which a person is insufficiently engaged in employment based on hours of work. Specifically, it refers to persons working part-time but are willing and able to engage in additional work.

Conceptually, there is also underemployment where the employment does not make full use of, or pay according to skills that workers could offer. This is more difficult to measure due to the subjectivity involved.”

A more specific definition would be “someone aged 15 and above who normally works less than 35 hours a week, but is willing and able to engage in more work”.

You may notice the concrete definition of underemployment (time-related underemployment) is quite different from what most Singaporeans think of as underemployment.

By this definition, the graduate frying chicken at a fast food outlet is not underemployed because he has a degree. He is underemployed because he is only able to fry chicken four days a week, while he’d rather do it five days a week.

This is what MOM’s numbers track: workers who have fewer hours than what they want, not workers who are overqualified for their jobs.

But it’s skill factors (skilled workers in low-paying jobs or skilled workers in low-skilled jobs) that seem to concern Singaporeans.

Recently Member of Parliament Patrick Tay (Nee Soon GRC) called for a re-examination of the way underemployment is measured. According to a report by CNA, Mr Tay “suggested conducting a comprehensive survey for the various industry sectors to understand the required worker competencies or skills for specific jobs and whether the people holding these jobs are over-qualified”.

But this is where the problem starts to get fuzzy, and psychological (or perhaps cultural) hang-ups begin to compound the issue. Here is what we urgently need to acknowledge before we go on a new whingeing spree about underemployment:

  1. Underemployment is an inevitable result of better education
  2. Income mismatches are a real problem, while skill mismatches are mostly a form of whining
  3. Cultural factors are a big part of the issue
  4. An inflexible education system won’t help

 

1. Underemployment is an inevitable result of better education


It comes with the territory.

In 2000, 26.1 per cent of Singaporean residents (aged 25 to 34) had university degrees. In 2013, the percentage was 51.1 per cent and is set to continue growing.

This kind of “education inflation” isn’t new or unique to Singapore. In fact, studies have shown it has been happening for the past 60 years. Just ask your grandparents; In the 1950s and 60s, having a diploma was considered a big deal. By around the 1990s, having a diploma had become the norm.

Considering more than half of Singapore had degrees by 2013, it’s almost certainly going to be the new norm in less than a decade (although I know some of you would argue it’s the norm already). The question is: are there this many jobs that require degrees?

If 70 per cent of the population ends up attaining degrees while only half the jobs available require degrees, then guess what: some of those degree holders are going to be driving a crane, or dry cleaning someone else’s suits.

This is probably behind why Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong raised the issue that degrees may not even be as necessary as we imagine. At about the same time, Minister Khaw Boon Wan made his famous remark: “Can you have a whole country where 100 per cent are graduates? I am not so sure.”

All this means is that a degree is no longer sufficient as an advantage. New degree holders will have to learn to network, develop soft skills like leadership, and demonstrate talent above and beyond having paper qualifications.

The graduates who get through university via memorization and good grades (but have no actual spark of talent or passion) are going to be relegated to the bottom of the totem pole. The introverted academic who lacks creativity and presence is going to be buried. If they don’t adapt and change, well, the world isn’t obliged to cater to them.

 

2. Income mismatches are a real problem, skill mismatches are mostly a form of whining


Is your mismatch real or imaginary?

If you have a job with a graduate’s pay, but not in the a line of work related to your degree… what’s the problem?

So you’re an accounting major who works in advertising. It’s unusual, and you may have a harder time adjusting because your academic background does not match up to it. This is a normal part of joining the workforce. Even in job markets like the United States, only 27 per cent of workers have a job related to their major.

There is a possibility that your job requires a lower skill set than you have; as in the case of an aerospace engineer who ends up selling insurance. But if the income is just as good (and in this example I suspect the income may be higher), a good solution to the problem is just to suck it up.

If some workers are upset that they can’t follow their calling, then they should keep pursuing their dreams. But it doesn’t justify policy intervention in the job market; that kind of thinking is what make us a nanny state.

 

3. Cultural factors are a big part of the issue


When everyone want to be a doctor/lawyer/banker.

I think for 80 per cent of our student body, the honest answer to “What do you want to be?” is “Someone who makes my parents proud.” Which is touching and terrifying all at once.

There is a huge rush for the traditional “respectable” jobs – doctor, lawyer, banker, etc. Putting aside how poorly thought this job list is (most of the world’s richest people don’t fall into any of those categories), it creates a glut in the job market.

Case in point: Law Minister K.Shanmugam explaining that there may be more lawyers than there are jobs for them in Singapore. With the exception of doctors (we still need more of those), many of the prestigious jobs will become oversupplied. That’s what happens when everyone’s rushing for them.

 

4. An inflexible education system won’t help


It takes times for things to come together.

You may have heard of recent calls to raise the number of engineers. This is kind of like playing Tetris: yelling at the computer to give you the right shaped block you need, and them stacking them into a corner if they don’t fit.

What happens after a call like this? Policy intervention to ramp up the number of engineers. Like this new portal to promote engineering courses. Also, polytechnics that now seek to blend business courses with engineering.

I understand that certain professions may be needed on a wider scale. That’s the entire reason planned economies, like China and the former USSR, basically picked people’s jobs for them. But there are two effects we need to beware of:

First, if taken too far, it will cause an oversupply of a particular profession (see point 3). Remember, the nation’s need for engineers may last a few years, but the person who trains to be an engineer is preparing for a lifelong career in the field. If the need for engineers later dies down, that person had better be adaptable.

Second, we have to avoid a “dumping ground” system. This is when certain students, who are unmotivated or have sub-par performance, are simply shoveled like loose debris into engineering courses because “we need more engineers.” A sign of this would be the sudden lowering of standards needed to qualify for an engineering course.

I’m not saying that happens by the way; I’m very sure there isn’t any documented evidence to show that it does. I’m just saying that, if this does happen, it should nipped in the bud, and fast.

 

Featured image Work by Flickr user KChris BrowCC BY-SA 2.0

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