May Day Rally 2014

Having missed last year’s event because I made like many other Singaporeans and downed tools for the long weekend, I was invited to my first May Day Rally on Thursday, and came away impressed with the candour of the labour leaders, and slightly disappointed with the lack of awareness of the same.

With Cheaper, Better, Faster having earned its place in ridiculed slogan folklore, what could the union leaders have come up with that would better that? What new initiatives would be launched and trumpeted?

I spoke with several other people at the rally and they intimated that the labour movement was going to move away from the hard sell of the Progressive Wage Model of the past two years, and towards a recognition of the employer, the worker, and the buyer (customer) for this year’s rally.

The venue for this year’s event was also significant. Honouring NTUC’s first Secretary-General (and lest we forget, the country’s third Head of State), the new Employment & Employability Institute (e2i) is named the Devan Nair Institute, and was officially opened at the start of the rally by the Prime Minister.

When the seminar hall was filled to capacity and the rest of the attendees packed into spillover rooms with live video feeds, the event started proper with a song and dance item (“Happy” and the very popular “Ayam Titanium”), and rousing speeches by leaders of several unions.

Then came this Singaporean Of The Day inspired video featuring rank and file workers:

  • Mohamed Ishak Bin Mohamed Noor, SMRT Assistant Engineer
  • Lim Chee Kiang, PSA Container Equipment Specialist (Quay Crane)
  • T. Manimaran, SembWaste Senior Driver
  • Raymond Ong, ComfortDelGro Taxi Driver
  • Ang Boon Ho, Seiko Instruments Singapore Assistant Supervisor

The workers featured in the video were seated front row (not centre – that’s for the Ministers) and were introduced to loud cheers from their colleagues and fellow union members. For me, that was what I thought the event was about. Honouring union members, honouring workers.

The Prime Minister’s address followed this path, but at the same time sounded a warning for complacency and for those who still think that the sole problem lies in letting in cheap foreign labour – your jobs will get “stolen” by people who don’t even have to move here to do it.

And there’s the second focus of the rally – the employer. I think that many Singapore companies are caught in what a friend of mine calls the “Stuck Tarzan Mode” – having caught the next vine to move forward but not wanting to let go of the one he’s just swung from.

Our economy will face competition from people who can not only do things cheaper, they’ll do it faster, and they might do it better. Sound familiar? The Prime Minister mentioned our private transport industry being challenged by technology companies who smartly skirt the obstacles of the transport business by making apps – like Uber (use my code “ubermiyagi” and get $10 off your first ride, hehe) – and with the leaps and bounds being made by 3D printing – soon, who’s going to need you to build and ship things to the customer abroad any more?

It is with these challenges that makes it more alarming that many SME’s do not innovate or don’t know how to. For example: Why are auditors still insisting on paper receipts that would anyway fade and be illegible? Why are banks (or the MAS) not working on solutions for third party accounting software to connect to customer data when it is much easier to forge a cheque than it is to obfuscate an electronic trail?

We cannot afford to fall behind, and I will smack the next government agency officer that asks me to fax some letter when they can jolly well read an email attachment. Yes, I can e-slap you. I have an app.

Before I froth at the mouth at these annoyances, let me get back to the PM’s address. I am encouraged that there are serious measures to ensure the re-employability of older workers. I’m quite sure that at this very mention, there’ll be conspiracy theorists banging their drums about how this gahmen simply doesn’t want us to collect our CPF.

But the reality is this – ask any aged 30-something couple raising a young family and having to look after their parents and you’ll discover that the CPF wasn’t initially calculated to look after an aging population with an increasing life expectancy. The older folk need to work and the important thing is that we enable them to.

The other thing that struck me was the current NTUC Secretary-General’s candour. I don’t care what people say, I really like this man and his life-long passion for making workers’ lives better.

In his opening address (which involved a few miscues with the event’s run-down), he said something about Singapore ‘not being zero-defect’, but that we’d be judged on how we reacted to the mistakes and fixed them.

Mr Lim Swee Say has been tireless ever since he was appointed Secretary-General (SG) of NTUC. The number of financial grants and rebates available to the backbone of the economy – the SMEs – are a result of his harassing and haranguing the various ministries and agencies over the decades.

But he has not been above admitting when things aren’t going as smoothly. I recall a talk last year where he talked about how heading the labour movement was a constant task of moving bottlenecks around the workforce when he realised cheap labour was becoming an undesirable opiate of construction companies.

There are others like the SG in the movement – the head of the e2i himself, of as a friend calls him, The Other Gilbert, constantly tweaking and improving schemes to help the rank and file workers.

Therein lies the rub. There are still things that can be done better.

I believe the labour movement can be more inclusive, get everyone involved, not just the converted, because you can still continue get them excited about the rally by giving out polo shirts in four different but bright colours, you can still make them sing the NTUC theme song to the tune of The Battle Hymn of The Republic, and give out energy bands with the word “Better” printed on them because this year it’s about Better Employers, Better Workers and Better Customers.

Good Things Must Share: Budget 2014

Singapore Skyline (2013)

It’s been a while since the Budget was announced, and since then the only thing that seems to have continued echoing is this thing called the Pioneer Generation, and the size of their packages.

I’m not saying that my father’s generation – the one that built the republic’s foundations – doesn’t deserve the recognition or the reward that were supposed to come with it. But that’s not the point of the Budget for me.

Any national fiscal measure is a measure of the direction the Government wants the country to head towards. And for the most part, I agree with where it wants us to head: A high tech, high productivity economy.

There’s never been more money being poured into grants and rebates for productivity, innovation, and internationalisation. It’s easy to bandy these terms around, but the thought behind it is that we’re looking to look after the people that do the work.

This means measures to ensure we don’t over rely on cheap foreign labour again. I don’t like seeing companies that employ a whole bunch of foreign unskilled labour and deploy them higgledy piggledy just because they can afford to, and I’m happy cheap labour supply has been tightened, and that companies are finally looking to innovate to save costs.

As a small business owner, I’ve been witness to how rising costs have forced me to innovate and abandon old practices. Rising rental costs were killing me and my ability to retain a headcount – so off went the receptionist/admin staff, finance manager and other staff. I opted for a cloud based, paperless billing/accounting/time-costing system that I’ve subsequently become a reseller for.

I don’t have to have a finance or accounts clerk to chase late invoices because my cloud accounting system does that for me with increasingly curt emails (best thing ever). When clients call to ask questions about their file, I can answer their query almost anywhere thanks to my files being electronic and in the cloud. There’s no need to call up the office to get a staff member away from their tasks at hand to answer a simple question.

There are so many other options available that would make your existing staff’s lives easier, and encourage other potential job seekers to upgrade and train themselves so their jobs are multi-faceted, multi-skilled.

The fantastic thing in the Singapore context is the fact that all these things can be subsidised. Actually, subsidisation is an understatement. The Government is practically paying businesses to modernize.

Take the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) for example. You get a 400% write off in your business’ tax returns (for businesses that employ 3 or more local staff), meaning if you buy a $1,000 computer, it is worth $4,000 in your tax returns, so you pay less in taxes.

But if you were making a loss, no worries – the scheme lets you get a cash rebate of 60% for your purchase. So if you were to buy a $1,000 computer, dis Gahmen GIVES YOU BACK $600!

DIS KIND OF LOBANG WHERE CAN FIND LIDDAT? SRSLY!

And if you think that’s like ZOMG WLE SIGN ME UP NAO, there is more money being thrown your way to make your company staff’s lives easier.

After getting an e2i Inclusive Growth Programme (IGP) discount of 50% off your productivity purchase, if you spend more than $5,000 in a qualifying period and you have claimed a PIC grant of 60%, you are eligible for a (taxable) additional cash grant of 100%. Confused? Nair mind.

Exempli gratia: You purchase $12,000 of several computers, machinery, and software that make your staff’s lives easier and more productive.
You get 50% e2i IGP discount and only spend $6,000.

You successfully claim a PIC cash payout of 60% or $3,600. THEN DIS GAHMEN WILL NOW GIVE YOU AN ADDITIONAL $6,000! OMGWTFBBQ DIS IS THE REAL GREAT SINGAPORE SALE!

Is this Budget serious about supporting SMEs and making lives of workers better? How about you read the previous five paragraphs to answer the question?

You’ve probably also heard about the increase in CPF contribution rates for the over 55s. There’s just not enough in workers’ CPFs to cover retirement necessities, partly because of how much older Singaporeans are when they do finally get married and have kids, and how much more our life expectancies have increased.

I’m glad dis gahmen is also implementing grants to cover the increase in employers’ contributions. Of course, thanks are in order to NTUC for pushing the idea of increasing employers’ contributions to the lawmakers.

There’s also other monies to tap on if you’re interested in improving workers’ skills – the Lifelong Learning and Continuing Education Fund has now been topped up to $4.6b. Again, these funds and schemes have been pushed by NTUC for several years now.

You can call it the happy circle of life – happy employees, productive company, better products, and happier customers. The ball is firmly in our court to put the money to good use – make your employees happier, more productive, more skilled and make your staff and your business continue to be the backbone of the Singapore economy.

Fixing Low Wages: Buck Also Stops At Employers’

Out of curiosity, I attended the Ordinary Delegates’ Conference of the National Trades Union Congress at Far Far Away Country Club (Orchid Country Club) on Tuesday.

As with many things to do with Singapore, there’s little pomp and ceremony to do with these things if you were to compare with our neighbouring countries: it is said that the world stands still when a Malaysian minister attends the opening of an umbrella.

There was still some ritual involved – calling the conference to order and declaring quorum and all that. But I was a bit disappointed to discover that union leaders were now addressing each other as “brother” and “sister”, much like a mega-church congregation, rather than the historically more significant and gender-neutral “comrade”.

OK enough of my frivolity and nongsern. More serious reactions to what was said at the NTUC Ordinary Delegates’ Conference by Ministers and union leaders were predictably swift.

Most of the complaints come from people who are not convinced that the government is making efforts to improve the lot of lower wage workers primarily because they feel that low-wages were made endemic by policies of the same government which were intended to fix a critical labour shortage.

Tripartism – a term often bandied about by the labour movement – refers to the workings of the unions, the government and employers in concert.

I don’t think there’s any other jurisdiction in the world where it’s been so effective for so long. But tripartism is only as effective as the weakest link.

With unions pushing for better wages through Progressive Wage Model and the government handing out subsidies, the slack seems to be appearing in the third partner’s hands. Sadly it is the employers who are directly in control of workers’ wages.

Still, it is helpful to note that attempting to achieve equilibrium between the labour market and the economic and social health of the nation is always going to be a fluid task that never ends. That’s why I’m thankful for those among our leaders who are able to recognise bottlenecks as they appear, have the political will and ability to make running repairs while attempting to define and crystallise the will of the people.

Cheaper Better Faster

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The Labour Movement should not let Lim Swee Say it himself. Not since the 1990s, when Goh Chok Tong spouted all manner of football analogies, has anyone generated so much interest over his own slogans and turns of phrases.

It’s been three and a half years since the NTUC’s Secretary-General first exhorted the country’s workers to be part of a Cheaper, Better, Faster (CBF*) economy, and I haven’t stopped hearing people talking about how the blardy gahmen wants to make them cheaper better and faster. It’s been detracting people from the real issues the NTUC and the MOM have been trying to tackle, and quite unfortunately a lot of people think this is how the NTUC has made its mark this last decade.

Actually, any slogan that starts with or has the word “cheap” or “cheaper” in it is asking for trouble: Courtesy is for Cheap. Cheap Better Best. Cheaper is Enough. You get the picture. It makes you want to go to Sim Lim Square and haggle with a salesman over an iPhone 5 knock-off.

Then a fortnight ago Mr Lim was quoted in the papers as saying that the country needed not only to “bite the bullet, not one, but three bullets”. I took it to mean the Cheaper Bullet, Better Bullet and Faster Bullet because I couldn’t find anything else in the article that explained what those bullets were and why they needed biting.

I was invited last month to a social media/bloggers’ dinner (catered by Smiling Orchid, no less) and briefing at NTUC Centre on One Marina Boulevard and learned about the (silver, supposedly) bullet that the NTUC didn’t want anyone to bite – A National Minimum Wage.

As we all know now, the purported rejection of Minimum Wage by the NTUC – announced by, of all people to announce it, the Sec-Gen himself, instigated a tirade against The NTUC,  Dis Gahmen and That Minister, which hasn’t shown signs of abating. The tirade generally goes along the lines of:

“WTF is this Progressive Wage Model? Dowan to pay people more just say so lah!”

I don’t know whether it’s because you can’t get the full picture on ST or if the glossy infographics on NTUC’s own online media just makes your eyes glaze over, but if you had looked hard at what Mr Lim Swee Say was saying, you’d realise that nobody is rejecting the Minimum Wage.

I support the view that if you were to introduce a mandatory minimum wage in any industry, at a level high enough to make any meaningful difference to real wages, you WILL see unemployment, and the lower income group will be the first to suffer as unemployment becomes institutionalized, as has been the case in every country with a national minimum wage.

The good thing for us is that NTUC has been working on a solution to what they see as a great social cost of economic growth. It’s a calibrated and adjustable solution, where wage increases are pegged to “job/skill productivity enhancements” which have been made easier through funding from other labour institutions.

If I could tell Lim Swee Say what to say to the public so that the NTUC gets a better rap, I’d tell him to call what he’s scribbled on the paper sheets the Minimum Wage Plus instead of Progressive Wage Model because it’d have sounded less like the PWM was a substitute for Minimum Wage.

I’d also ask him to tell the public that he really goes to the MOM to Kow Peh Kow Bu about protecting workers, and that under his watch, the NTUC has actually forced the MOM to make changes to the Employment Act.

I’d ask him to tell the press what he said to EDB when they asked him, “where am I going to get the money to fund your workers’ upgrading courses”?

I would ask him to go on record as having said, “Not my problem. You go and find the money or else you won’t have an economy to develop”. (ok I paraphrase a little but I think he said something to that effect).

I’d tell him to summon the blardy SPH’s and Mediacorp’s news outlets and tell them to print a statement that he wanted the economy that was CHEAPER THAN SILICON VALLEY, BETTER THAN CHINA and FASTER THAN KOREA BECAUSE IT IS IMPORTANT TO HAVE A COMPETITIVE, HIGHLY SKILLED, ADAPTABLE AND INTELLIGENT WORK FORCE.

But what to do? People like to shoot them (with the bullets they’ve been asked to bite) whatever they do.

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*It is very unfortunate that the nation’s labour movement has kept an unintentional tradition of using dubious acronyms: CBF is what the NTUC which was formerly known as SFTU coined. (And they banned FCUK because it was suggestive, wah lao eh).