Support Lim Swee Say In Spite Of What He Says

TL;DR version: Support Lim Swee Say, but let other voices help in steering the labour movement.

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) was forged in days of a different political landscape. It had its genesis in the founding of what later became the dominant political party. It served its purpose then, galvanising the rank and file behind the push to take over Singapore on independence.

That was 54 years ago and I am having trouble with the term ‘Labour Movement’ in this day and age, and in this country. If the governing party is for us, with us and for the country, then why is there a need for a Labour Movement, and why is there a third wheel just so we can call something ‘tripartism’? Surely MOM would be working for the workers, and we would be represented by our votes cast?

Plus, a government minister has always been appointed to the post of NTUC’s Secretary General – so I dunno man, it’s like a redundancy department of redundancy. You would think that the cabinet minister / secretary general would have the unions’ and government’s views aligned most times, and if workers had grievances against the government, you wouldn’t trust him to take your side.

But we’ve had the late President Ong Teng Cheong proving otherwise when he was NTUC Chief, authorising a strike in 1986 (yes, they are legal) without the approval of cabinet, earning the ire of his peers.

A couple of appointments later, we had Lim Swee Say, now Minister of Manpower. Now this man is easily ridiculed for his wacky turns of phrases (cheaperer and betterer, circa 2013), off-colour jokes (kiasu, kiasi, kia-SARS, circa 2004) and non-sequitur anecdotes (toothpicks 2014). But take a look at his tenure at NTUC – he pushed for all manner of schemes to be financed – oversaw the formation of two institutions aimed at making our citizens more skilled and competitive – WDA and e2i, and pulled at the Government’s purse strings to build a sizeable war chest in the millions of dollars to throw at the unions’ charters of making workers’ lives better.

There’s a story I like telling my friends and clients about how e2i funding helped an old and small noodle making factory retain their loyal but ageing staff by forking out almost 90% of the costs of machinery and a freaking brand new and larger truck because it would make the workers’ lives easier – the staff don’t have to carry loads of flour because machines the e2i bought do it for them, and the driver makes fewer trips because the new truck is larger.

Despite this and other happy stories, the main problem with e2i funding is, incredibly, that not enough businesses know how to access it.

From what I’ve seen at NTUC, I venture to say that there is no other country in the world with this kind of labour movement. And you have to give credit to Zorro Lim Swee Say for some of the things currently in place, just don’t let him sing his Upturn the Downturn song.

For all the admiration I have of the former Secretary General Minister, there is a caveat. The third prong of tripartism is still too tied to the PAP for my liking, and if it remains this way, will be the main obstacle to it being a truly independent, worker-centric player in our labour troika.

I attended the May Day Rally in 2014 and this year, and both times I was disturbed by the rally cry of ‘Majulah PAP’ at the end of the event. I finally brought this up at a online media session last month featuring the new Secretary General Chan Chun Sing, who dismissed it as mere ‘form’, and that he was ‘more concerned with substance’.

I suggested that since it was mere form, then get rid of it. He parried and changed the subject somewhat, so I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. I believe what the NTUC and Lim Swee Say has done – like our version of minimum wage – is working, and we’re nimble enough to tweak stuff as we go along. But I really want the NTUC to cut its umbilical cord from Mother PAP – it’s time to let other minds join the work on getting the right mix.

Robo-cutter To Change Landscaping Landscape

All your grass are belong to Robo-cutter
All your grass are belong to Robo-cutter

I was invited to check out a demonstration of this machine called the “Robo-Cutter” and I got really excited because, WTF, it’s a robot that cuts grass, right?

No it wasn’t what I expected – there wasn’t any artificial intelligence about it, and it couldn’t deploy itself automatically where it sensed the grass was tall. It was really just a remote controlled grass-cutting tractor.

I put my disappointment aside, and spoke to the person who was heading the demonstration, Mr Neo Say Hwee of Ho Eng Huat Construction Pte Ltd.

He had purchased the Robo-Cutter for something close to $100,000. Close to half of it was subsidised by the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i), which has a grant called the Inclusive Growth Programme (IGP).

In one fell swoop, Mr Neo cut down on his reliance for cheap foreign labour, which was utilised in landscape maintenance tasks for the old grass cutters. The Robo-Cutter can now do the equivalent job of half a dozen masked men (grass-cutting ninjas), while using only one trained operator.

While I don’t have the exact numbers to crunch, I think that while the government continues to tighten the supply of cheap foreign labour, companies like Mr Neo’s will still stride forward when grants like IGP are applied judiciously to help innovative additions, like the Robo-Cutter.

More importantly, the employees trained to operate these smart machineries will be able to be paid more. The job is also made easier and safer as they are able to operate the machine from a distance under the shade, lowering the possibilities of heat and other injuries.

This, I think is the best way to go about the increasing required wage. A mandatory minimum wage level with nothing else is just going to see companies like Mr Neo’s being forced to pay more for grass-cutting ninjas, and the costs inevitably will be passed on to their clients.

Unfortunately, many maintenance contracts in this particular sector are still mired in old terms and requirements. They restrict companies’ ability to take the leap and innovate, like how Mr Neo has done with his company.

Contracts still stipulate how many persons are required to do the job, and buyers tend to want a discount when you tell them you are going to use fewer men. Worse, some may be shocked and not want to award you the contract when you tell them you are going to use a robot and one man.

Terms need to be changed. Buyers need to know that the essence of the contract is in whether a job can be done well and quickly, regardless of how many people are used. With the labour supply crunch several industries are facing, it will make the most sense to do this, and make the best use of every worker by giving them the best work opportunities and do the best to reward them once the job is done in a safer and more efficient way.

As you can see, it takes an effort in concert – the buyer, the contractor and the worker have to change the way things are done in order to move this along, in order for all three parties to benefit.

When I’ve worn my other hat as a small business and start up consultant, I’ve heard excuses like “I dowan to take Gahmen money sekali got strings attached”, or “Customer don’t want to change contract”, even when presented with really, really attractive grants and cash incentives which have no strings attached (unless you think that “strings” include paying taxes).

It is exasperating. If these companies don’t revisit the opportunities available now to benefit everyone, they’re going to be in for a rough ride when they’re left behind, while the early adopters reap the benefits of a transformed economy.

It is timely this National Day (the one before the Big 50) that we pay heed to these steps and not just wish for it to happen. We need to work towards this transformation. The buck stops with everyone.

Proposed Structure
Proposed Structure

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.

NTUC Never U-Turns!

So there was an Op-Ed piece in yesterday’s ST by Han Fook Kwang, no less, which seems to say that the union movement made a u-turn in their policy on having a mandatory minimum wage. How many times must say liao, that it is not a minimum wage? NTUC never u-turns, understand? It might upturn once in a while, with a song, even, but never u-turn, can?

Besides, Lim Swee Say has been saying things in favour of the Progressive Wage Model since he was Environment Minister, and that was a long time ago.

But seriously though, even if I can’t prove conclusively that having a mandated minimum wage across sectors would sabotage the economy, I think that the progressive wage model is quite a good idea. Pegging wage increases (which already come with public assistance) with job and skill enhancements and pouring public funds into assisting training programs so that employers adopt them sounds good enough for me to support it.

I just hope the usual naysayers would take a closer look at what the Progressive Wage Model entails and how much public funding is going into supporting lower waged workers before they criticise every quarter for not helping. And then if they still must say nay, try to come up with a better alternative.