03 May 2015

Farewell and Thank You, MOM

03 May 2015

Today marks my last day of work at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). 

It has been a most meaningful four years here. When I first came in, I had the impression that the Ministry was an important driver in our economic landscape. But I very quickly realised that our responsibilities were also very much social in nature as we looked after the well being of our people and our workers in so many ways. It was clear to me that our people here in MOM were deeply passionate about their calling and I am grateful that they were there on this journey with me. I learnt much from them and from the many varied and sometimes ‘exciting’ experiences here.

2011 and now

Making a Difference

I always remind my MOM colleagues to never underestimate the difference they can make in the lives of others through their work. From restructuring our economy to be more manpower-lean, to building a skilled local workforce ready for the future, to helping Singaporeans achieve retirement adequacy and uplifting our low-wage workers. These are critical national issues we need to tackle now so that our families and fellow Singaporeans can enjoy a more comfortable future.

There are also many other issues, which spring up from time to time, that affect the lives of many. These include improving the safety and health conditions of our workplaces, safeguarding the well-being of foreign workers and managing labour disputes.  If we do not manage these issues carefully, the best-laid plans we have for the future may never come to fruition. In the Army, I was always mindful that at the tip of every arrow you draw, there is an individual and his team there trying to make things happen, hence, plans must never just be theoretical. I've always tried to make time to be with my MOM colleagues on the ground, whether during inspections or at the call centre, to have a better feel of the issues and to recognise them for their often anonymous hard work.

Four Reflections
I would like to share four reflections. We may not always agree with how the policies have been designed and implemented, but whatever we have done, are doing and will do, will always be, for the benefit of Singaporeans and Singapore, both for today and for the future.

Reflection #1: Doing What is Right – Balancing Different Interests and Never Forgetting the Individuals

There are always trade offs in any organisation. In MOM, we have had to manage very divergent interests which pull in opposite directions and engage multi-faceted interest groups and stakeholders, each one with their own set of demands and needs. Employers would like to have a more expansive manpower approach so that they can have easier access to more manpower. But some Singaporeans feel we are not tight enough and not protecting Singaporeans workers adequately. Some feel that we are overly protective of workers with the changes we have made to the Employment Act and the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act while others feel that we are not doing enough and too pro-business. Some feel that we need to be more flexible with the use of CPF monies while others feel that we have been too lax in allowing uses beyond retirement adequacy needs!

What is the correct answer?

Keeping manpower growth tight is the correct way to go even if companies aren't always happy. We need to be more manpower-lean and productive. Strengthening the Singaporean core approach is more important than taking the seemingly more popular Singaporeans first or only approach. Taking the latter step will hurt our competitiveness and ultimately Singaporeans in terms of our ability to provide good opportunities and jobs for our people.

At the end of the day, Singaporeans must benefit from all that we do. Statistics are not just numbers, there are people and lives behind every data reference points. Unemployment may be low at 3% for citizens but for the person who is unemployed, it is 100% until he gets a job. We may have brought down fatalities to 1.8 per 100,000 but there are still people who will not be returning to their families… these are permanent life-changing effects.

We must never lose sight of the hard choices we have to make and the people who are at the centre of everything.

Reflection #2: Tripartism is a Key Strength

I confess that I did not fully appreciate the importance of strong tripartite relations when I first joined MOM. But soon after, I came to realise that tripartism is really, REALLY very important – it is one major reason accounting for why Singapore has one of the most efficient and effective labour markets in the world. 

I know of some people who seem to have the misimpression that tripartism is not important because industrial relations in Singapore are stable and calm. Employers and the labour movement have legitimate concerns that pull in different directions, in areas such as operating costs and wages.  These are robustly debated, but we are fortunate that the underlying trust between the parties, and the willingness to look at longer-term common interests has led to win-win solutions, rather than gridlocks or divisions.  This is the strength of tripartism in action in Singapore.

Without tripartism, we might not have been able to put in place initiatives which have benefited our low-wage workers so smoothly over the years.  For example, the Progressive Wage Model has been implemented across the security, cleaning and landscaping sectors, which will allow workers in these sectors to enjoy higher starting salaries after completing skills training.

Let us not also forget that from 2011 to 2014, the Workfare Income Supplement Scheme has also seen $2.1 billion being disbursed to 400,000 low-wage Singaporeans in cash as well as CPF contributions.  We have also made it possible for these Singaporeans to benefit from higher CPF interest rate for low balances and similarly for CPF members aged 55 and above. We are constantly working to uplift our low-wage workers, and to ensure that they have access to good career progression opportunities. 

Tripartism support and collaboration had been at the heart of all these efforts, even if it didn't seem obvious.

Reflection #3: Let’s Look After All Our Workers Better

Apart from looking after Singaporeans, we also need to recognise the good work and contributions of hardworking foreigners who come here to make their living. They are an important part of our economy. Many do the work that Singaporeans don't want to do. We can do our part to ensure their well-being and that their experience working here will be as pleasant as possible.

One area that I’m particularly concerned about is whether our workers (both local and foreign) return home safe and sound every day. Since taking office in 2011, the progress on this front has been reassuring.

We introduced important regulations and programmes to arrest the number of injuries, and these initiatives bore fruit this year. As previously mentioned, we managed to lower the fatality rate to an all-time low of 1.8 deaths per 100,000 workers last year, a goal that we were working to achieve by 2018.

The question now is whether we can sustain this – let’s bear in mind that 1.8 means 60 workers lost their lives at work. One life lost is still one life too many and we certainly need to lower it further.

When an accident does happen, workers know that they will be taken care of, as we have increased compensation limits under the Work Injury Compensation Act, including permanent incapacity payouts of up to $218,000.

A recent Workplace Safety and Health inspection at a worksite.

Apart from safety, we have also come down hard on egregious employment practices.

We have enhanced the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act to ensure that errant employers are brought to justice swiftly. We have also increased penalties for effective deterrence. With the implementation of the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act, we are also able to regulate larger dormitories to ensure that basic standards of health, security and facilities are adhered to. This does not mean that those living in other forms of accommodation are left out, as our existing regulations also cover other forms of housing.

Had the opportunity to speak with some of our foreign workers, who were guests at the Migrant Workers Centre’s International Migrants Day celebrations last year.

We have also improved the coverage of the Employment Act. For example, by raising the salary threshold from $2,000 to $2,500, about 150,000 more workers could benefit from working hours-related protection. Now, PMEs earning up to $4,500 will be covered under the general provisions of the EA, including sick leave benefits and protection against unfair dismissal; this will benefit about 300,000 PMEs. We also introduced the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF) and Jobs Bank, with the support of employers and labour movement, which seeks to improve labour market transparency and ensure that companies give due consideration to our Singaporean PMEs before they decide to apply for Employment Passes.

Reflection #4: Dealing with Retirement Adequacy is Not Easy

Enabling Singaporeans to retire more comfortably in their golden years has always been one of our foremost concerns. In this spirit, we have increased CPF contribution rates and salary ceilings, and enhanced CPF Life.

With the help of the CPF Advisory Panel, we’ve also reframed the system to focus on payouts with greater assurance and certainty, and to provide flexibility for lump sum withdrawal at the payout eligibility age. Our low-income retired elderly will also benefit from the Silver Support Scheme, which will be rolled out next year.  But all these measures would not translate to a comfortable retirement unless each of us looks carefully at how we save and prepare for our own retirement. The options are there, but we need to make the best of them. It starts from having the self-discipline to consistently save and prepare for our retirement years.

Spoke about CPF and its role in retirement adequacy, in my Committee of Supply speech this year.

Thank You and All the Best!

Listening in at the MOM Contact Centre earlier this year

To all my colleagues at MOM, thank you for everything. I leave MOM in the good hands of Mr Lim Swee Say, a man I deeply respect and admire. I’m sure that Chun Sing, who takes over Swee Say’s post at NTUC, will continue his good work at NTUC and will ensure that we have a a strong partnership with our unions. I would also like to extend my thanks to Stephen Lee, ex-president of SNEF, as well as current president Robert Yap. Under their leadership, we have a strong and unique tripartite partnership in Singapore to safeguard the welfare of our workers. Together, we will continue to build a better Singapore for Singaporeans.

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