SINGAPORE: Labour Member of Parliament (MP) Zainal Sapari has called for Singapore’s next generation of leaders to tackle inequality aggressively, as he urged ministers to improve the income of low-wage workers.
“The future I would like to see, under our new 4G leadership, is one where a low-wage worker is confident of gaining new skills and earning better wages, sufficient to support his family and aspirations for a better life,” he said in Parliament on Tuesday (May 15).
Mr Zainal was speaking during the debate on the President's Address by Halimah Yacob last week, where she challenged leaders to “tackle inequality vigorously”. This, Mr Zainal said, is one of their “key defining challenges”.
To that end, the Pasir Ris-Punggol MP urged the leaders to think and do things differently, in order to improve the lives of low-wage workers.
“While the real wage increase for workers at and below the 20th percentile has increased because of tripartite efforts … we cannot expect to get better results if we keep on doing the same things,” he said.
“Moving ahead, our 4G leaders must continually think differently to be able to catch and ride on the next `S’ curve of better income growth for low-wage workers.”
Mr Zainal urged 4G leaders to direct industry stakeholders to think about how they can create inclusive growth in each of the 23 Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) under their purview, Mr Zainal said.
Each ITM committee should also contextualise the ITMs to see how they can help vulnerable workers make a future living, he added. This includes identifying skills that will be attainable by the aged or those with low educational qualifications.
“This is important, otherwise we place our vulnerable workers at risk of having the progress made to better their lives amount to nothing in the face of inflation and technological disruptions,” he stated.
WHAT CAN COMPANIES DO?
Moving on to companies, Mr Zainal said they should live up to a sense of social responsibility by being fair and treating their employees, especially rank-and-file workers, better.
This can be done by introducing new policies that focus on encouraging and incentivising companies to have good work culture, he said.
“We have always taken pride in showing that Singaporeans are some of the most productive and highly-skilled workers in the world – yet reports on aspects such as happiness and work-life balance always seem to shed a different light,” he added.
“To me, this is a sign that there is indeed a need for change.”
Mr Zainal cited companies such as Gap, Starbucks and Walmart that have increased revenue by treating their employees better. This, he said, can come in the form of improved pay packages, generous worker benefits and a more positive work environment.
“When workers are happy at work, they become walking ambassadors for these companies, often going beyond the call of service to do a good job,” he explained.
“When companies don’t pay workers enough, everyone pretends they are working. They are not willing to ensure that jobs are carried out as they should be. Companies react by imposing punitive liquidated damages. Service providers are then forced to cut corners.”
The latter situation, Mr Zainal said, creates a “vicious cycle” that involves driving down costs on labour, especially on rank-and-file workers.
“However, labour needs to be … one where work is given the remuneration it is due, when the low-wage workers among us are not merely numbers in a contract, but treated as human beings with dignity and with dreams for themselves,” he added.
QUALITY ECONOMIC GROWTH
In the bigger picture, said Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Trade and Industry Tan Wu Meng, quality economic growth, combined with reinvestment in people and communities, is a “force against inequality”.
“Singapore must never become a society where there is only old wealth, without new enterprise,” he said.
To that end, the Government and businesses should work together to invest in workers and skills, he said, adding that growth can come from workers who have specialist or interdisciplinary skills, or those that create and implement innovative ideas.
“Quality growth is part of the mission of our economic agencies – to create opportunities for young Singaporeans of all backgrounds by growing and transforming our economy,” Dr Tan said.
BEWARE OF RASH CHANGES
However, widening inequality has led Singaporeans to question the belief that they have an equal opportunity to improve their lives and achieve their goals, Potong Pasir MP Sitoh Yih Pin said.
“Meritocracy works well, if the gap between the haves and the have nots is closer. This was indeed the case during the days of our parents and grandparents,” he said. “Now, income inequality is wider. The gap in resources available to families with higher income and those with lower income is stark.”
Still, Mr Sitoh cautioned against rash changes, stating that there must be a “careful calibration of what requires ‘tweaks’ and what should be ‘boldly’ changed”.
“Can the next generation leadership team exercise political leadership to ‘tweak’ or ‘boldly’ slaughter any ‘sacred cows’ where necessary?” he asked.
Nevertheless, Mr Sitoh urged Singaporeans not to give up on values like meritocracy, equal opportunities and self-reliance.
“While the task of ‘tweaks’ or ‘bold’ changes to policies or mechanisms put in place to address inequality is crucial, of equal importance is the need to imbue and inspire the belief amongst Singaporeans,” he said.
“Once any number of Singaporeans loses this belief, social stratification will occur and our social compact will be broken.”