Unemployment insurance worth studying further: MP Patrick Tay

Unemployment insurance worth studying further: MP Patrick Tay

Labour MP Patrick Tay shares why he thinks there is value in doing an in-depth study on unemployment insurance, and his struggle with allowing workers access to CPF to pay for such an insurance, on 938LIVE's On The Record.

SINGAPORE: He has fought crime as a police inspector. He is a lawyer by training, and he’s now fighting for workers’ rights.

Since being introduced as a candidate for the PAP in the 2011 General Election, Mr Patrick Tay, the Assistant Secretary-General of NTUC, has made headlines as one of the most vocal champions of professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) in Singapore – from getting more of them covered by the Employment Act, to getting help to the PMETs who face retrenchments today.

He went “On the Record” with 938LIVE’s Bharati Jagdish about the issues he cares about, and making sure that the Singaporean core in the labour force is truly strengthened, and his stint as a store hand at a FairPrice outlet.

Patrick Tay: Before I was enlisted into National Service, after my A-Levels, I had three months available and some of my friends were working in the NTUC FairPrice supermarket. So I joined them and became one of the store hands, then called a store assistant, on a part-time basis.

It was a good experience; it was my first time doing real work, for pay, and in a way it wasn't just spending time, but also getting to know people and getting to understand how a supermarket works. At the same time also giving myself good exercise – because I was preparing for National Service, and I had to carry heavy loads - three, four 24-can drink cartons.

Bharati Jagdish: You came from a middle income family.

Tay: I would say I belong to the middle-lower income group. My dad had me when he was not very young, and he had suffered a few heart attacks. So he had to retire pretty early.

He was a storekeeper in one of these companies which now no longer exist in Singapore. He worked at Pasir Panjang, and he was a storekeeper. Because of his heart problems, he had to retire very early and had a few other major operations. My mum was a housewife.

Bharati: Who took care of the finances then?

Tay: My mum had to, after he left work. He retired when I was in Secondary One. My mum became a part-time postwoman, so that helped to supplement income. Since secondary school, I belonged to the lower income group; and it was tough, trying to make ends meet and living with the bare minimum.

Fortunately before my dad passed on later on, when I was in university, we managed to pay off our 4-room HDB flat in Bedok. Since secondary school, I survived on bursaries and scholarships. In fact, I did this for all my life, all the way till university.

Bharati: What does it feel like now, to be in the position that you're in and making all this money as an MP?

Tay: I don’t see it as making money as a politician. It’s about much more than that. It’s about serving. I think in a way, because of the upbringing as well as my education, I had a lot of opportunities. I was serving in the civil service in the Singapore Police Force (SPF). I was quite happy when I got the local scholarship, and I did law in NUS from '91 to '95. And after, I had the opportunity to get a job, and I chose the police service specifically.


Bharati: Why?

Tay: It was my childhood ambition to be a police officer. I can’t really explain why. I started out in the police and I completed my bond, and I was quite blessed and fortunate to be given a lot of opportunities to move up the ranks through hard work and sheer diligence.

Bharati: What was it like serving in the STAR (Special Tactics and Rescue) unit? I understand you were the commander of the unit for a while.

Tay: It's a very high-strung, high-stress, high-demand job. We work very closely in a team. So we did a variety of operations, which are not convenient to divulge.

Bharati: All classified?

Tay: Not all. Some were featured on the programme, Crime Watch. I appeared on Crime Watch on a few occasions to talk about some cases. They were very tense, high-risk operations.

Bharati: What sorts of cases did you deal with?

Tay: Cases involving highly-armed criminals, and cases where we have intelligence of threat or high-threat, high-risk kinds of criminals who possess firearms, even grenades or some other ammunition or firearms. So it's more criminal situations, whether it's criminal hostage situations or highly-armed and dangerous criminals.

Bharati: Why did you not continue in the police?

Tay: I had a six-year bond with the police force, and after completing the bond, I was considering my options. Having studied law for my first and second degrees, I wanted to come out to practice law and, lo and behold, I knew some of my friends, in fact grassroots friends, were from the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

They said: "Patrick, you have a legal background and you have been doing grassroots work since secondary school days, so why don't give a shot in the labour movement?" So I said: "Yup, here I am, let's see whether I can survive in the labour movement."

It’s been 15 years since.

Bharati: What do you miss most about being in the police?

Tay: I think it's the excitement and the adrenaline of some of these high-risk operations where it could last 36 hours, 72 hours, and you have to be ready at the go. But in many ways, the job in the police has put me in good stead. Having to do a lot of thinking on the feet, reacting, responding to high-risk incidents, I think, increased my threshold for stress as well as danger.

Sometimes when I reminisce about some of the things that I used to do, I kind of wonder how I did it. That kind of training is really risky. I used to jump off planes, and buildings and helicopters.


Bharati: Why did you want to enter politics?

Tay: When the party leadership spoke to me, I had been quite deeply involved in both the grassroots movement and labour movement. The party leadership felt that I could take what I was doing to a national level and come forward. So that's when I thought long and hard, and I decided to come forward to serve.

Bharati: What fulfils you most about the work you do today?

Tay: I think the key thing that keeps me alive, awake and enjoying my work is looking after the interests and welfare of workers. Really fighting for workers keeps me going. If you look at what I studied, the areas in which I used to serve, there's one common thread: I'm one who wants to fight for fairness and justice, be it having studied law or being in the police, something I wanted to do since I was a kid, and now in the labour movement.

That keeps me going, the ability to look after and fight for the rights and interests of those who need help.

Bharati: What is the reason for your drive, to look more closely at the welfare of PMETs in particular?

Tay: When I joined NTUC in 2002, it was the start of a few major downturns in Singapore. One was the dotcom bubble, as well as the SARS episode where we had a downturn in 2003. Subsequently the subprime crisis in 2008-2009.

So in the course of that first eight to 10 years, I noticed two things: First, that many of these downturns were increasingly affecting professionals, managers and executives. That's the growing trend. And despite some minor changes in the law in the early 2000s, there was little that the union could do for PMETs.

Rank and file unions, because of prohibitions in the law, could not collectively represent professionals, managers and executives. As I was working in the unions and going out to do outreach and recruiting new members and working with the union leaders and being involved in collective bargaining and negotiations, it was quite frustrating. When I spoke to PMEs, they would come and look at me and say: "So what can you do for me as a union?" I felt both anger and frustration that we could not help because of certain restrictions in the law.

Bharati: The assumption is that those who earn more, or who are better-educated, can fight for their own rights or handle such issues better. But that’s not really the case. I know that in recent years things have changed partly because you made an effort. PMETs earning up to S$4,500, I understand, are now covered under the Employment Act. But shouldn't all of us be covered?

Tay: Yes. I recall very vividly during my introduction as a PAP candidate in April 2011, the media asked me: "Patrick, if there's one thing that you think you need to change if you enter politics or enter Parliament, what would it be?"

I said very clearly, in no uncertain terms, that I wanted to change the employment and labour laws so that PMEs can be better protected. So since my opening speech till today, I've been lobbying very hard. Changes in the Employment Act took effect on Apr 1, 2013, and then last year on Apr 1, 2015, the Industrial Relations Act was changed to allow unions to collectively bargain for, or collectively represent, PMEs.

So I think it's a journey. I think this year we are expecting the Employment Claims Tribunal to come into effect in the later part of the year. So that's one step further to allow PMEs, regardless of salary, to deal with employment-related claims. They will be protected by this tribunal for salary as well contractual claims. After the Industrial Relations Act changes, actually all PMEs can be covered, except of course at a very senior level where there might be a conflict of interest.

But otherwise, now actually, through the labour movement we can cover almost all PMEs.


Bharati: Over the years, a lot has been said about unions in Singapore. There is a tripartite arrangement, but some employees feel that the authorities in the unions are working more to accommodate the interests of the employers, rather than to accommodate the interests of the workers, or to fight for the interests of the workers. What do you have to say to people who feel that the union doesn't really fight enough for workers' rights, but often gives employers greater latitude? It’s a fine balance, isn’t it?

Tay: You're right, it's a very fine balance. It's also a challenge for the tripartite partners because Singapore does not have natural resources and we rely almost totally on investments, particularly foreign direct investments (FDIs). So when our labour laws were introduced in 1968, they were very pro-business.

But things have changed in the last three to five years. We have moved through giving more latitude to unions as well as changing many of the employment laws including the upcoming setup of the Employment Claims Tribunal. It’s a marked change. And also a variety of other policy measures, for example, the Fair Consideration Framework.

Bharati: We’ll talk more about the Fair Consideration Framework in a while, but lots of things look really good on paper, in theory. But in practice, how challenging is it to really make things happen? For instance, if we talk about, paternity leave for dads, it's on paper but do dads really feel like they can take paternity leave, especially at a time like this when people are getting retrenched left, right and centre? And companies actually can have their way with employees.

Tay: I think there are four things. Everyone has to play a role, not just the tripartite partners, not just the employers, not just the Government, not just the unions and workers themselves, but also society. So all four have to play their respective parts. I think society must be more willing and open to accept this culture.

Dad with kid file photo

Don't sneer at someone who leaves on the dot because he wants to look after his young children, or take them back from childcare and look after them. Secondly, of course, employers. Employers have to be nudged and be encouraged. Workers themselves, whether they're proactive about it, whether they want to come forward and report their employers, whether they want to really take a stand and prioritise what they're doing.

So I think it's very important.

Bharati: But do workers feel like they can stand up for their rights at a time like this, without losing their jobs? Also, businesses going through a hard time might say workers really should not be making demands.

Tay: I think it's important for employees and workers to step up. In bad cases, they may need to whistle-blow so that at least some sort of arrangement can be worked out. I don't know whether it's because of this Asian culture or mindset, many fear prejudice or being victimised, so they don't want to come up forward.

I think they need to step up if they're aggrieved or suffer some form of harassment. That’s the good thing about having union leaders, and being in a unionised environment. At least you have someone to be a listening ear, and also to be able to be your advocate.


Bharati: Recently, the tripartite alliance released guidelines for more humane, responsible retrenchment procedures. In the past, we’ve seen guidelines for wages, handling an ageing workforce. Why are these just non-binding guidelines and not legislation?

Tay: In the labour movement, we too ask that. I think legislation will be the last straw that breaks the camel's back, because once it's legislated, by law you need to comply with it. But I think of course at the other spectrum, it is to not do anything at all. So, in the middle now, we have this system of guidelines. We do have tripartite guidelines, and the guidelines are always the starting platform where we try to encourage companies to do it.

Bharati: But why have guidelines when you can have laws. Do you really trust companies to follow guidelines that are not legally binding?

Tay: Firstly, for example, the reemployment laws. It started out as guidelines from the Tripartite Committee on older workers. We encourage, but at some point of time if it doesn't work, it doesn't go down well, we may pass a law like the reemployment law.
Bharati: But why wait to see whether or not it works. Why not just say: "This is the law and you have to follow it."
Tay: If it's a law, and if you look at the profile of Singapore, 70 per cent of our companies are actually SMEs, and many are micro SMEs - they could be very small with one to five staff. If you pass a law, everyone has to comply whether it's a big corporation, which maybe does not affect them that much, or a very small company. Everything that is prescribed there, they probably have to follow like a hard-letter law. Then they’ll have to deal with compliance costs.

Bharati: But shouldn’t companies, regardless of their size, be fair to workers? If they’re a small company, the compliance procedures would be simpler. So once again, it feels as if you’re sending the message that if the company has to respect workers’ rights, the company will lose.

Tay: No, we have to tell companies that if they don’t respect rights, there is a chance that no-one will want to work for them.

Bharati: But in an environment where workers are being retrenched, they’re likely to take any job, possibly even in companies that have questionable labour practices.

Tay: That's where the union plays a role. Unionised companies do follow the guidelines and non-unionised ones, we watch closely. As industrial relations practitioners, we do outreach, like doing retrenchments fairly and professionally. I think if the company is really recalcitrant, we will need to take them to task. We may need to publicly shame them.

Also in a way, though they're guidelines, these have a kind of quasi-legislative effect. There have been quite a number of instances where cases were escalated, for example, to the Ministry of Manpower where we actually refer to the National Wages Council (NWC) guidelines to try to resolve wage issues and to get the companies to comply with them.

In the past five years, we’ve had many cases that were escalated to the Industrial Arbitration Court presided by Justice Chan Seng Onn. He actually passed judgements and made decisions based on the guidelines quite rigorously.

Bharati: So since it has that effect, why not just make them laws, in which case, you might get greater compliance from the get-go? Why this unwillingness to make it legislation?

Tay: I think it looks back to the balance that we try to achieve, not making it too rigid. I think we try to educate and encourage. That's been our approach. I think at some point of time, if there is a declining adoption of these guidelines, then alarm bells will ring and we may have to legislate.

Bharati: But why so unwilling to legislate from the get-go?

Tay: When I spoke to an Australian lawyer working in a foreign law firm in Singapore, he shared that in Australia, they have employment laws and labour laws for everything. Everything is legislated. So when he came to Singapore seven, eight years back, he was quite puzzled why in Singapore we have these guidelines, why not legislation straight away? Recently, I met him and he said he had a change of heart.

Bharati: Why?

Tay: His point was that, yes, you can legislate everything, but at the end of the day, you end up having to set up many systems and structures to ensure enforcement. So, having to have departments to ensure every single company complies and having multiple watchdogs to make sure everybody complies to the law, in order to have a deterrent effect.

Here, we get a unanimous consensus and also, he observed that in Singapore, there's a very strong tripartite relationship, which is “uniquely Singapore”, unlike many other parts of the world. So I think he thinks that helps.

Companies end up having to set up compliance departments and watchdogs internally, and some are big so there might be multiple operations in multiple jurisdictions or even multiple geographical locations, and there you have issues of compliance and also authorities having to set up big institutions to really watch and enforce.

It's a fine balance and we try to achieve this with different mechanisms – guidelines, unions, tripartite alliances.


Bharati: You, like many other experts and Government officials have brought up issues of underemployment and unemployment several times. Older workers continue to face problems getting back into the workforce in spite of TAFEP (Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices) guidelines. What do you think needs to be done about ageism? Perhaps legislation is in order there.

elderly worker
File photo of an elderly worker in Singapore. (Photo: TODAY)

Tay: I agree with you. Because we do meet many of these mature PMEs that come to us, I don't rule out that there's some form of ageism amongst employers. I wouldn't want to hide that problem under the carpet.

But on the whole, I think employers realise and are beginning to acknowledge the fact that we have an ageing workforce, and we have a very tight labour market. So you had better change your paradigms, shift your mental models, redesign your jobs, because this is the harsh reality. So yes, there are small groups of employers who do have some form of age bias. But we also have, at the other end of the spectrum, employers who are very enlightened and open.

Bharati: But what do you think can be done about the groups that are not so enlightened? They are the problem.

Tay: It's going to be constant communication and outreach.

Bharati: But whether they are working is a different issue.

Tay: The circumstances are such that they will have no choice. So I hope employers out there will realise that it impacts not just the MNCs, but also the SMEs and the micro SMEs. The SMEs are realising the very tight labour crunch in Singapore, so they have to maximise their workforce; they have to reconfigure, transform, change mindsets, redesign jobs in the work place, because that's going to be the new world order.


Bharati: Some of the opposition MPs and opposition parties have brought up the issue of unemployment insurance or benefits as a safety net for retrenched workers. You mentioned unemployment insurance in Parliament as well earlier this year, saying the Government should study it. However, since then, we've heard members of the Government say this isn't the way to go. What are your feelings about unemployment insurance at this stage?

Patrick Tay on unemployment insurance

Tay: I did say we should do a detailed study on it to see whether it's really feasible and doable.

I, myself, did a double- and triple-take on it, and looked at the various jurisdictions around the world that have embarked on unemployment insurance. But then I asked myself three questions: First, who's going to pay the premium? Because someone has to pay some form of premium. Will it be a situation where those who think that they may lose their job end up paying the premiums and signing on to this scheme? Because if I have a stable job and don't think I will be losing my job in the near future, frankly, why should I pay premiums and subsidise someone next to me who is more vulnerable?

The other question that also begets an answer is: How long should we give this support? For one month, for three months, six months, a year, or indefinitely? And of course, the third question: How much of the pay-out should it be?

Bharati: While there may be questions about the nature of any such scheme and people may point out the negative effects, several analysts have pointed out that there are negative effects to not having this type of safety net.

For instance, Walter Theseira, an economist, pointed out that the absence of such social safety acts can actually impose significant costs on the economy, as it encourages workers to choose less risky career paths, or to make less risky investment decisions, which could also mean, he says, that entrepreneurship, moving into innovative and new industries, might be discouraged. Others have pointed out that the absence of unemployment support might also encourage workers to take on any job, even if it means taking a job that is a bad fit.

Tay: Yes, so I think it is important to have a series of measures. Of course socially if they are really in a prolonged unemployment situation, we have our social support systems through our Social Services Office. And, of course, at the local level through the various help schemes. On a national level, we have, under Adapt and Grow, the Career Support Programme and a series of professional conversion programs.

Bharati: So have you changed your mind about unemployment insurance?

Tay: I'm still thinking hard about it, and weighing the pros and cons. We should look at whether unemployment insurance is the way to go. I still think a detailed study is required, and of course the economic and financial impact, if we ever have a publicly-run scheme.

How much, who has to pay for it, and how it impacts the individual, the companies as well as the country as a whole.

Bharati: So look at it more closely before we come to a conclusion. Some have also pointed out that if there were a public unemployment insurance scheme, companies may retrench employees more easily knowing they have a safety net.

Tay: Yes, but we shouldn’t rule it out. However, we do have to learn from the mistakes of many parts of the world. So far, most of the countries have found that it has saddled them in many ways, in terms of budget deficits and everything else. But as I said, we don't throw it into the sea.

Bharati: We don't have to do it the way they did. There could be a Singapore model. Have you thought of anything that might work for us, better than the European model?

Tay: Yeah, it’ll probably be a very unique hybrid, but those three questions still bounce back at me each time I think of it.


Bharati: What about using one's own CPF funds, temporarily, until one gets a job then they can pay it back?

Tay: I think the answer has always been the CPF is for your retirement nest egg.

Bharati: Yeah, but If I don't have money today to pay the bills, why should I even be thinking of retirement?

Tay: Locally that's why we have the local support schemes, and through MSF’s Social Services Office. As Members of Parliament (MPs), we've helped a few of these cases where they were really at their wits' ends. We have a series of various forms of local ComCare help.

Bharati: ComCare does help, but people have to apply for it, people who are already in a dire state, whereas there are others, who may not be at that stage yet, but are facing this daily stress and worry. Plus, we should remember that ComCare help is also financed by taxpayers’ money, so it is still a cost borne by the people, just as unemployment insurance would be. So wouldn't allowing them some form of autonomy, in terms of how they use their funds, their own CPF funds, help to some extent?

Tay: I wrestle with that. To a certain extent, of course, it may be good. But again it goes back to the three questions. If there's a retrenchment, it hits every worker, from a low-wage worker, to someone who's earning a very big 5-figure salary. So his lifestyle, his cost of living, his quality of life and things are very much different. It's a big spectrum. So how much is enough? If we allow too much, then everyone would go for the maximum draw out. Too little, then it won't really help someone who is really severely in debt or may have mortgages at risk. So it's back to that question of how much to sustain them.

Bharati: Do you think this is something that should be studied further, just as unemployment insurance ...

Tay: It’s something worth studying so that we can provide more clarity, whether in fact it's feasible, and what is its economical impact, at a personal, employer-business as well as on the national level. Unemployment insurance is worth studying further, more than CPF, as we use our CPF for various things such as housing as well.


Bharati: You have made suggestions recently as well, with regard to strengthening the Singaporean core among the PMET workforce. Do you think the Government made a mistake of letting foreign PMETs into Singapore to do jobs that Singaporeans could do, or could have been trained to do?

Tay: We wanted to attract a lot of foreign investments. And because of that, many of the MNCs and big corporations that came to Singapore said they required a lot of the expertise of many of such foreign manpower. I think through various forms of justification, they have managed to bring in people, saying that we don't have enough Singaporeans to fill those jobs.

Bharati: Do you think the Government should have put a stop to it right from the start?

Tay: I do see in certain sectors, in certain job groups, there are actually some skills gaps. It could be a skills gap, or it could be a gap in terms of expertise and experience. For example, if you need someone who does compliance in certain parts of the world, for example in Europe, or Eastern Europe, or even the US, Canada, you take time to train someone or you need to get that someone in to pass all that knowledge to someone so that you know.

So that's where it became large numbers, I think prior to 2009, and therefore, in a way it created quite a bit of problem. And that's why in 2011 when I entered Parliament, I started lobbying for labour market testing. In August 2011, speaking on this publicly, I said that we should do more to strengthen the Singaporean core to remove nationality bias.

Since then, I think the Government took a very hard look at this issue, in particular the foreign PMEs. Since then, the Fair Consideration Framework came to pass, as well as the National Jobs Bank, to provide more transparency. But I think I've not relented on my efforts.

Bharati: Things like the Fair Consideration Framework and the National Jobs Bank, again, look good in theory, but in practice, are they really working? I think you have said as well recently that this needs to be tested too, to make sure it's more than just window dressing.

Tay: Yeah, exactly. So there are 63,000 jobs today in the National Jobs Bank. Whether employers just put it there for the sake of putting it there, taking it like lip-service or window-dressing, that's my worry. So I did lobby and advocate that we need to do a double-click into it, to see ...

Bharati: How exactly?

Tay: Really pay close attention to companies. Because actually, the Ministry of Manpower has data. They know how many Employment Passes they have issued to various companies. So I think that the Minister of Manpower has publicly said that he's paying close attention to the companies where they have a weak Singaporean core and also a weak commitment to hire and develop Singaporeans.

I'm paying very close attention to this, and will be monitoring this very closely. There are also rules to make it harder for such companies to renew Employment Passes or get new ones.

Bharati: However, do you think that considering that we are seeing an ageing population, Singaporeans need to be open to accepting more foreign workers?

Tay: I feel there is to be a balance. I still firmly believe that if there are jobs that Singaporeans can fill, and we can find Singaporeans to fill them, they should be filled by Singaporeans. It's only as a last resort that if they really need some form of very specialised or highly niche skills, which a Singaporean can't do, then we can allow a foreign PME to fill them. That's my firm belief.

So it's really now for companies and businesses to transform themselves, to basically embrace the change before the change embraces them. And at the same time, workers have to really upskill, deep-skill, multi-skill, second-skill themselves.


Bharati: Have you ever thought of the possibility of your being in the same position that some PMETs are in today, underemployed or unemployed?

Tay: Definitely, I question myself.

Bharati: So you don't believe that your political status as an MP, or in the future, as a former MP, will offer you protection?

Tay: No. I think the political position can change anytime. Personally, I don't think so. But I think it will be my ability to value-add to whichever organisation I go into. Of course that's hypothetical. But I think it's the skills, the abilities, the capabilities, and of course experience depending on which industry you're going to, that is the most important.

Definitely, I also need to pick up a second skill. But fortunately, I do have some second skills. You know I served in the Singapore Police Force, so in terms of security, in terms of high-risk scenarios, security management, I think that's one other skill that I have. So I'm still continuously trying to upgrade and unlearn and relearn.

Bharati: What are some of the things you are trying to learn?

Girls coding class
Girls sit around a table during a class on coding. (Photo: Linette Lim)

Teenage girls at a free FinTech coding camp organised by nonprofit 21C Girls. (Photo: Linette Lim)

Tay: Computing skills. I think gone are the days where you just know Word, PowerPoint and Excel. Now you have coding, so I think one key thing which I will use my Skills Future Credit for is to pick up some knowledge and skills in the Internet of Things, the structuring of technology. I think financial technology (FinTech) is something which is quite in. That's something I am also doing quite a bit of reading up on, to understand some of these things to ensure I stay really relevant and resilient.

Bharati: Would you say there's no room for passion anymore in terms of how we choose our jobs and what we do? We really need to be very pragmatic.

Tay: I beg to differ. I think because of this changing global economic, as well as employment landscape, I think now we have a lot of startups, there are new opportunities and new areas which many of us could never have fathomed many years ago. So in a way, it's a journey.

There are three things of course - your personal interest and passion, the skills, and the job. The jobs and the positions available, how to marry these three so that you can put them all in a single line and develop a deep passion for the things you're doing.

Bharati: You just have to broaden your passions.

Tay: Yes.

Bharati: In your current job, what is the most challenging part of convincing employers that they should look after the rights of workers?

Tay: I think it's to let them appreciate that it's a win-win. Because at the end of the day, who brings them the profits, who brings them the business? Who ensures the company survives? It's your workers. So if you don't even look after your staff and workers, don't expect to make the money and to be a going concern.

Source: CNA/kk