Younger and more diverse Parliament faces age-old challenge of tackling job issues amid COVID-19

Younger and more diverse Parliament faces age-old challenge of tackling job issues amid COVID-19

Parliament House Arts House collage
The opening of the First Session of the 14th Parliament on Aug 24, 2020 will take place at Parliament House (left) and The Arts House (right). (Photos: Hester Tan, Facebook/The Arts House at The Old Parliament)

SINGAPORE: A younger and more gender-diverse Parliament, which opens on Monday (Aug 24), will have its hands full with one important job in the near future: creating and matching employment opportunities for Singaporeans.

The 14th Parliament will convene in the midst of an economic downturn spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has triggered Singapore’s worst recession since independence and the country’s highest unemployment rate in more than a decade.

Several first-time parliamentarians in the new House, which comprises 83 elected Members of Parliament (MPs) from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), 10 from the opposition Workers’ Party, as well as two Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs), cited the jobs challenge among the key issues they plan to speak about.

READ: Parliament opening to be held at Parliament House and Arts House

Mr Alvin Tan, 40, a first-time MP-elect for the PAP, said he will focus his maiden speech particularly on helping professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) find more opportunities and match them with potential employers.

“What interests me specifically is how we can ensure our workforce is nimble to meet the demands of a COVID-19 world that has accelerated digitalisation and that has come much sooner than any of us expected,” said Mr Tan, who will join the Cabinet as Minister of State from Sep 1.

READ: Four new MPs-elect appointed Ministers of State, including former SAF general Gan Siow Huang

In his previous role as head of public policy and economics at professional networking portal LinkedIn, Mr Tan said he has seen a growing gap between new jobs that have emerged and the skill sets of jobseekers.

Existing schemes like SkillsFuture may also not be enough to bridge the gap between what employers need and what jobseekers can offer, added the Tanjong Pagar Group Representation Constituency (GRC) MP.

“We have schemes like SkillsFuture and Singaporeans are also learning new skills. But how then do you ensure that they are relevant to the job?” said Mr Tan, pointing out that an additional challenge is in ensuring employers are aware of potential employees with the right skill sets.

READ: 1,300 signups for more than 113 courses under SGUnited Skills programme

Another rookie MP who also plans to put the limelight on job concerns - especially the plight of older workers - is former health and social services sector veteran Ng Ling Ling from Ang Mo Kio GRC.

Ms Ng, 48, said the Government’s plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65, as well as the re-employment age from 67 to 70, would enable seniors to stay gainfully employed.

But she added that there is a need to improve social attitudes and workplace culture towards older workers.

Citing a survey that Randstad, a Singapore recruitment agency, released in February which showed only 63 per cent of employees polled felt their workplace “values all employees regardless of age”, Ms Ng said such attitudes were telling of unconscious bias against older workers.

“I think support for job redesign must also look into the softer aspect of work inclusivity of more senior workers. In this area, I think social service agencies and professionals are adept,” Ms Ng told CNA.

“They are good at designing systemic environments and practices that can build the psychosocial wellness of people, bringing in the elements of respect, dignity and empowerment.”

READ: New digitalisation plan for SMEs in training and adult education sector

Mr Leong Mun Wai from the Progress Singapore Party, who will be one of its two NCMPs, said his concerns about jobs are focused on “reworking the balance” between foreigners and Singaporeans in the job market.

He said recent data on the job situation here – particularly news that 43 per cent of senior management roles in the financial sector are held by Singaporeans - is something that “we really have to look into and see how to rectify in the shortest possible time”.

National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser agreed that while jobs will be the most critical topic in Parliament, issues that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the economy’s reliance on foreign labour, might come up.

“How do we make sure that we have a strong Singapore core and not be so dependent on foreign labour?

“We must make sure that Singaporeans must be given the opportunity to be able to be at the forefront of the different sectors in industry, whether that be finance, manufacturing or SMEs (small- and medium-size enterprises),” Dr Tan told CNA.

READ: Some economic bright spots remain for Singapore despite the overall challenging conditions

Topics of debate within Parliament might also traverse other social issues that have come under the spotlight as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

“There is a lot of talk in the press about how COVID-19 has exposed the underbelly of society ... inequality, poverty, social mobility. These are issues that are perennial issues and that have to be addressed,” said Dr Tan.

Singapore Management University (SMU) sociology professor Paulin Tay Straughan thinks one such inequality that may preoccupy this Parliament is the issue of migrant workers, particularly with regards to their living conditions.

“How do we make it better? We are land-scarce, we are also very price-conscious, because the cost component is a very important factor for us, and it’s too arrogant to say, ‘It’s okay, this is a collective decision that things will have to cost more’, because who am I to say that? There are many Singaporeans who are living day to day,” said Prof Straughan.

PREVIOUS “CRISIS” PARLIAMENTS

While the 14th Parliament will sit for the first time in the middle of what Singapore’s leaders have dubbed a “serious crisis” and the country’s worst economic contraction since independence in 1965, it is not the first time that a Singapore Parliament has opened in the midst of a global crisis.

On Monday night, President Halimah Yacob will officiate at the swearing-in ceremony of the MPs and give an address on the Government’s priorities and policies in the new term following the Jul 10 General Election. The House will reconvene later to debate over the address.

CNA analysed the Presidents’ Addresses and subsequent MPs’ debates for all previous Parliaments and found two particular instances where the first sittings of previous Parliaments bore a resemblance to the “crisis” nature of the current time.

In 1977, the first sitting of the 4th Parliament took place on Feb 7, at a time when the world was then stricken by an oil crisis precipitated by a 1973 oil embargo by members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

It was enacted against the US and other countries perceived to be supporting Israel in the Arab-Israeli War and caused a quadrupling of global oil prices by the time the embargo ended in 1974. The economic fallout was felt on a global scale as a recession.

Amid the economic turmoil and also the ongoing Cold War between the US and the then-Soviet Union, the focus of late president Benjamin Sheares’ address was on the existential threat of communism, even while he spoke out against being “overwhelmed by the standards and norms of the contemporary West”.

1977 Presidents' Address in Parliament WordCloud
Keywords used in late president Benjamin Sheares’ 1977 President’s Address at the first sitting of the 4th Parliament. The size of words correspond to how often they are mentioned in the address.

“We have to formulate our way of life, taking what is best from the West and fitting it into the Singapore context. We must not allow our values and our philosophy of what is good government to be overwhelmed by the standards and norms of the contemporary West, regardless of their relevance to our social, economic and political conditions, simply because, for the time being the West have the material abundance and technological superiority,” Dr Sheares was quoted as saying to the 4th Parliament.

In the MPs’ debate that followed, the 69 members of the House spoke about fundamental building blocks of society, particularly education. 

In fact, education was the most mentioned word in the debate on the President’s Address that year, followed closely by “policy” and then only “nation” and “economy”.

Bar chart of debate on words in Presidential Address in 1977
Keywords of the MPs’ debate on the 1977 President’s Address, arranged by frequency.

In March 2002, the 10th Parliament opened in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that happened just months before. The global economy – and Asian economies in particular – were also recovering from economic shocks such as the collapse of the global IT industry in 2001 and the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

Then-president S R Nathan’s address to Parliament placed heavy emphasis on the economy, highlighting increasing global competitiveness that Singapore would have to contend with in sectors like electronics and finance, as well as the need to restructure the economy to sustain growth.

Word chart of Presidential Address 2002
Keywords of late president S R Nathan’s 2002 President’s Address at the first sitting of the 10th Parliament, arranged by frequency.

Mentions of the word “economy” far outstripped any other keyword in his President’s Address that year, with “Asia” and “society” coming in second and third, and only being mentioned less than half the number of times.

“We cannot afford to shelter inefficient, protected sectors in our economy. All parts of our economy must become competitive and efficient, for that is the only way to create productive, well-paying jobs for our people,” Mr Nathan had said in his address.

In the ensuing MPs’ debate, the 10th Parliament had much the same focus, with the top keywords of the debate being “economy”, “jobs” and “workers”.

Word frequency of debate 2002
Keywords of the MPs’ debate on the 2002 President’s Address, arranged by frequency.

The analysis of past Parliament sittings was featured in a news report on Sunday night (Aug 23) as the last of a three-part series on the 14th Parliament, with the first two focused on the age and gender profile of the parliamentarians.

THE YOUNGEST AND MOST GENDER-EQUAL PARLIAMENT

While circumstances in which the 14th Parliament of Singapore opens will bear some resemblance to previous Parliaments, it will differ in two aspects: age and gender.

The newest House is by some accounts the youngest to be sworn in, with the youngest, Ms Raeesah Khan representing Sengkang GRC, only 27 years old.

READ: Commentary: How the Workers’ Party won big this General Election

With the retirement of older members such as 79-year-old former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, the average age of Parliament has fallen from 49.6 to 48.3.

And while that is still above the median age of 42.2 in Singapore, it is the closest that Parliament has got in terms of representing the age demographic of Singaporeans in the past 20 years.

For the WP’s Sengkang GRC MP Jamus Lim, 44, the age of the team might be a benefit in terms of understanding constituents’ concerns. Sengkang has a younger demographic than the national average.

“It helps that we have a young team of our own, facing the sort of challenges young parents face: waking up in the middle of the night to comfort a crying child, looking for school placements, concerns about the highly competitive educational system that our children will face,” said the economics lecturer in a written response to CNA.

Still, Dr Lim added that elderly concerns will not be forgotten, and that the most important contribution that MPs can make is to listen.

“Being a good parliamentary representative is about reflecting these competing concerns and interests adequately,” said Dr Lim.

PAP’s Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Nadia Ahmad Samdin, who at 30 years old is one of the youngest members of the 14th Parliament, said that even when talking about “youth”, there needs to be an awareness of the demographic’s diversity.

“We need to be cognisant that when we talk about youth, the spectrum of youth is broad. There are youth who are still in secondary school and beyond that institutes of higher learning: polytechnics, ITE, universities.

“And then moving beyond that you have fresh graduates and then young parents. So the spectrum is wide, and the needs and concerns of youth are diverse,” she added.

MORE WOMEN IN PARLIAMENT A GOOD SIGN

With gender, the 14th Parliament sets another record: It has the most number of female members since 1965 – 28, including non-constituency MPs.

READ: Singapore to see record number of women enter Parliament after GE2020

Members say that the record number of female lawmakers will help contribute to deeper thinking when it comes to policies that disproportionately affect women.

“It will definitely broaden and also deepen the thinking behind policies that impact women proportionally more.

“And these are issues such as caregiving, elder care, which affects women's lives in a very significant manner. And the fact that we have to face work-care conflict, which is something that bears more attention on the policy making front,” said the PAP’s Ms Carrie Tan, 38, a first-time MP from Nee Soon GRC.

Ms Corrina Lim, Executive Director of gender equality advocacy group AWARE, agreed that the increasing number of female parliamentarians is a positive sign.

And while she hopes that issues such as gender violence or the gender pay gap will see more airtime in Parliament, she also hopes that these issues would not just be confined to the domain of female parliamentarians.

“What we hope not to see is that it then deters male parliamentarians from taking up the same issues because they say, ‘Oh now, you know, this is a female parliamentarian’s area so let them speak on it.’

“We actually hope that that will not be the case,” she said.

Graph of women in Parliament since 1985
Number of female parliamentarians since 1985 to 2020.

Even with the uptick in the number of female lawmakers, Ms Lim cautioned that there still remain significant structural barriers that prevent women from entering the domain of politics.

She pointed out that women are still seen to be the primary caregivers in society, and that an MP’s workload and responsibilities to their constituency would be a further add-on to perhaps already heavy responsibilities to women’s families and careers.

“So unless you have a really good partner or very strong family networks or maybe no caregiving or limited caregiving duties, it is very difficult to be able to do (MP duties).

“So I think it will not be the next election that we will have 50 per cent (female representation) ... I think that there are many other structural barriers that still exist and those could be much more difficult to change,” she said.

Nevertheless, at around 29 per cent of the Parliament, female MPs will take up a larger proportion of the house than they have before, making for a 14th Parliament that is more diverse when it comes to age and gender.

Political analysts like Professor Eugene Tan said such representation is important.

“You add to the legitimacy of Parliament if MPs are seen to be representative of Singapore society as a whole. Because that adds to the ability of Parliament to remain relevant in dealing with the key issues of the day,” said the Singapore Management University law lecturer.

“It is no point Parliament debating and passing laws and policies which are not seen to be representative enough in terms of their benefits and in terms of the impact.

“And so it becomes crucial for Parliament to be representative and that adds to our system of representative democracy in Singapore.”

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Source: CNA/ta

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