SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed Singapore’s long-term economic prospects, job anxiety, and racial and religious fault lines in a wide-ranging National Day Rally speech on Sunday (Aug 29).
Support for lower-wage workers and responses to growing disquiet over foreign work pass holders were among the new policy and legislative announcements the Prime Minister made in his first rally in two years.
A large part of Mr Lee’s speech was also devoted to addressing racial and religious harmony, which has come to the fore after several race-related incidents over the past year.
Here are the key takeaways:
1. LONGER-TERM ECONOMIC GROWTH
Singapore has survived its “worst economic crisis since independence”. But the country must now take itself off “life support” and change gears to generate new jobs and growth, said Mr Lee.
To do this, Singapore must maintain its status as a business hub, which will mean opening up borders soon and allowing safe travel in and out of the country, he said.
There remains a need to attract investments, with the Economic Development Board having secured a pipeline of projects during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Singapore’s local companies and entrepreneurs must also be nurtured to make their mark in the new global economy.
But while the Government will create conditions for entrepreneurs to succeed, “ultimately, it is their own resolve and resourcefulness which will secure their success”, said the Prime Minister.
2. SUPPORT FOR LOWER-WAGE WORKERS
Mr Lee announced three measures aimed at supporting lower-wage workers.
First, the Progressive Wage Model will be extended to cover more workers. The retail sector will be included from next year, followed by food services and waste management. Specific workers across all sectors, starting with administrative assistants and drivers, will also be covered.
Second, companies that hire foreign workers will be required to pay all their local employees at least a local qualifying salary of S$1,400, expanding the current coverage from only some local employees.
Third, consumers will know which companies are paying their workers “decent wages” via a PW (progressive wage) Mark.
But all this will add to business costs, of which some will be borne by consumers. To this end, Mr Lee urged people to be ready to “pay a little bit more for some of our favourite things”.
“It will not only enable the workers to keep their jobs at higher pay. It will also show that as a society, we value their work and contributions, and that they are part of us,” he said.
3. LACK OF “BASIC JOB PROTECTION” FOR DELIVERY WORKERS
Among lower-wage workers, the Prime Minister singled out delivery workers for special attention, saying that he was especially concerned about this group.
These workers are “for all intents and purposes just like employees”, yet have no employment contracts with the online platforms on which their living depends, he said.
“Therefore they lack the basic job protection that most employees enjoy, like workplace injury compensation, union representation and employer CPF,” said Mr Lee.
As more people are taking up this type of work, the Manpower Ministry is studying the issue and will conduct consultations on it to give these workers more secure futures.
4. TACKLING WORKPLACE DISCRIMINATION
What currently are just guidelines on fair treatment will become enforceable rules that have more “teeth”.
Mr Lee announced on Sunday that Singapore will enshrine the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) guidelines in law to tackle workplace discrimination more effectively.
Although work pass holders are here to complement the local workforce and grow the economy, Mr Lee acknowledged the “growing restlessness” over foreign workers and the sense of competition for jobs that some Singaporeans feel.
However, Mr Lee said that legal redress should be a last recourse, with informal and amicable resolutions to workplace disputes still preferred.
5. NEW LAW ON RACIAL HARMONY
Singapore will introduce a new Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act consolidating the Government’s powers to deal with racial issues.
This comes after strains placed on race relations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tracing the development of Singapore’s multiracial society, the Prime Minister stressed that racial harmony did not happen “spontaneously”, but took “hard work, sacrifice and wisdom”.
While the real solution to racism is to change social attitudes, this takes time and effort, said Mr Lee, adding that legislation can play a role in that process.
The law will include “some softer and gentler touches”, such as “the power to order someone who has caused offence to stop doing it, and to make amends by learning more about the other race and mending ties with them”, said Mr Lee.
“This softer approach will heal hurt, instead of leaving resentment.”
6. NURSES ALLOWED TO WEAR THE TUDUNG
Muslim nurses in the public healthcare sector will be allowed to wear a tudung with their uniforms from November.
The Government had laid the ground for this announcement, with Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in March indicating a likely change in the Government’s stance.
On Sunday, Mr Lee said that after observations of interactions with Muslim women wearing the tudung, the Government was ready to change its position.
“Specifically in hospitals, some of the non-uniformed staff do wear the tudung, and we saw that their relationship with patients and colleagues was alright,” he said.
Calling it a “careful adjustment to keep our racial and religious harmony in good order”, Mr Lee said he hoped the move would be taken in the right spirit.
7. THE “CHINESE PRIVILEGE” DEBATE
In his speech delivered in Mandarin, Mr Lee acknowledged the concessions made by Chinese Singaporeans to foster racial equality and harmony in the early years of nationhood.
They included a shift to adopt English as the nation’s lingua franca so as to “put the ethnic minorities more at ease”, he said.
“The use of English put those who spoke only Mandarin and dialects in a disadvantageous position. Therefore, it is entirely baseless to claim that there is ‘Chinese privilege’ in Singapore,” said the Prime Minister.
But having lived through decades of peace, some Chinese Singaporeans may now take racial harmony for granted and be less sensitive to issues of race, he said.
Raising the challenges that ethnic minorities face when renting homes or looking for jobs in Singapore, Mr Lee drew a distinction between “matters that concern our private lives and personal decisions” and “the common space that all races share and directly affect race relations”.
“If we let the preferences of such employers and homeowners build up over time, they will become prejudice, and minorities will feel they are discriminated against,” said Mr Lee.
“If left unaddressed, such preferences will gradually deepen the fissures in our society. Therefore, all of us must uphold the principle of racial equality to build a more inclusive society.”