Wednesday, November 28, 2012

SMRT Strike - The National Interest Perspective

Photo: TOC
I was waiting for the various opposition parties like SDP, WP and NSP to issue statements with regards to this SMRT saga but after 48 hours of this incident, none of them have issued any press statement.

The irony is that Workers Party seems to be disinterested in labour issues like this one, least about protecting workers' right regardless of race, sex or nationality. National Solidarity Party is no longer interested to stand in solidarity with the workers' right to point out the flaws of the inadequate labour law we have in Singapore. Most surprisingly of all, the most vocal Singapore Democratic Party which has fought so hard on human rights and democratic issues has been unusually silent when human rights of the drivers were violated when they were forced to have medical check up against their will. 

Most likely, they thought that this is all about foreign workers and have nothing to do with Singaporeans. Furthermore, it is obvious that the PRC drivers were right in claiming unfair and discriminating wage treatment but partisan politicians fear that by acknowledging this simple fact, they may agitate their supporters. This is especially so when anti-FT policy and xenophobia is running all time high in Singapore.

Thus, it is "politically savvy" to stay away from this hot potato! It is quite disappointing indeed.

We Singaporeans do not like strikes or industrial actions, especially those that could cause great inconvenience to us. This applies to a strike in the public transport system like the one we have in SMRT. There are rules and laws to be followed. Many Singaporeans have expressed their anger on why these PRC drivers who went on strike didn't get locked up and charged in court. Apparently, the PAP government is reacting to this pressure now.

While we want preserve our rule of law and our good image as a "stable country with harmonious industrial relationship" in order to attract foreign investors, we must also understand the bigger picture and the implications behind this industrial relationship hiccup. 

Now, take a good look at the above data sheet derived from SMRT on the wages it set for its drivers. What's wrong with it?

It classifies wages according to Nationality. The simple fact that SMRT has classified wages according to Nationality is in itself a discriminating act. It is totally unacceptable.

I have talked about the lack of Anti-discrimination Employment law in Singapore since many years ago. Places like Hong Kong has set up Equal Opportunity Commission to look into complains of discriminating employment practices. In spite of having Anti-discriminating concept written in Singapore's Constitution (Article 12), there is nothing written in our Employment Act that uphold this spirit of Constitution at all. It just stays as a "Highfalutin" idea.

This SMRT strike has put Singapore in a very bad spotlight internationally. It exposes Singapore as a place that condones discrimination in employment. It is in our National interest to right this wrong and opposition parties should be pushing for anti-discrimination employment law! We do not want to be seen as a place that condones modern slavery, do we?

Some Singaporeans may cry foul and argue that why should we treat foreigners equally in employment in Singapore? Why should we give them equal or fair wages?

It is in the interests of our workers to uphold equal and fair wages for foreign workers. PAP and businesses have claimed that they only turn to employing foreign workers because they can't find local Singaporeans to take up the jobs. But is this true?

When you allow businesses to use lower wages to employ foreign workers, just like the case in SMRT, inevitably you will be encouraging them to displace local Singaporeans as much as the FT quota allows! The reason for them to employ foreign workers have changed; it is not due to the difficulties in finding Singaporeans to employ but rather, they are substituting the more expensive Singaporeans to reduce cost!

If we have anti-discrimination law that dictates that everybody will have to be paid on equal terms, then the cost of employment of foreign workers will be higher than employing Singaporeans when government levies are taken into account. This will discourage companies from employing foreign workers indiscriminately just to replace Singaporeans for the sake of cost cutting. Companies will only turn to foreign workers when it is totally necessary because it would incur higher cost. This will align us to the concept of letting companies to employ foreigners if only if they cannot find Singaporeans to do the job.

Thus, insisting equal wage terms for foreign workers will in fact protect Singaporeans from being displaced. This will cut down our over reliance on foreign workers which could become a vital factor in unstablizing our social structure.

So far, both SMRT and PAP government have mismanaged the SMRT Strike quite badly. Apparently they don't understand the PRC's culture well enough. Strikes in China are very common nowadays and they should not be ignorant about that. Unlike Singaporeans, they will fight for their rights when there is a perception of unfairness. Furthermore, PRCs are very Nationalistic in nature.

Well, from the observation of how the PRCs reacted to the DiaoYu Dao dispute, you will see that they will go all out on Nationalistic sentiments. The new Chinese leadership has tried very hard not to be seen as weaklings when it comes to sovereignty issue. Japan is a large country and it may be forgiven for not able to resolve the matter easily.

However, if the PRCs are to be seen as being discriminated and bullied by a little red dot like Singapore, the new Chinese leadership will face even greater pressure and obstacles in establishing  its legitimacy. How would it react?

If the PAP government is to use its usual hard ball political methodology to deal with the PRC drivers in SMRT who went into strike, it would be seen as a "persecution " over discriminating practices. Even if the Chinese leadership does not want to do anything about it, what do you think the common citizens in China would do or react? When Nationality is involved in discrimination, it will no longer be our "internal issue".

It is not in our National interests to endanger the lives of thousands of Singaporeans who are working and doing business in China over some disgraceful discriminating acts of a GLC like SMRT. I have no problem in making sacrifices to defend our land and sovereignty but it would be very silly for us to make sacrifices for the disgraceful discriminating acts of a company which exploited the FT policy for its own benefits.

Some may argue that these PRC drivers should go according to their contracts but when a contract defies good nature practices, breaches natural justice and fairness, it should be viewed as invalid.

On the other hand, SMRT has forced these PRC drivers to be medically examined even though they may have provided Medical Certificates to apply for medical leaves. Such act is unacceptable and has created unnecessary doubts on the professionalism of those doctors who have issued the medical certificates in the first place! Such move has further damaged Singapore's international image and has unnecessarily put our medical doctors on international trial.

SMRT and the authorities should back track, resolve the issue with proper tact. The only way the government could resolve this issue is to handle it FAIRLY and JUSTLY. 

For a start, the government should denounce SMRT's disgraceful discriminating practices and order it to right the wrongs. It could even take a step further to declare that it will look into enacting anti-discrimination laws to protect the rights of workers. It should also review its FT policy as well. On the other hand, it could issue a formal warning or reprimand to the PRC drivers and set up a union or mechanism for them to utilize in future similar event. 

Even if the government chose to charge these PRC drivers in court, the negative impact would be significantly reduced because the SMRT has been dealt with for its discriminating practices. Charging these PRC drivers without addressing the perceived wrongs of discrimination by SMRT would put Singapore in a very bad light internationally and may even ignite anti-Singapore sentiments in China which could put our citizens at risk there. 

SMRT and the PAP government are only concerned about the damages this strike would do to them as in compromising their authority. They should look at the bigger picture on the international impact of this strike. It has far more implications on the good image and reputation of Singapore as a modern country internationally. 

We should not be viewed as country that condones unfair and discriminating practices of exploiting nature. We should not let this saga damages our medical doctors' international standing as well. We have suffered enough as a Nation from the various mishandling of this strike and we should demand PAP government to right the very wrong, the root of the whole problem by enacting Anti-Discrimination laws in our employment act. 

Goh Meng Seng

After Note: Two opposition parties have finally put up their views through press releases on this matter:

Finally the Opposition parties have issued statements regarding the unprecedented strike by SMRT employees.

Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) -

National Solidarity Party (NSP) -

Singapore People's Party (SPP) -


Anonymous said...

I don't understand why you want opposition parties to step on a political landmine that PAP created for itself.

Support the workers and they will be blamed for supporting illegal strikes.

Support the management and they will be blamed for supporting tyranny.

Such crap should be left for PAP to be cleaned up, since they created it in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Yahoo! has reported that the China bus captains have their lodging provided for. This is a cost you should take into account in your non-diserning, one-sided comments. As to the hygiene and cleanliness of the lodging, it should be looked into whether SMRT has given them a place unfit for living, or if it has been their own personal lack of hygiene and laziness that have brought the pests. All in all, their actions have threatened our fragile national economic security supported by foreigners and most political bloggers seemed to have failed to express this obvious. Should chaos and lawlessness break out before someone else speaks out?

Singapore welcomes abiding and respectful contributors. If you can't respect Singapore, go back to where you claim you had a better life.

Anonymous said...

Mr Goh, nice of you to point out the unfair practices. If Singaporean wants fair work pictures, we have to support fair work practices for the foreign guest workers

Anonymous said...

Come out, set your own party and voiced what you said here. Hope that wins you vote into parliament. Are you confident to accept this tasks? Criticise opposition is so easy for you, but you need to understand the root of all these problems lie squarely on pap. Let the problems creator clean up their own shit.

Admin said...

It is misleading to take that lodging and transport into considerations.

Any bus drivers who lived in Singapore will have free transport provided. This is not specially catered for the PRCs. I believe most of the Malaysians live in JB, that is why they have to take their own transport (bikes) to get back home in JB.

Having an accommodation with 8 in a room is bound to give problems. It doesn't cost much for each person, definitely not $700 per person for such accommodation.

If the deal is so good or equal to those Malaysians, why not offer to the Malaysians and save them the trouble of traveling back and fro to JB everyday? Cut their pay and offer free accommodation... do you think they will want that kinds of terms?

Goh Meng Seng

Abao said...

Hi Mr Goh,

Long time no see.

The resultant strike by the China Drivers is proof of managerial failure at all level from State and GLC all the way to the bottom.

The Government is now dealt a bad hand. If they go by the law, they might risk alienating a rising regional power. Yet if they let them off with a warning, they will be setting double standards. The World and Singapore's 2nd class citizens will not take that lightly.

All these could had been avoided had the then Government devised a proper methodology to grow the economy at a more manageable pace.

Anonymous said...

Why not put on the shoes of a Chinese national who tries to find his own lodging?

You would probably understand better how expensive it is to rent an accommodation in Singapore.

If you cannot compromise, be prepared to pay $600 or more for a single room. Many Singaporeans who expect govt to solve all problems won't rent their personal room to a Chinese national.

Many Chinese nationals end up having to share their accommodation with other Chinese nationals. And they still ve to folk out at least $200. Don't expect conditions to be good too as hygiene and considerateness are not their strong trait.

I am just being realistic here. If I am an employer, it wouldn't make sense to pay everyone equally. I will pay the most to the ones with best perceived traits. Should I be wrong about an employee, wouldn't I, out of wanting to keep an efficient guy, pay him more eventually?

The contract stipulated is as such and the Chinese nationals may have reasons to compare, but no rights to strike on basis of contract. By doing so, they could have abused our laws, our culture, our economy, security and livelihood. Have they spared a thought for Singaporean's rights when they decided to strike? So we should now thank them, raise their pay, make them citizens, encourage more security threatening activism, and give them another better paying job to stay here as long as they want so that they can change our peaceful culture?

How can I be misleading when my comments are objective and I urge everyone to see the bigger picture of all this rather than engage in puny bashing and unconstructive blaming.

Admin said...

For your information, HDB provides very cheap accommodation of $160 per person for those who works in Casinos. All these flats are fully furnished with Aircons and such.

If HDB can provide for workers from Casinos, why not the drivers?

I agree that employers should pay according to performance related indicators BUT what SMRT has done, is to benchmark their wage scale ACCORDING TO NATIONALITY!

IF this is done in other developed countries or places in the world, they would have been sued already for discrimination. But Singapore doesn't have such anti-discrimination law.

Goh Meng Seng

Anonymous said...

For your info, many of our own Sporeans live without aircon. So has this become a compare the worst senario with the best and if there's a difference, there's discrimination?

SMRT made an initial benchmark - it has to be based on something. This is not necessary discrimination but it can be on perceived value add and basic economics.

And I am not prepared to say that anything that the international majority votes on is always right. Majority concensus can be wrong. Nations and governments are known to be influenced by corruption, greed, personal interest, popularity standing and image.

Singapore is pragmatic, not perfect, but we are one of the least corrupted country with the least crime rates and while we discern what we can learn from outside, outside has a lot to learn from us for we have a culture that values peace and security.

Thank you for speaking out but I hope you speak out not to vent, bash or change the security of our culture, but for culture's collective good. It's hard but that's fundamental if you want a strong opposition in Spore.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post. A well-written one.

I'm particularly impressed by the benefits of having same wages for locals and foreigners. It's a refreshing insight for me.

However, I think you may be too quick to jump into the conclusion that the SMRT wage system is a discriminatory one.

Yes, the data sheet on the wages could be easily be perceived as discriminatory. It's a bad presentation. Due to the fact that the bus drivers employed came from these three countries, SMRT conveniently use nationality as the main divisions for the presentation.

Unfortunately, it has omitted the justification for the differing wages among the three nationalities. This is a serious mistake. The main difference lies in the lodging and utilities expenses borne by these three groups of employees.

So, for the Chinese, over $220 is more than the $160 given to casino employees because utilities are also included. The differences between Malaysians and Singaporeans are probably due to the differences of lodging and utilities expenses in Malaysia and Singapore.

So, perhaps it would be better if SMRT could present its wage system based on the kinds of lodging and benefits received (e.g. "Company Lodging + Utilities", "Own lodging in Malaysia", "Own lodging in Singapore").

In this respect, I do not agree that we should suggest that the the employment contract of these drivers "defies good nature practices" or "breaches justice and fairness."

This, in turn, relates to another important issue of keeping good faith of the terms of the contract which has been violated by the drivers in the case concerned. Individuals entering into an employment contract sign on the paper with the clear knowledge of the terms offered at a specific point of time. They have to keep their agreement to the contract.

You also seem agitated about the medical check-up issue. And then you jump again, this time to human rights issue. The medical check-up was not done out of no reason. Almost 200 workers claimed to be sick on the same day! How are the MCs given? And you're concerned about the international standing of our medical doctors?! It's more important to right the wrong, isn't it?

Since you're quite familiar with the Chinese culture of today, you might also know that the workers are gradually picking up the habits of using issues such as "anti-discrimination", "human rights" to their advantage, usually using numbers to put pressure on the corporations. They're usually right when they were back home because of the rampant corruption problems in the country. I think what MOM can learn from this episode is to be more watchful of the problems they're facing and also of the responsiveness of their employers to address their complaints promptly.

I'm not too sure about the anti-discriminatory employment law. But what are the drawbacks? Will we be seeing more lawsuits over many subjective issues? Maybe we should have it. I don't know. In any case, as I've explained above, I do not think it's necessary to see the wage system as a discriminatory one, though it is badly presented in the data sheet.

Anonymous 2

mrdes said...

"Some may argue that these PRC drivers should go according to their contracts but when a contract defies good nature practices, breaches natural justice and fairness, it should be viewed as invalid."

It's business, brother, meaning, it's cutthroat...The PRC drivers did agree to the contract terms. But the question here is, ethnically, is the contract fair? Just my opinion: no change to contract term (i.e increment etc) even though there is a change in work week? And on top of that, loss of OT? I really don't know the details of the contract, so I can't comment further on that. I was chatting with my colleagues on how "in" it is in China to have strike, but we, Singaporeans, know all alone, how striking is illegal, and rightly so, the PRC drivers should learn this too...they are on our soil, you know, not the other way round. Cheers!

mrdes said...

pardon my spelling: "all along"