Monday, October 19, 2009

Lesser mortals should not hire foreign workers

From No cap to employers' liability for foreign domestic worker's medical bills: MOM,

Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Manpower Ministry, Hawazi Daipi, said: "Employers who make the decision to bring foreign workers in Singapore would bear the cost of their care. Otherwise hospitals will run deficits which are ultimately paid for by the taxpayer."

only to be followed by

On whether part of the foreign maid levy could go towards paying for any excess beyond the maximum liability, MOM said as with other taxes collected, the levy is part of government revenue and not earmarked for specific expenditure.

Who exactly is the taxpayer again? If you call a tax, a levy, it is not a tax any more? So we ignore the upfront cost to the "levy-payers" but fret about the "ultimate" cost to the "taxpayer"?

Translation: I earn a million bucks a year. My helper's medical cost is not likely to bankrupt me. Good luck to the lesser mortals who earn so little. If you have the audacity to hire a foreign domestic worker, then you die is your business. The levy is just compensation for marring the landscape and polluting the air.

We welcome you bringing in high class foreigners though. We even allocated millions to help them "integrate". We love them deep deep, even though their income tax on average is barely more than the FDW levy, but because it is a tax, which is probably earmarked for something, rather than a levy, which is earmarked for nothing.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Remember this ex-PR?

While the blogosphere fumes about Zhang Yuan Yuan, I would like to remind readers, the plight of another ex-PR, Ryan Goh. You can read about his story here at It ought to be something inconsequential, a worker fighting for better pay, but the company happen to be one near and dear to the MM, and the union in question happen to be the only one in Singapore not under NTUC control. And so Ryan Goh pays the price for meddling with the wrong union in the wrong company by getting his PR revoked, and worse yet, permanently barred from entering Singapore, which is a death sentence to his career as a pilot in the region.

For a lot of people fuming about Zhang Yuan Yuan, I guess they lack a little understanding on what a Singapore PR really is. There is nothing permanent in PRship. If a PR leaves Singapore for whatever reason, the PRship is subject to renewal upon re-entry. The PRship itself is subject to renewal every 8 years, if I recall correctly. In other words, it is just a longer term employment permit with a glorified name. However, it does comes with almost all citizenship perks, including CPF, subsidised public education, subsidised healthcare, rights to buy HDB flats. Although second generation male PRs are expected to serve National Service, it is optional. The male PR can choose to give up the PRship and leave Singapore for a few years. The male citizen, in contrast, will be placed on a leash from 11 years of age via travel restrictions to prevent him from escaping NS, and the leash gets shorter as he approaches 18. If a citizen still manages to escape and he will become a fugitive, to be arrested upon re-entering Singapore.

In other words, we expect little loyalty from PRs, and in Ryan Goh's case, we offer little loyalty to PRs as well. So the correct thing to be upset about, is not which country PRs pledge their allegiance; after all, they are still citizens of another country. The correct question to ask, is why Singapore offer PRs near citizenship privileges. It is almost as though we do not want them to be citizens, and maybe that is exactly the intention. As Ryan Goh's case shows, it is much easier to fix a troublesome PR than a troublesome citizen.

Monday, October 12, 2009

While Singapore government procrastinates, Singapore runs the risk of serious tensions

I had been speaking up against Singapore's foreign talent policies since the late 90s, starting with NUS forums.

In those days, the foreign talent policies were really felt only by the Engineering and Science faculties and some hostelites, and I was called xenophobe and nazi by people who did not experience it first hand and had no idea what I was talking about.

On graduation, I chose to work in IT, and over the years, I had been at the forefront of the impacts of the foreign talent policies. I continued to speak up, and as usual, the sectors of Singapore that did not see many foreigners, continued to give me labels.

Then suddenly, Singapore's open door policy picked up pace, and the presence of foreigners can now be felt everywhere, and mainstream opinion swings from one extreme to the other overnight.

From early on, I recognised the problem was with the government's foreign talent policy, not the foreigners themselves.

I had been room mate, project mate, co worker, vendor, teacher (in my years teaching in a polytechnic), and now an employer, of foreigners.

I had also seriously considered migration. I recognise the challenges a foreigner faces in a foreign land. I also recognise the value a talented foreigner can bring, not just to the nation as a whole, but also to the company I work for and my own personal well being.

The problem is with Singapore government's bipolar schizophrenic policies. You cannot use two rulebooks for two groups of people living in the same country, and not expect to have problems.

If Singapore desires to attract foreigner to stay here long term and eventually become citizens, then it is a no-brainer to believe that the best foreign talent policy has to start with a good citizenship policy.

But yet there are too many sacred cows in Singapore's citizenship policies that Singapore would rather choose to piss off both Singaporeans and foreigners than to address seriously.

1) National Service

The Prime Minister recognises that imposing NS on new citizens will scare them away. Well, imposing NS on the children of new citizens and PR will also scare them away. If foreigners are spared the unpleasantness of NS, why impose it on Singaporeans? Does Singapore really need a massive conscript army? If we have no choice but to stick with NS, then I think it is only logical that those who serve NS should be entitled to significant privileges. In Israel for example, Israeli citizens of Arab descent are exempt from military service, but many choose to do so or they will have significant difficulties with their job hunting. Some would no doubt say this amounts to discrimination against the foreigners, and it is a tough choice to make. But left as it is, we have to tolerate NS discriminating against citizens and potentially harm a citizen's employment opportunities. As long as the Singapore government shy away from this tough decision, the citizens will resent the foreigners. The foreigners will feel the resentment, and for them, staying put long term in Singapore will never be attractive, not to mention the NS liabilities they will bring on their sons.

2) Education subsidies

At every fee hike in the local universities, one of the usual justification is that undergraduates unfairly consume a disproportionate share of the Education budget. That's a fair statement, until you encounter the foreigners who are 100% subsidized, given a living allowance and are given privileged admission to local hostels.
Are they not enjoying an even more disproportionate share of the education budget? Clearly, there are two rules being applied. Tough choices to be made, but the Education Ministry prefers to bury their head in the sand.

3) Employer CPF

If Employer CPF contribution is such a good thing, then everybody should enjoy it. If it is bad for foreigners, it must be bad for citizens too. So why do we exempt some foreigners from "enjoying" the employer's CPF? Why do we create a system that makes Singaporeans more costly to hire and retain?

4) Subsidised healthcare?

Subsidised healthcare in Singapore is a saddening joke. Take a look at the B2 wards, the most subsidised wards in public hospitals. They are not free, and you may have to be put through means testing to qualify for a bed.

It is almost as though the hospitals went out of their way to design an experience as painful as possible to the patients, presumably for unfairly consuming an excessive portion of the healthcare budget. Not only are beds constantly in shortage, no air-conditioning (with dubious cost savings to partition out a non-airconditioned wards in an otherwise fully air conditioned hospital) and worse yet, deliberately limiting the attention the patients can receive from doctors and nurses, to better be "fair" customers in the A wards who pay more. This is not subsidised healthcare. It is substandard healthcare. Would foreigners envy citizens for this "privilege"? I doubt so.

5) Overcrowding

The Singapore government has uncharacteristically mismanaged the overcrowding situation. The number of foreigners Singapore brings in is in precise control of the government, and yet it has failed to ensure there is adequate transport and housing for the new immigrants. The transport end can be partially explained by the Nicoll Highway collapse that delayed significantly the completion of the Circle Line. But more importantly, the vestiges of the rules barring Singapore bus services from competing with the rail services (to guarantee the viability of SMRT) still exists. Worse still, both bus companies also operate rail services, which will prevent them from seriously competing against rail services. LTA needs to seriously buck up and stop procrastinating from making tough decisions, and stop the fake competition between SBS and SMRT.

6) Singapore's treatment of migrant workers

It is an understatement to stay that we can treat the migrant workers a lot better. (I define migrant workers as the category of workers who attract a foreign worker levy). Unfortunately, the Ministry of Manpower turns a blind eye to the near abusive conditions the migrant workers are made to live in. One would think that after collecting the hefty foreign worker levy, the Manpower Ministry should do a lot more to ensure that the migrant workers have proper shelter, transport, wages get paid on time, and in general, not be easy targets for scams. When we tolerate such abuses, not only do our souls die a little, but think about the strata of Singaporeans who have to compete for jobs with the migrant workers who gets paid little, transported like cargo and live in crammed quarters. And I'm sure for some migrant workers, they are always hungrier than Singaporean. As in starving hungry. When we tolerate bad treatment for the migrant workers, Singaporeans get hurt too. Who wants to hire Singaporeans when there are truckloads of migrant workers who can be kicked around?

For foreigners, Singapore citizenship is totally unattractive, and Singapore will always be a stepping stone. Unless we choose to create a new citizenship class that permanently exempts them and their descendants from the unattractive aspects of Singapore citizenship, only those with no choice elsewhere will want to stay. Singapore will become a dirt trap of foreigners, keeping the scum while the best will move on.

As for Singaporeans, most can tolerate the situation now... as long as we have a job. But if citizen unemployment rises significantly or if wages fail to keep pace with the costs of living rocketing up due to resource competition with foreigners, I fear the unease with foreigners will turn into full blown irrational anger and start directing that anger at foreigners, and it is not going to do anybody any good.

Remember, the racial riots of Singapore's yesteryears were also conflicts between locals and new immigrants.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Foreign worker levy is a fine

I have just received a letter informing me that I have to raise insurance coverage for my domestic helper. In principle, it is a good thing. I always saw it as a privilege to hire a live-in helper at a low rate, and I always find ways to pay more to my helper whenever I can afford it. I especially do not mind paying more for my helper's insurance, and I am glad I do not have to fret if I should give my helper a day off without making her wear a chastity belt. You see, the Singapore government, in their infinite wisdom, has decided it is no longer necessary to fine employers $5000 if their domestic helper get pregnant. I have no idea what employers do to be in compliance previously. Chastity belts, birth control pills or abortion pills? As a Catholic hiring a Catholic, my only option is chastity belt, but these stuff are kind of hard to acquire in a otherwise unbarbaric Singapore.

No longer needing to find a chastity belt, I have the free time to wonder about another barbaric rule by the Singapore government: the foreigner work and domestic worker levy. Why do we have to pay $170 (or more) levy a month to hire a domestic worker? To protect Singaporean workers? I am not sure how many Singaporeans compete for jobs with workers whose income attracts the foreign worker levy, but if the objective is to protect Singaporean workers, then it would only be logical to apply it to ALL foreigners, not just the lowest income workers? Why impose a tax against foreigners who do not compete with Singaporeans while giving a free pass to foreigners who do compete with Singaporeans?

Maybe it is an income tax then? At these rates, the taxes on the lowest income workers are easily around 35%, and are probably the steepest taxes imposed worldwide on the lowest income. On the one hand, Singapore is in danger of being a tax haven for the rich, but yet singles out the poor for high taxes. If we did not know Singapore government to be whiter than white, we would mistakenly think they are a reverse Robin Hood, robbing the poor to give to the rich.

For the steep taxes, one would expect some serious government services for such foreign workers. Then why do I have to pay for my helper's medical insurance and 6 monthly health inspection fee. She cannot make use of the services of our polyclinics. And if the worker absconds, would the government help? No. If the worker dies, would the government foot the costs to transport the body back home? No! The employer has to cover that. The government offers absolutely no services for the levied foreign worker, whatsoever, except for the privilege to work in Singapore.

So the logical conclusion is that it is a fine. It is a crime to hire someone who fails to qualify a higher work permit, and you get fined monthly.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

So Singtel wins the BPL rights

After losing the BBC channels, and apparently lacklustre take up of their Football Frenzy package, Singtel was forced to make a decision on the viability of mioTV. Instead of cutting loss, they have decided to double down and take the fight to Starhub.

Instead of letting Starhub win the bid at their threshold of pain, Singtel probably bid so high that they are going to bleed seriously for at least a year as they have to keep prices low enough to get customers to switch.

But a giant like Singtel can afford to bleed, for years, and it is the right strategy for a corporate giant to corner the market. After all, neither MDA nor the Competition Commission seem to care. When Starhub becomes a marginalised player like M1, Singtel will be free to charge as they please.

Whoever wins, the Singaporean consumer loses. MDA CEO will still collect his million dollar pay cheque.