Professor Barry Desker believes that Singapore should be prepared to have a minimum wage and allow dual citizenship. He also said that Singaporeans should welcome new citizens.
“Attitudes need to change,” Prof Barry wrote in his opinion piece in The Straits Times.
“We should welcome the presence of new Singaporeans and encourage their integration into Singapore society.
“We should revise our laws to permit dual citizenship, which benefits some who are permanent residents but do not wish to give up the citizenship of their land of birth.
“It would also allow the growing numbers of Singaporeans working abroad to retain their links with Singapore,” he said.
“We should be prepared to adopt a minimum wage policy to protect vulnerable groups in our workforce and to ensure that cheap foreign labour does not displace Singaporeans in their twilight years eking out a living.”
Prof Barry said that a minimum wage should be considered because “The ease with which foreign labour was recruited has resulted in depressed wages for a segment of our population with minimal educational qualifications, unskilled and often in their 50s and 60s.”
But he admitted that even though there have been “calls for the introduction of a minimum wage”, the government has resisted implementing one over the years.
Prof Barry also admitted that the “high levels of economic growth over the past two decades resulted from increases in capital and foreign labour deployed, not from significant productivity increases.”
“However, the unsustainable sharp influx of foreigners granted permanent residence, as well as employment permits, in recent years has resulted in a backlash, making the issue of immigration politically toxic,” he said.
Prof Barry said that as a result, for younger Singaporeans, they are “concerned about competition for university places or preferred jobs”.
“Older Singaporeans worry about the changing environment around them, as they have neighbours with alien languages and different lifestyles.”
However, he felt that “ethnic ghettos in HDB estates have disappeared, as legislation has ensured an ethnic balance”, even as he admitted that “condominiums are beginning to see such ghettos, as new immigrants and expatriates from certain nationalities congregate in preferred locations”.
“The past year has seen rising anti-immigration sentiment in Singapore,” Prof Barry added.
He said that these “views” have been “influenced” by “the pressure placed on Singapore’s infrastructure because of the sharp increase in the number of people residing in Singapore.”
“MRT trains are crowded, hospital beds always full, traffic jams occur frequently, once-quiet parks are filled with foreign workers on weekends.
“The rapid pace of the foreign influx resulted in growing criticism and an undercurrent of resentment reflected in social media sites.”
Prof Barry also said that “the tightening of government policy on foreign workers in recent months” has led to Singaporeans being employed in “restaurants, offices and department stores, for example, cannot rely on cheap foreign labour”.
He asked, “One wonders where these people were employed before the restrictions were imposed.”
“But the reality is that immigration will continue and there will be more foreign labour employed, if low birth rates continue,” Prof Barry continued to say.
But Prof Barry acknowledged the need for a minimum wage as “The pace of change over the past 50 years has left us with a pioneer generation lacking the education and skills to benefit from the transformation that has taken place in Singapore.
He also suggested that the pioneer generation package is not a sustainable solution.
“Ensuring a basic living wage will do more to retain their pride and sense of purpose than handouts as part of a pioneer generation package.”
He also asked, “Do we retain Third World attitudes towards manual labour even as we proclaim ourselves a First World society?”
He felt that “Internet chatter suggests that many in our community are unwilling to recognise that even temporary workers have rights and should be protected.”
Prod Barry pointed to how “The Little India riots last December highlighted the risk of outbreaks of social unrest” and that “A minor dispute in Geylang or Beach Road on weekend nights involving Singaporeans and foreign workers could easily turn nasty.”
He also warned of packing migrant workers into constructed ghettos because “As large self-contained dormitories are built, dissatisfaction on trivial issues could spark a destabilising wave of riots and public commotion.”
Prof Barry also warned the government that “even as we want to focus on big ideas and grand plans for reimagining Singapore, reality will intrude.
“Dealing with such challenges should not be seen as a distraction, but as part of the core test in remaking Singapore to meet the needs of the next generation.”
Prof Barry is a Distinguished Fellow and Bakrie Professor of South-east Asia Policy at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
As such, Prof Barry said that “the possibility of paradigm shifts should not be ignored.
“The emergence of unexpected issues which become the focus of attention by policymakers can be seen in the current debate over the population challenge.”
But he also resigned himself to the knowledge that, “What is striking is how much our imaginations are prisoners of the present.”
Prof Barry is not the first to call for a minimum wage in Singapore. As he pointed out, there has been numerous calls in the past which the government has resisted.
However, Prof Barry’s plea to the government is the latest, as worries about the threat of social rupture has crept in even for the well-heeled who are now finally beginning to worry about how the angry sentiments can impact Singapore’s social landscape.
However, beneath Prof Barry’s plea is also an acknowledgement that the government might be choosing to overlook the social problems, while continuing to believe that it is able to plan for the future, based on old models of thinking. He cautioned the government about its state of denial, and is aware that his plea might just as well fall on deaf ears, as past warnings have as well.
The state of the Singapore economy is in danger, as the government has over-extended its use of cheap labour which has not only resulted in depressed wages and livelihoods of Singaporeans which have suffered, but it also means that Singapore’s productivity is now backwards by more than a decade or so. This would mean at least a decade or more lost in Singapore, depending on when the government wakes up to its broken economic model.
And until then, Singapore and Singaporeans will continue to lose out and by the time a change of mindset in the government, either by a mindset change by the current ruling party, the PAP, or by a change of government, decides to reverse the downward spiral of things, Singaporeans would have to brace themselves for the drastic restructuring to finally take place and one which has been postponed for far too long as the current government lacks the political will to do what is necessary to put Singapore back on track.
But as Prof Barry tacitly acknowledges, any such change might take decades as the PAP is unlikely to change its mindset and neither is it likely to be willing to cede power to another government.