Discriminatory parental benefits – stop giving excuses

There’s nothing to call it but discrimination. The only takeaways from Minister Tharman’s latest justification of our discriminatory laws against parents and children from single-parent families is the usual “support married women who remain in the workforce and raise their children within the context of marriage”. Marriage is laudable and it is to be encouraged, but discriminatory laws and benefits are not the way to do it.

While we acknowledge and appreciate the benefits already dished out to both married and unmarried parents, the visible gap in benefits is a blow to many of Singapore’s children. This bare-faced prejudice will only perpetuate the hate when the children of single parents realise that they have been given second-class citizenship. The rationalised argument of “children still receive equal benefits” is hogwash. My earlier post details the discriminatory gap:

Unmarried mothers (parents) do not receive: Baby Bonus Cash Gift and Child Development Account, 8 weeks of Maternity leave, Paternity leave, Shared parental leave, Parenthood tax rebate, qualifying child relief, handicapped child relief, working mother’s child relief, and grandparent caregiver relief, Foreign Maid Levy Relief, Housing grant for families and Housing priority schemes.

Is the minister trying to tell us that children receive no benefit from these things? That these are only enjoyed by their parents? The children of these parents are not discriminated against at all?

The bogeyman of moral hazard is clearly false – it has been shown time and again that giving better protection to divorcees has not in fact impacted the divorce rate, that giving incentives like the Baby Bonus has not been able to make a dent in the birth rate, that these days, Singaporeans don’t give much thought to government policies when making major family/life choices. But it seems that the G would rather take the moral low ground.

The G clearly has no idea how to win hearts in this context. There are better ways to encourage marriage and to encourage the raising of children. We should not need to scrape the bottom of the policy barrel to punish those who sometimes have little choice in their life circumstances.

If the G wants to appease and support specific (or maybe most) religious sensitivities, then do so within those spheres. Encourage members of those faiths to actively support raising children within the context of marriage and organise resources for them to use. If there are specific secular groups that also support raising children within the context of marriage, they too can enjoy G support for that agenda.

By law, however, we cannot afford to make discrimination official. This will tear at the very fabric of our society that the G claims to be trying to preserve.

Are our pro-family policies fair?

A friend brought up the issue of parental benefits this week and it got me thinking hard about the issue again.

Although the initial conversation was about the relationship between productivity, labour participation and pro-family policies, I noticed that things aren’t all fair or logical.

See, for example, the well-known issue of benefits for children of unmarried parents: Consider this bit of pedantry from MSF, which claims that children get the same benefits whether or not their parents are married. The ministry drew an awkward line to define “benefits” only as those accruing directly to the children, rather than to a parent, as though maternity leave or housing, for example, did not benefit a child).

Unmarried mothers (parents) do not receive: Baby Bonus Cash Gift and Child Development Account, 8 weeks of Maternity leave, Paternity leave, Shared parental leave, Parenthood tax rebate, qualifying child relief, handicapped child relief, working mother’s child relief, and grandparent caregiver relief, Foreign Maid Levy Relief, Housing grant for families and Housing priority schemes.

That’s a LOT of benefits that a child misses out on. I’m sure I haven’t even named them all. When the G withholds these benefits from parents, it is the children that really suffer, which makes all that talk of a level playing field for our children a bit of a twisted truth.

I’ve heard some ideas for easy-to-implement tweaks to make our policies even more family friendly, and not just family friendly – fair and logical.

Fully-shareable parental leave
Because if you can share one week, why not share all the weeks? What’s the difference, really? Sometimes you need that flexibility, and if your employer is okay with it, why not? It will make sure that bad employers don’t give pregnant women the “evil eye”, since they can now foist their TAFEP-breaching prejudices on men as well.

Extending parenthood benefits to single parents
Because people don’t get pregnant out of wedlock just BECAUSE you offer them the same benefits as everyone else. Moral hazard is near to zero. And really, in spite of what MSF says, it’s the kids who suffer the most. That, in my book, is unmeritocratic.

Paid childcare leave
Paid childcare leave that doesn’t increase when you have more kids? That’s the purpose of PCL, right? To take care of your kids. Maybe 4 days for first child, 6 days if you have 2 children, 7 if you have 3, 8 days for 4 and above? It’s not THAT much, and parents will take leave only when they actually only need to.

Classifying stay-at-home-mums and dads as “working”
I’ve got a much more in-depth post about it. Take a look.

Who wants to work forever?

Well I do, and that’s because I like my job. There are others as well who want to keep working for various reasons – avoiding monotony, force of habit, feeling of being valued, financial needs, social reasons… the list goes on.

Singapore’s most visible elderly workers – our cleaners. Photo from https://guanyinmiao.wordpress.com/

The latest report from MOM showed that employment of older workers aged 55-64 has increased from 65% in 2013 to 66.3% this year and, according to a Straits Times report, employent for workers aged between 65 and 69 has risen from 35.2 per cent in 2011 to 38.5 per cent in 2013 it now stands at 41.2%. This is in part due to the tight labour market and also the promotion and enactment of the RRA (Retirement and  Re-employment Act), which came into force in 2012. Now, there is talk about extending the RRA to 67.

Workers can still retire whenever they want, really. But this is a good option for those who do want to stay employed.

The only potential risk from the RRA (considering that we have full employment)? Employers of older workers may (or may not) experience higher healthcare benefit costs and health-related absenteeism. To mitigate this, MOM has cut the CPF contribution rate for this age group by 5%, meaning that the cost burden is passed on to workers. Is this a worthwhile tradeoff?

The target age of 67 was supposed to have been met back in 2003, as part of a decades-old plan to bring into balance Singaporeans’ longer life expectancy, productivity and retirement needs. This is a benchmark that Singapore desperately needs to meet, given the fact that we have scaled back our foreign-sourced population growth plans.

I had the opportunity to ask Heng Chee How (NTUC’s Deputy Secretary General) for his thoughts on what kind of impact we will see form a rising re-employment age.

“The offer and acceptance rates for reemployment in both the public and private sector since the law took effect are both in high 90+%.  That is very encouraging,” he shared, “The Tripartite Committee on the Employability of Older Workers (Tricom) issued an Advisory asking companies to extend the re-employment age ceiling from 65 to 67.  It also asked the Government to provide incentives to firms to do so, and the Government has agreed.”

As to whether there is discrimination against older workers and whether it is true that older workers are less productive, Mr Heng was quick to set the record straight.

“Every age group has its strong performers, average performers and poor performers. The best performers among the mature workers are those who know how to leverage their strengths, experience and networks to best effect.”

“There is ageism in every society. Our strength lies in strong tripartism and effective unionism at workplaces. Together with efforts by like-minded entities like TAFEP (Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices), we have the mechanisms to promote fairness at work and to deal with allegations.”

“Re-employed workers want to be treated fairly and be valued for their performance and contribution, and not be typecast and diminished just on account of their crossing a certain chronological age.  Employers worry whether re-employed workers can keep up their performance, updated skillsets, productivity, health and adaptability.  These are factors that affect a firm’s competitiveness.  Value is created by bringing down barriers of prejudice and negative stereotyping, and by positivity, lifelong learning and active, healthy aging.”

Personally, I see the 5% CPF rate cut as a form of ageism. It seems terrible to think that this should be considered normal – instead I hope to see it as a necessary evil to gt buy-in from employers but it should be reinstated gradually and I hope that the half to one per cent CPF reinstatement for older workers in mid-2015 is part of this journey back to fair employment practices.

Here at Last: Wage Protection for Security Officers

It has been a long-drawn debate between the G, NTUC and security companies and the result has been a long delay in the implementation of NTUC’s Progressive Wage Model (PWM) for Security Officers. I’m glad the wait is over.

The deadlock was broken when the parties in the Security Tripartite Cluster agreed to implement the Progressive Wage Model and the Government announced that it would be implemented as part of the licensing framework for security agencies.

Given that the ruling will only kick in for security agency license renewals after 1 September 2016, the real impact will only be seen several years down the road, but at least it is set in stone.

There has been much confusion (myself included) over whether this constitutes a minimum wage, but it is clearly a far cry from the classic US-style minimum wage, where a single wage is applied across all sectors with little regard for skills and career development concerns. This confusion has resulted in people variously saying that NTUC has had to eat its own words after criticizing suggestions for a US-style minimum wage.

I shamelessly stole this graphic from NTUC and vandalized it – please read.

I shamelessly stole this graphic from NTUC and vandalized it – please read. 

Singapore, like other nations, is clever enough to try and implement sector-based wage protection and integrate it with skills development pathways. This results in more work needing to be done to maintain the system in balance and keep all sectors updated to new developments in technology and knowledge, but it is preferable to the “lazy way” of implementing a classic single minimum wage instead of something like the Progressive Wage Model.

My only gripe is that it is taking forever to implement. Only cleaners and security officers have been covered so far since the PWM was mooted in 2011 (landscaping workers are next). There is plenty of ground to cover.

This is a good interim solution for the security industry and Singapore – wage protection often falls into different forms along a spectrum, with no wage protection at one end (where Singapore used to be) and the collective bargaining of overpowered unions on the other (in nations such as France). With only a fraction of our workforce in unionized companies, it will be a long time before our workers have the awareness required to secure their own rights.

Who do we have to blame for that? Since it is collective bargaining, I guess we only have ourselves to blame.

What makes non-graduates valuable?

I’m really trying NOT to take the mickey out of PM’s NDR, but his section on ITE and Poly grads being successful really threw me off.

First, of course were the promises that the public sector will “place more emphasis on skills and ability” according to the ST report on Page 2. Some talk about merging some non-graduate and graduate tracks and changing the way people get promoted. Sounds like a plan (and perhaps merely a plan), as I have often complained on the hypocrisy of “meritocracy” in the civil service, particularly the different officer schemes in the SAF, and in disciplines where no specialised “degree level” qualification is needed.

A friend of mine, Jin Yao, has already pointed out on his blog how this whole “sell” just comes off as a bunch of hogwash. At this point in our meritocratic decline, I’ll only believe it when I see it. Until then, I take it as simply a political promise. I’m skeptical in this area.

Then he mentioned two things: “hard work” and “upgrading”… and that got me confused. Yes, hard work and continuous self-improvement are critical (and I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt by interpreting it as “self-improvement” rather than “upgrade to a degree”), but the real root of excellence for people in Poly and ITE is 1) respect for their craft and 2) passion for their craft. That then results in people spending hours honing their skills and, to quote an aspiring Pokémon Master, “be the very best. Like no one ever was.”

The new role model for ITE and Poly.

Of course, there’s also the typical lack of any sort of admission of poor governance. PM happily skips to “the solution” without addressing the causes of the problem – his own Government’s long-held policies and values.

How come all three of PM’s examples of non-graduates being given opportunities are from Keppel? Okay, they come from two different Keppel subsidiaries, but this really points to the fact that Keppel is doing well in this area or that the shipbuilding industry really values ability rather than paper qualifications. Seems like you have to join Keppel and do shipbuilding if you want to get anywhere without a degree.

Labour MP Patrick Tay (Nee Soon GRC) recently shared with a small group of influencers that he too was not comfortable with ITEs and Polys constantly boasting about what proportion of their students eventually went on to Poly/Uni, as evidenced by the many posters and advertising campaigns boasting “X% of our students made it to Poly” or “Y out of Z made it to the local university”.

This nonsense has to stop, and the public service is clearly a large part of the problem. Promises are easy to make, but if the public service hasn’t already solved this travesty by now, I don’t fancy their odds in the next couple of years.

Prosecute and extradite NS defaulters? Maybe.

by Daniel Yap

The noose is tightening for NS defaulters, and I fully approve. As one of the major sources of unhappiness in Singapore as far as fair treatment of citizens goes, NS defaulters should be made to pay the piper. It is the law, after all, and a commitment is a commitment – the benefits and responsibilities of permanent residency and citizenship go hand in hand. It is a matter of HONOUR.

According to this CNA report:

Dr Ng said that according to records, no such persons have been granted re-instatement of PR or citizenship. He added that the policy has been progressively tightened such that no NS-liable PR who renounced his PR status in the last decade has been granted approval for work or study.

For former PRs who fail to serve NS, any immediate or future applications for renewal of their parents’ and immediate family members’ Re-Entry Permits may be adversely affected, including curtailment of the Re-Entry Permit.

 

I heartily approve. A full one third of liable PRs shirk their duty – a disturbing trend. Add to that the fact that most non-Singaporeans don’t think that NS is part of the Singaporean identity… and we have a problem.

Even though I’ve long said that PRs, by definition, should not be doing NS, as long as the law exists, it must be applied. I’m not exactly sure about making family members pay for the foolish choices of one man – sometimes the parents are to blame, but sometimes not. It is hard to tell.

I’d love for the ministry to take this two steps further – prosecute and attempt to extradite NS defaulters who have fled to other countries. It seems rather pathetic that we should wait until the perpetrator returns to our shores to start proceedings against him, and most of these people simply choose never to show their faces here again. If we want to send a strong signal that NS is to be taken VERY seriously, especially at the time when the family members receive permanent residency, then we should ultimately go as far as extradition.

In this way we can honour the honourable PRs and citizens who have done their duty to our country.

P1 registration fix is long overdue

My wife and I just registered our son in Henry Park Primary School, which is within 2km of our home. It was a school that I was an ex-student of and, fortuitously, it was also near where we lived (I’ve lived in this area since I was a child). Even at this early stage of registration, the news reports had confirmed that a ballot was required.

The P1 Registration is broken – it flies in the face of meritocracy and is a tear in the fabric of our society. ST’s Sandra Davie has summarised the possible solutions in her piece last week, more comprehensively than I have hoped:

1) Eradicate Phases 2A1, 2A2 and 2B. No more fair-weather alumni and “volunteers” looking for favours.

2) The problem of the clustered “good schools” in wealthy neighbourhoods can be solved by uprooting them and placing them in HDB towns. It is time to tear apart these bastions of misperceived achievement. Alternatively, those who live nearby can be given priority over alumni (though I think this will not work).

Primary Schools are part of our meritocratic education system. They do not need to build a deep individual “culture”. Our society only stands to lose if certain primary schools come out tops in the “reputation” and “school culture” race. Primary education should be the level playing field every meritocratic society needs. Yet now it is a minefield of entitlement.

MOE has yet to make good on its boast that “every school is a good school”. The G’s failure to properly address the elitism still rampant in primary schools makes Heng Swee Keat look like a liar. The institutional way of trying to fix problems with “tweaks” falters in the face of a deep-rooted problem such as this – one reinforced by the basest kinds of kiasuism and one-upmanship. The tuition addiction continues to blight our children’s progress.

It seems that nobody in the ministry has the guts or fortitude to deal decisively with the problem at hand.

My wife (who is not Singaporean) marvelled at some of the literature that nearby primary schools were handing out – how even schools with nearly no accolades to boast about made desperate attempts to list their achievements, as if clutching to a fig leaf in shame, ironically entrenching their positions. How well-regarded schools likewise put their achievements on display, goading “lesser” schools and the ignorant public to play, and lose, the ranking game with them.

Our son’s pre-school teacher gave the most damning advice of all – when we asked her why they were teaching Primary One syllabus at preschool, she matter-of-factly replied that “teachers in primary school don’t have time to help your child keep up. If he falls behind, that will be the end.”

If that is truly the case, then it is the end for all of us.