Training your rice bowl away

During weekly house visits with my Workers’ Party colleagues last week, a resident related to us a story which gave me a sinking feeling about the future of our workers in Singapore.

He told us that he conducts courses for many unemployed workers undergoing skills upgrading or conversion. He said he had a trainee who was a highly-skilled technician who could not find a job, likely because of his age and the state of the economy at that time. This technician was persuaded to undergo a course to be trained as a security guard. In the end, he completed the course and took up a security job at a fraction of his last drawn salary. A year later, when the economy started to recover, he tried going back to work as a technician again, but found to his dismay that his year “away” made it even more difficult for him to secure a technician job again. The trainer told me that this is a typical story for many workers who undergo so-called “skills conversion” certification courses.

These are workers who used to have relatively stable jobs with a decent pay of $2,500 to $4,000 a month, but have in the last few years been facing drastic pay cuts and retrenchments. What have these workers done to bring this all upon themselves? They have worked hard all their lives to eke out a decent living for their families, only to find themselves chucked aside by a brutally capitalist economy that places profits over people. To rub salt into their wounds, politicians in their ivory towers are constantly chiding them for being choosy, unwilling to upgrade their skills, and even lazy compared to foreign workers. They are then told that foreigners need to be imported by the hundreds of thousands, to provide competition to make them better workers.

Is this the price Singaporeans have to pay for “progress”? Does their citizenship and service to the nation–through their National Service and having struggled to raise children–count for nothing now?

Workers are told to go for ‘upgrading’ so that they can ‘upturn the downturn’. Millions of dollars of taxpayer money is poured into training courses and subsidies for employers to send their workers for training. Training seems to be billed as a panacea to all our nation’s labour problems. But how many of them find themselves in the situation of that technician-turned-security guard? Many more, I think, than our government cares to admit.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

12 thoughts on “Training your rice bowl away”

  1. Hi Gerald,

    1) Nice new picture with a radiant smile! Is that the WP outfit? Looks like it…

    2) It may be helpful to explain the choice of blue as the official WP colour. I can think of “blue-collar” as one of the reasons… Blue has a soothing effect too. (I checked the WP website and the wiki entry but did not find anything. I may have missed the explanation though.) These days marketing and packaging counts for a lot.

    3a) A sample size of one i.e. n=1, is hardly convincing. Is there a way of doing a rigourous study to conclude how common is the anecdote you shared?

    3b) I’m not sure if MoM will have a research result that will support your observation, and hence, the suggestion to do a research study. Given the shortage of manpower and funds in WP, perhaps you can work with an undergrad (e.g. a WP Youth wing member) to do a (limited but) rigourous study on the topic for his/her final year project (FYP)? The hypothesis can be as simple as “Job retraining helps the individual worker.”

    3c) I’m not sure if there is a professor ballsy enough to advise the FYP though. It is a potential career-ender if the results turn out the wrong way.

    An Old Friend

  2. Time is ripe for an overthrow of the decadent regime with first a mental revolution of Singaporean followed closely with a ‘hot’ ballot box revolution.

  3. Interesting article.
    U know what?
    Instead of re-employing the Singaporean technician, our employers will look for overseas talent.

  4. why the pap allow “perfect competition” in the labour market. to supress wages is one main reason. to ensure singapore to remain competitive, so that companies will not shift out.

    however, having such liberal labour policy has caused much hardships to the average sigaporeans. those reside in the ivory tower don’t face such pressure. it is a huge cost to pay for inorder to maintain competitive. why should the pap be so selfish and short-sighted? policies can be implemented over a long period so that the citizens can absorbed the stress gradually. why should pap turn on the fire so drastically?

  5. Old Friend – Thanks! No it’s just my blue office shirt. I’m not sure why WP is sky blue, but your guess about ‘blue-collar’ representing workers sounds plausible.

    Yes, this blog post is by no means a research study, although your research idea sounds good. Let me ask around. If you know of anyone interested to take up this research, do let me know too.

    George – You’re right. Singaporeans need to want change before we can have change.

    question – It seems the PAP wants everyone to have competition, except themselves. I’d like to see Lee Hsien Loong compete against Bill Clinton and see who wins.

  6. Wholly agree this is a significant problem facing the Singapore workforce. I’m curious – what’s your solution?

  7. I have this notion when they say household income or worker income, it does not carry the same meaning as before because that income is far less stable today that it was a decade ago. So when Minister Mah put forth his argument that the HDB is affordable because household income has increased – among the many flaws with that argument is the income has also become less stable.

  8. A concerned mother – There is no silver bullet to solve this. The first step is for the PAP to acknowledge that this is a significant problem, rather than simply dismissing it as being due to workers’ inflexibility or choosiness.

    Having worked before in a company that conducts training courses, I am sceptical about the benefit of classroom training. It is very expensive but with very little tangible benefits. And employers know it.

    One possible solution is to redesign jobs for older workers. Mechanise processes, so there isn’t so much carrying of heavy stuff. Or simple things like having computer monitors with extra large fonts. Work redesign should receive more govt subsidies.

    There should be more funding for on-the-job training (OJT) rather than classroom training. Give subsidies to companies to take in lower-skilled workers and invest time and money to train them on the job. This is far more effective and productive than sending them to classes to learn theory.

    We should also study the possibility of introducing anti-discrimination legislation. From my house visits, I gather there are many older people and minorities who complain of discrimination based on age or race. It’s no point ‘encouraging’ employers to do the right thing. It might well be that introducing an anti-discrimination law could eliminate a reasonably large percentage of discrimination cases.

    I will elaborate more on my solutions in a later post. In the meantime, feel free to critique my solutions so far.

    Lucky – Hazel Poa from Reform Party had a good post on housing prices and affordability:

  9. What had been said is indeed true and correct. Many middle aged Singaporeans find themselves at the cross road of “not being that old” neither “not that young”. Many Employers are reluctant to employ such aged group for fearing of not being “fit enough” or proactive enough to make swift changes. To make thing become more tragic …these are the people with the most burdens …Flat mortage payment …ever increasing family expenses ..etc…etc; I’m really saddened by these phenomena.

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