Low-Wage Singaporeans: Their Story through the Cleaners

by singaporearmchaircritic

In 2010, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this when asked about Singapore’s widening income inequality, “What really matters is whether we can benefit the low income Singaporeans so that they can have a decent standard of living and hope for a better future, for themselves and their children.” [1]

No other workers have languished at the bottom of the pay scale as the cleaners in Singapore. Have they really benefited from our government policies?

Evidence shows that the wages of our cleaners had actually shrunken over the years, even without taking inflation into account.

From 1996 to 2006, the median monthly starting pay of cleaners and labourers fell a hefty 30% from $860 to $600. That of office cleaners fell by $50 to $500 over the same period. [2]

In 2000, the median gross wage for cleaners and labourers was $1,277; it fell to $960 by 2010. [3]

These long term trends are corroborated by anecdotal accounts.


  • Madam Aishah Mohamed Yunos, in her 30s, toiled every day at four blocks in a Bukit Panjang housing estate. For wiping walls and lifts, and sweeping and mopping floors, she took home a paltry $400 each month and had not had a pay rise in two years. [4]
  • Madam P. Devi, 60, earned $500 cleaning offices towards the end of the 1990s. Years later in 2007, she made $440 a month cleaning a mall in Holland Village. [5]


  • Mrs Chan, 57, worked for the same employer from 1999 to 2008, during which her gross pay climbed from $700 to $750. Her medical fees were not reimbursed and she had to pay for her own transport when commuting from one work site to another. She worked five and a half days officially, but ended her work between 2.00pm and 4.00pm on Saturdays.


  • Mr Lau, 64, worked 12-hour shifts six days a week. He said, “When there are many cleaners, they tell me I don’t need to come to work for a few days…and I also don’t get paid for those days.” His pay was also docked when he fell sick. [6]


  • Mr Johari, 44, had a starting basic pay of $900 in the early 1990s as a cleaner in an industrial building. Two decades later in 2012, his earnings dropped to $650 per month. [7]
  • Mr Ng Peng Sian, 63, had no pay rise since 2007. He cleaned two HDB blocks for six hours a day and had two days off a month. [8]
  • Madam Norshiah Ibrahim, 60, had a monthly pay of $1,200 in 1999. In 2012, she made $850 a month for cleaning three HDB blocks between 7am to noon every day. [9]

Not only were our cleaners paid a paltry sum, they could also be easily displaced by foreign workers. In 2010, MP Ong Ah Heng (Nee Soon Central) gave this account in parliament:

I know of one family who complain the cleaners in their precinct are lazy and too old. They don’t want local workers who are old, they want young foreign workers… To satisfy the demand, I changed the local workers to foreign workers. Foreign workers are not a burden to us… Without foreign workers, things will be worse. [10]

I urge our government to take a long hard look at these Singaporeans with hardly any job security to speak of. Can they really enjoy a “decent standard of living” in our increasingly expensive Singapore?

Doing a lot for the Needy: Really?

When asked about government help for the needy, PM Lee said, “We are not doing badly. We do a lot for them.” [11]

In spite of doing “a lot” for the impoverished, figures cited in ST reports show that the number of low-wage Singaporeans had hardly changed over two decades.

More than two decades ago, in 1991, there were 290,000 Singaporean full-time workers who earned $600 and below a month. [12]

Last year, there were 270,000 Singaporeans who collected a monthly pay of less than $1,000. [13]

What exactly has the government been doing to help low-wage workers?

Browsing through hundreds of Straits Times reports from 1990, the words that kept appearing are “training”, “skills upgrading”, and a host of schemes with fancy names such as “Workfare,” “Jobs Credit,” “Job Re-creation Programme,” and so on.

How effective are these schemes?


Former NMP Siew Kum Hong had pointed out that the maximum cash payment allowed under Workfare was just a niggardly $67 per month per worker. [14]

Workfare was also linked to Medisave. This instantly disqualified those whose employers did not make Medisave contributions.

Said Madam Chan Wau Har who held a few temporary jobs that did not pay Medisave, “You think I don’t want to get a proper job? You think I don’t want to have Medisave? … I’ve tried so hard, but I’m old and uneducated, no employer wants me. [15]

The way Workfare was paid out was also highly questionable.

Hairstylist Pout Moi Eng earned $1,300 and received $540 a year from Workfare, out of which $437 was paid into CPF and $103 in cash. She asked, “What can you do with a hundred dollars these days, especially since it will be paid in two instalments?” [16]

As if the payout was not scanty enough, some MPs suggested tying Workfare to training. In 2007, Minister of State Heng Chee How and Parliamentary Secretary (National Development) Maliki Osman urged to make it mandatory for Workfare recipients to use a portion to pay for skills upgrading courses. [17]

Public Assistance:

Singapore’s help system had installed “endless levels of safeguards” to prevent abuse.

So much so that when the government relaxed the criteria to allow more to apply for public assistance, there were only 11 successful cases over 17 months between July 2008 and December 2009. [18]

According to a ST report, “A recent poverty simulation exercise by a Community Development Council showed that applicants looking for state help to get jobs … could end up going through seven rounds of formal filing without finding a job.” [19]

The government’s fear of cultivating a welfare mentality runs counter to findings that Singaporeans are generally self-reliant. [20]

Economist Song Seng Wun nailed it when he commented on the government’s approach to social welfare: “You’re trying to turn social welfare into an exact science, and it’s impossible because some will slip through, some simply don’t know how to claim the money and there’s no one to help them.” [21]

Job Re-creation Programme:

Since the launch of the Job Re-creation Programme (JRP) in 2003, the government claimed that jobs in education, security and cleaning had been “redesigned” and made more productive so that they paid job holders at least $1,000 a month. [22]

How far had the JRP helped to boost the wages of low income workers?

The answer may be found in labour chief Lim Swee Say’s revelations in 2010:

Today, there are still about 200,000 to 300,000 low-wage workers in Singapore. Why are their wages so low? Because their skills are low, their productivity is low. Why? Because in the last 20, 30 years we never paid attention to their jobs. We never thought about how to redesign, how to re-create their jobs … [23]

Last year, NTUC again embarked on the onerous task to raise the wages of 10,000 cleaners to at least $1,000 by 2015. [24]

Still No Minimum Wages

If the bouts of training and numerous schemes over two decades had done so little in lifting the wages of the low-income Singaporeans, then perhaps the solution lies in what our government has been avoiding like the plague all these years, i.e. to legislate and implement a minimum wage, and to reduce the influx of low-wage foreign workers.

But a minimum wage was and is still a big no-no to our government.

In 2006, PM Lee stressed that there are three things Singapore must not do to help low-income workers. They are: “have a minimum wage, keep out foreigners and subsidize individual consumption.” [25]

Hence when Hong Kong legislated a minimum wage in July 2010, the Singapore government, our toothless union and employers went on the offensive and reiterated their stance against setting a minimum wage in a slew of ST reports:

  • Workfare does a better job, 2 Sep 2010;
  • Minister states stance against minimum wage, 14 Sep 2010;
  • Minimum wage an ‘easy solution,’ says Swee Say, 1 Oct 2010;
  • Minimum wage policy won’t work: Employers, labour chief, 13 Oct 2010;
  • ILO warms to NTUC’s labour ways, 13 Oct 2010;
  • SNEF on why minimum wage won’t work, 13 Oct 2010;
  • Minimum skills, not minimum wage, 18 Nov 2010;
  • Workfare better than minimum wages: PM, 29 Nov 2010;
  • Minimum wage, maximum attention, 13 Jan 2011;
  • NTUC chief opposes minimum wage, 13 Jan 2011;
  • Why Workfare is better than a minimum wage, 13 Jan 2011

Then came the bold proposal by Economist Lim Chong Yah, who suggested to raise the pay of workers earning $1,500 by 50% over three years; give smaller pay increases to those earning $1,500 to less than $15,000; and freeze the wage of those earning $15,000 and above for three years. [26]

Prof Lim’s proposal was endorsed by unnamed unionists, one of whom told ST that the plan was “a real morale booster” and “long overdue.” [27]

NTU labour economist Chew Soon Beng urged the government to give serious thought over Prof Lim’s proposal:

We have been, as a country and a society, talking about raising the wages of our low-income Singaporeans for so long, but so far, no results. So we should think about the proposal raised by Prof Lim. We should be seriously assessing it and not just saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. [28]

Our PM, however, hammered the final nail in the coffin when he said in his 2012 May Day speech that the proposal wouldn’t work and “could make things worse for workers in the long run”. [29]

Over-Reliance on Cheap Foreign Labour

If a minimum wage is not an option, then what about cutting the influx of low-wage foreign workers?

This seems unlikely too, going by the Population White Paper with its 6.9 million population target.

Experts had long cautioned about the costs of huge inflows of cheap foreign labour.

Back in 1992, NUS economist Dr Hui Weng Tat talked about the cost of foreign labour: “It inhibits the restructuring of our economy from labour-intensive to higher value-added… it also discourages companies from training their local workers.” [30]

This was echoed by Lim Swee Say in 2006, “We are so overly reliant on [low-skilled foreign workers] in some areas that we have neglected the need to upgrade, restructure the job and industry,” adding that they “kept wages low in these industries.” [31]

Mr Sinnakaruppan, a unionist, was more forthright. He said in 1996, “Employer look at the economics. They take whoever comes cheaper; it does not matter whether they are local or foreign.” [32]

And foreign workers were indeed cheaper. In 2001, for instance, 80% of the workers employed by voluntary welfare organizations – health-care attendants, general workers and nursing aides – were foreigners who earned between $250 to $450 a month depending on their skill level. In 2006, even with the foreign workers levy, foreign workers were still cheaper to hire than locals. [33]

Today, as we mull over our Singaporean identity and the rights and responsibilities attached to it, the words of a ST editor, written in 1996, are worth quoting at length:

… if we agree with the Prime Minister that Singapore is not just a marketplace but also Our Home and Extended Family, then being a born-in-Singapore Singaporean who has laboured for as long as the history of Singapore must surely command a premium… In his hour of need, he deserves a special consideration if he is not to feel marginalized by the 350,000 foreign workers here, and by the 25,000 foreigners taking up permanent residence here every year. [34]

As Singapore celebrates its 48th birthday, the way forward to a truly inclusive society is perhaps to ask ourselves what more can we do for low-wage Singaporeans, instead of claiming that we had already done “a lot” for them.

Economist Yeoh Lam Keong made a compelling argument when he proposed to identify a basket of essential good and services as the base of an index for a minimum standard of living to better ascertain who the needy are and what aid they require:

We are in a strong fiscal position and if any country in the world can afford to find a better solution in dealing with this growing income-divide, it is Singapore. [35]

This article first appeared on The Online Citizen

References (all sources are from Straits Times unless otherwise stated)

  1. Singapore doing a lot to help needy: PM, 28 Mar 2010
  2. S’pore’s dirty secret, 28 Jul 2007
  3. Mindset change needed to help low-wage workers, 7 Feb 2012
  4. S’pore’s dirty secret, 28 Jul 2007
  5. S’pore’s dirty secret, 28 Jul 2007
  6. “It’s no good being a contract worker. I get no benefits, no bonus and when the recession comes, I’m the first to go,” 4 Jan 2009
  7. Mindset change needed to help low-wage workers, 7 Feb 2012
  8. Dirty secrets of the cleaning industry, 31 Mar 2012
  9. Dirty secrets of the cleaning industry, 31 Mar 2012
  10. MPs worried about foreign worker levy, 3 Mar 2010, emphasis mine
  11. Singapore doing a lot to help needy: PM, 28 Mar 2010
  12. MP’s figures inaccurate, 19 Mar 1991
  13. A fair deal for low-wage workers, 30 Jun 2012
  14. Low-wage workers; Silent soldiers: They work hard, but still face hardship. Singapore’s vulnerable communities, 19 Nov 2011
  15. Concerns over Workfare Bonus eligibility, 27 Jan 2007
  16. Is too much payout going into CPF? 17 Feb 2007
  17. Call to link training to Workfare scheme, 2 Mar 2007
  18. Widening the safety net – the faster the better, 18 Mar 2010
  19. Widening the safety net – the faster the better, 18 Mar 2010
  20. S’poreans more self-reliant than believed, 4 May 2009; Uplifting the working poor, 16 Apr 2010
  21. Concerns over Workfare Bonus eligibility, 27 Jan 2007
  22. Target of skills upgrading plan: $500 pay hike, 3 May 2007
  23. ESC panel offers ideas on productivity, 3 Jul 2010
  24. NTUC to raise wages for cleaners, 22 Jun 2012
  25. 3 don’ts in helping the low income, 14 Nov 2006
  26. Wage–fix proposal too much of a shock, 20 Apr 2012
  27. Wage hike not cost-free: Swee Say, 14 Apr 2012
  28. Wage–fix proposal too much of a shock, 20 Apr 2012
  29. Prof’s wage proposal won’t work, says PM, 2 May 2012
  30. Older workers caught in low-skill, low-wage cycle, 6 May 1992
  31. Foreign workers a help but the low-skilled keep wages down, 31 Aug 2006
  32. Balancing the interests of local and foreign workers, 4 May 1996
  33. Low pay, still they work hard, 19 Jul 2001; Retired? No, instead think – rehired, 11 Nov 2006
  34. Sonny Yap, Yuppies dream, older workers hope for the best, 21 Aug 1996
  35. Economist call for a remaking of social safety net, 2 Feb 2008