Speaking for the “Singaporeans First” Hiring Policy

by singaporearmchaircritic

In my first job after graduation in the 1990s, I worked in a multinational corporation that was a microcosm of a truly cosmopolitan city. My colleagues came from all over the world: from the U.S., the U.K., New Zealand, Australia, Latin America, Japan, Philippines, and neighboring Malaysia. Nonetheless, the core group of employees was still Singaporeans of various ethnicities, who filled not just junior positions but top and middle management positions as well.

My gross salary then was not inclusive of employer CPF contribution. When I requested for a pay raise after working for a year, my Singaporean boss not only consented; he also offered the same increment to a foreigner doing the same work as I, whom he thought was just as deserving. My boss did not show favoritism or discriminate based on nationality, but nonetheless because of the increase in employer CPF contribution in accordance with my pay raise, my total income was still higher than my foreign colleague’s.

Today I work in a local organization that is staffed predominantly by foreigners of one nationality and ethnicity. The clerical and support positions are still filled by Singaporeans but we are the minority in positions at my level and above. My boss is a foreigner and the human resource manager is a Singaporean. My foreign colleagues and I holding the same position are paid roughly the same gross salary, but today my gross salary is inclusive of employer CPF contribution.

Such a pay structure disadvantages the Singapore citizen in many ways. For one, regardless of my performance at work and how it measures up to my foreign colleagues’, my gross salary will be automatically cut once I reach 51 years old when the employer CPF contribution rate falls by two percentage points to 14%.

Furthermore, should my foreign colleague become a PR or citizen, my employer would have to make CPF contributions based on his current gross salary. This means my colleague will get an automatic, hefty pay increment of 16% that the average Singapore worker can only dream of (the average salary increase for Singapore workers in 2013 is less than 5%).

Is this discrimination against Singaporeans? How many Singaporeans are in the same boat as I?

Speaking from my own experience, therefore, I think employment discrimination against Singaporeans is a very real issue.

How pervasive the problem is cannot be determined unless the Ministry of Manpower releases the relevant information and statistics it surely has at hand. That, however, does not mean one should adopt a cavalier attitude towards the issue by dismissing the anecdotal evidence supplied by employees who have encountered discrimination.

Moreover, if our government and its mouthpiece can make a complete volte-face on the “Singaporeans First” policy in a matter of months, we can be quite sure that employment discrimination against Singaporeans is a serious problem. And one that is grave enough to warrant the introduction of a Fair Consideration Framework (FCF).

On the Internet, however, there are still (heated) debates over how rightful it is to put Singaporeans first. Proponents of the pro-Singaporean policy cite the vulnerability of job security for Singaporeans, often using anecdotal evidence to illustrate how we have encountered discrimination in a largely unregulated labor market. Opponents argue that foreigners are equally susceptible to discrimination and question claims of rampant discrimination against Singaporeans in the absence of statistical evidence.

Both camps have made valid points. Till today, pro-capitalist Singapore has no independent trade union, no minimum wages, and no legislation against discriminatory practice in hiring. Even if not “rampant” or rife, exploitation and abuse of labor – from the poorly paid blue-collar worker to the overworked PMET, foreigners and Singaporeans alike – are commonplace.

On this count, I am with those who advocate labor protection laws to safeguard the interests of all workers in Singapore though I also recognize that there is slim chance such laws will be put in place unless the PAP suffers a major setback in a general election.

This, however, does not detract from my stance on the Singaporeans First policy. I am all for it.

I also believe that the FCF, which will take force next August, should extend the 14 calendar days requirement during which employers submitting a new Employment Pass application must advertise the said vacancy on a jobs bank open to Singaporeans.

As gleaned from comments on the Internet, some foreigners were indignant about the FCF to the extent of calling it “discrimination.” Some Singaporeans also have reservations about the Singaporeans First policy, postulating that it may sideline non-citizens who are bound to our land by their emotional or familial ties.

While I can empathize with aggrieved foreigners who are here to make a living, I also feel strongly that this should not be at the expense of citizens.

Freer flow of human capital or labor across borders in this age of globalization does not mean free flow of human capital with no holds barred. The territorially bound nation-state that erects barriers to control the movement of people, capital and resources across its borders still prevails in today’s world. So if it is the norm for states to impose some restrictions on aliens seeking employment within their territory, why should Singapore be the exception?

Citizens of the nation-state, moreover, owe allegiance to their government and are, therefore, entitled to its protection:

citizenship obligations in Singapore are a corollary of the nature of Singapore citizenship as encompassing social citizenship, which was defined by T.H. Marshall to involve state provision of essential goods and services so as to guarantee a minimum level of economic welfare and security for all citizens. Thus, a Singapore citizen is obliged to fulfil his national service obligations (or other citizenship obligations like paying taxes) as consideration for receiving citizenship benefits, like subsidised education or medical care (source).

Ever since the opening of the floodgates, the Internet has been peppered with voices decrying our government for turning against its own people. The passage quoted above illustrates why: despite having fulfilled our citizenship obligations, Singaporeans have been sold short by our government which has failed to safeguard our job security. Without independent labor unions to back us up, scandalized citizens like myself who have witnessed or experienced employment discrimination can only turn to the Internet to air our grievances.