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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is the Singapore Government Too Business Friendly?

The Singapore government holds up a sacred cow - the Singapore economy. Over the years we have tended this cow and made it grow. We have nourished it and it has nourished us. But the economy is a hungry animal. It eats... and it eats... and it eats our lives away. With every cycle of boom and recession, the Singapore economy becomes ever more voracious, devouring lives, families and love.

I agree the economy is important but I wish to gently question its place on the foremost pedestal of Singaporean life, to the extent that it throws our very existences out of whack.

Economy = money = high quality of life? Does that make sense?

How can that make sense when dual income couples work 12 hour days everyday in order to get an 'A' grade on that performance appraisal... in order to get the next promotion... in order to earn enough money.

Singapore has come to a point where it chases dreams and forgets that quality living is all about basics. We went after the YOG... set up a wonderful sports school... groom our talent at MIT, and we forget that all honour and glory starts from within the warm beating heart of the family. Could we not see that the Swiss people have a high quality of living because they have work-life balance? They live graciously because they have time. They treat each other graciously because they have time.

What time do shops close in Switzerland?

But you see, in Singapore we are so afraid that the economy will stop humming that we feed it what it wants. Women are given maternity leave, but my friend was sacked shortly after she gave birth. MOM said that there was little recourse for her because it is difficult to point the fault at maternity leave. Working hours are long... very long, far longer than 40 hours if you are middle management. It has become the norm to put in those hours or one would not have a good appraisal, nor get promoted fast enough. In essence, unless you are very rich, you have no time for a very basic act of quality living - spend time with your family.

Over time, Singaporeans began to push back. Employees tried to negotiate better deals for themselves. They didn't want such long hours. They wanted more flexibility. And they wanted to be paid enough so that they could buy time with the children without having to worry about money.

Again, employers pouted and the government brought in foreign talent to feed the insatiable economy. Foreign talent know that when they've had enough, they can go home and have all the time they want with their families because we pay them enough that they have a lifetime's worth of earnings in a few years. And in a single wave of immigration, Singaporeans' bargaining chips for use in employer-employee negotiations vaporised into ether. "If you won't work 12 to 18 hour days, that's fine, we'll hire the foreign talent. Easy for me... tough luck for you."

Left alone, the Singapore population may have reached a natural negotiated equilibrium with businesses and employers for better working conditions. Businesses that don't provide productivity tools... and don't learn to be productive... and don't treat workers well, won't survive because they can neither keep staff nor get work done productively enough. The economy will learn to discipline its hunger in order to remain alive.

And as a nation, people would have higher quality of life.

As it is, we have an ineffectual Ministry exhorting people to be filial, to exercise, to spend time eating with their families... but these are words only. No one dares to say anything to employers who sack women who take maternity leave. No one dares to say anything to employers who pooh-pooh these non-profit generating values - family, filial piety, kindness, graciousness. Only the very rich have time to be kind. Everyone else is busy feeding their own lives to the economy one 12 hour day at a time. And every Singaporean knows that when you hit 40, few will hire you. Even if you want to work, it's hard to find a job. That Ministry has no power. The economy is all boss.

The economy is important. It nourishes us. But when the balance is tipped such that the economy devours more than it nourishes, then the solution is NOT to feed it with easy meat (i.e., foreign talent). Feed a monster and it only gets bigger. Businesses who won't respect workers will LEARN to if there were no easy access to foreign talent. Businesses who aren't family friendly will LEARN to be. Businesses who won't hire people above 40 will LEARN to do so too. Otherwise, it's all TALK... and ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.

It's time to let the economy learn discipline so that Singaporeans can live higher quality lives. And when people are not stressed out, they'll find time to get married. They'll want to have babies. They won't divorce because each of the other ended up married to the job. But well, it may well be that the government wants more spouses and more babies to feed to the economy too, eh?

I'm not saying the economy is un-important, but things are just a little imbalanced... is all.

At the end of the day, I think we have a government who cares... who wants to do a good job, and honestly too. It just does not have the courage to tell the economy to devour less and nourish us more.


Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

good piece. if only the ST whiners pack as much brains before sending their letters in.

i think the swiss case is a pretty good model to look into. or should i put tis to the Asian kiasi + kiasu mentality about things in life? tat they prefer to have more material than less for emotional security?

'cos i often see Asians tend to fear for having without than happy with less?

My SINFONIA said...

I so agree with you. Sg has one of the most competitive economies in the world and one of the lowest corporate tax rates. I embrace recruiting foreign labour for high skill areas to nourish our own skill pool but foreign workers with barely there English in coffeeshops, retail shops and hawker centres? That is exploiting the lower income Singaporeans and increasing income inequality. I am v disappointed with that. Cheers Petunia.

Blur Ting said...

It's not going to ever stop. McDonalds has gone 24/7, now NTUC supermarkets too. In the past, kopitiams and malls shut down during Chinese New Year. Not anymore. Soon, everyone will be working round the clock.

When I have off-days, the hive of activities going on around me make me feel guilty. Friends keep asking me to sign up for marathons just when I feel it's time to slow down. Then there's a need to work harder so the family can go on the well deserved vacation. Talk about quality of life.

Wen-ai said...

I agree with you totally as well. Nowadays, whenever some of my friends decided to be a stay-home-mum, the first thing that others will comment is "Wah, only the rich can afford it. Your husband must be making tons." Why must $$$ always be the 1st thing in people's minds, eyes and mouths? Sigh... ...