As bus drivers strike, government messaging goes into overdrive.


I have three points to make about the industrial action undertaken by bus drivers of SMRT Corp earlier this week.  171 of them, all recruited from China, failed to show up for work last Monday; 88 were absent the following day (Source: Straits Times, 1 Dec 2012, SMRT has deep-seated issues: CEO).

My 3 points are:

1.  There should be equal pay for equal work;

2. The government is shooting itself in its own foot by abandoning principle #1 above;

3. The government pretends there is a process for labour justice, but there isn’t and its absence sows the seed for future instability.

The drivers’ chief grouse was that they were paid less than Singaporean and Malaysian drivers. In particular, a recently announced bonus offer applied only to Singaporeans and Malaysians (at different rates), but did not benefit them. Their further complaints include bad housing.

The government quickly labelled it an illegal strike and has now moved to charge four of them — He Jun Ling, 32, Gao Yue Qiang, 32, Liu Xiangying, 33, and Wang Xianjie, 39 –with “instigating the illegal strike”. They face a possible 12-month jail term.

SMRT Corp is 54-percent owned by Temasek Holdings, the government’s investment vehicle.

Through the week, the mainstream media, always a friend of the government, highlighted the Manpower Ministry’s claims that the drivers chose not to use the dispute resolution processes allegedly available at the ministry. It then carried several analyses purporting to explain why foreigners should be paid less — because there were higher recruitment charges, housing costs, etc.

What happened to ‘equal pay for equal work’?

No space was given to arguing that the principle of equal pay for equal work is an important one. Without it, women would still be paid less than men, and employees of minority ethnicity might also be at a disadvantage in most firms. Today it may be someone else victimised by inequality, tomorrow it may be you. We abandon this principle at our own peril. This would be particularly ironic in a city-state that wants to believe in meritocracy.

One might be tempted to argue that the principle should be restricted to citizens, and that equality is a “privilege” that does not apply to foreigners. Here I am reminded of the Old Testament rule (Leviticus 25:44-46) that one may enslave those “from the nations around you”, but not of your own kind — which even modern-day Christians consider obsolete. Such a reading down of equality is abhorrent; it is also contrary to contemporary understanding of human rights. Equal treatment is part of the dignity we accord to all humans, not just those who carry the same colour of passport.

For less lofty reasons of realpolitick, the Singapore government should also note very carefully the statement issued by China’s Commerce Ministry: it said it was “paying very close attention to this labor dispute” and that it “hopes related parties will properly handle and respond positively to the reasonable demands of Chinese drivers to be paid the same wages for doing the same work and be treated fairly” (Source: Reuters, emphasis mine). If we, on the other hand, still believe that Singapore should live up to Leviticus, we will have no end of disputes with neighbouring countries.

Foreign workers should be costlier than hiring locally

I will also argue that the government shoots itself in its own foot if it interprets equal pay to mean something net of all costs related to bringing in foreign workers. This seems to be the justification for lower pay for Chinese drivers. I see in the mainstream press mentions of higher recruitment costs, housing costs, training costs, etc. While at first sight, the concept seems reasonable, in actual fact, it completely undermines the government’s own effort to dampen demand for foreign workers.

The incentive to hire Singaporeans first is highly dependent on making it more expensive to hire foreigners. If employers are allowed to recover their costs of employing foreigners from foreign workers themselves, then employers will see no disincentive to bringing in foreigners. So, all these costs associated with hiring foreign workers should be on top of equal pay, not deducted from equal pay.

The government is being foolish to stand by SMRT in this instance, by shouting “zero tolerance” and being so quick to punish the workers involved.

Speaking of housing costs, a figure of $275 a month was mentioned in passing in a Straits Times story:

In July, the Chinese drivers got a $75 increment, bringing their starting pay to $1,075, versus $1,350 for their Malaysian counterparts and $1,625 for Singaporeans.

After the $275 that the company says it spends on lodging for each Chinese driver, their remuneration package was on a par with the Malaysians’.

Malaysian drivers do not have company lodging, and mostly commute to and from homes across the Causeway.

— Straits Times, 1 December 2012, Strike broke before notice of pay rise

The drivers say they are housed eight persons to a room. Whoever is operating that room is charging $2,200 for it.

And here’s the interesting fact: I know from my volunteering with Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) that dormitory operators generally charge companies that lease dorm rooms from them, monthly rates of $50 – $100 per worker.  And the SMRT bus driver finds $275 deducted from his pay? Well, well, well, somebody somewhere is making a handsome profit out of this pay deduction.

Independent unions an important safety valve

My third point mirrors the statement issued by TWC2, which you can see in full here: Link. The government and the mainstream media have been proclaiming that avenues of dispute resolution exists via official channels, and suggest that the workers were wrong (and deserve no sympathy) not to use those channels.

“A disproportionate amount of attention has focused on events from 26 November when preceding developments that precipitated the workers’ action are equally pertinent. A key concern should be how long the workers must wait to have their grievances addressed by management. This leads to another question of what the consequences are for employers who, through their action or inaction, have aggravated the situation. If  ’zero tolerance’ is the prescribed policy for workers engaged in illegal strikes, what should the consequences be for their employers who fail to adequately address their concerns?

There are claims that the workers should have taken their case through due processes available. Drawing on TWC2′s experience, there is a gap between what is offered on paper as due process and what actually happens. Given the disputes involved in this case, had the SMRT workers approached the MOM, they might have been told that their employers had not violated any Singapore law and therefore it is beyond the ken of the Ministry to assist.”

The problem is that those ministry channels are only available when there is a dispute over the terms of a contract or if employment law has been breached; neither condition applies here. The government therefore is misleading the public by suggesting that it had processes to help. It does not. Our mainstream media do our public no service by not putting their brains to use before printing slavishly what the government says.

The government has also said, repeatedly, that workers should have “discussed” their issues with management. Knowing Chinese workers, I am sure they have, many times and loudly. It’s in their nature. The problem is that the system is stacked against them. It’s a very Singaporean system: where lower-rank people don’t have rights to justice, but can only plead for better treatment. It’s a microcosm of the political system this government has created. Citizens have no substantive rights; they can only plead for their wishes to be taken into account. There’s a term for this: The petitionary state.

Wage bargaining everywhere else is conducted between unions and employers. Employers hold the nuclear option of termination. Unions hold the nuclear option of calling a mass walk-out. The bargaining that results may be robust, but is, at least, meaningful.

pic_201212_03As some commentators have already pointed out, this SMRT incident is forcing Singapore to address the issue of unionising foreign workers. Left unsaid is whether the government-linked union NTUC is the right vehicle. Of course it is not. For half a century, it has served as a whip helping the government keep Singaporean workers in line; it would be even more useless for foreign workers.

All workers, foreign and local, need independent unions. Far from what the mainstream rhetoric will no doubt try to convince us, they will be good for Singapore. It is a truism that systems must have safety valves. There must be ways to negotiate and rebalance rather than try to keep the screws on so tight till the whole shebang blows apart. Especially in times of rising income inequality, the stresses are growing.

To keep insisting that the old ways of command and control must continue, that the law and media must serve the supremacy of executive government and its related companies, and workers must work and behave, is a sure recipe for a day when things really blow apart.

70 Responses to “As bus drivers strike, government messaging goes into overdrive.”

  1. 1 Malaysian PR 1 December 2012 at 14:10

    Equal pay for equal competency. There is why why pay filipino maid higher than Indonesian maid.

    • 2 F02 1 December 2012 at 20:09

      I sure as hell hope you’re not suggesting that Malaysian and Singaporean drivers deserve their pay because they’re more competent. When you look at competency, you look at the individual not by the colour of his skin, but the efficiency with which tasks allotted to him are completed.

      You statement seems unfair and prejudiced.

    • 4 goop 1 December 2012 at 20:31

      Don’t be daft. Wages are paid and set in accordance to bilateral government negotiations.

    • 7 Mike Zeng 2 December 2012 at 18:14

      Used to be, but not anymore now. More or less, about the same but there are exceptions.

    • 8 teo soh lung 3 December 2012 at 12:18

      Historically, Filipinos were the first to work as domestic helpers here. They were badly exploited. Over the years, their embassy did assist in some ways to obtain higher wages for them. If the Indonesian embassy and the Indonesian government do the same, the Indonesians will also receive higher wages.

      • 9 yuen 3 December 2012 at 16:47

        the no. of households that employ foreign maids must be around 100K; it shows many Singaporeans are not xenophobic, since they happily let foreigners live in their homes; many also support opposition parties and organizations like TWC2 that speak up for foreign worker rights

        at the same time, many spoke out in favour of tough actions against the striking foreign workers; this shows they believe in consensus, similar to PRC’s principle of He Xie 和谐

    • 10 Stories 4 December 2012 at 00:04

      If you apply that principle, the Bumiputra derserves better pay than Malaysians and Ang Mohs derserve better pay because they speak a colonial language,

  2. 11 ape@kinjioleaf 1 December 2012 at 14:16

    If the tripartite arrangement of government, employers and unions is as successfully as claimed, should we be seeing employers automatically signing up their employees and paying for their membership fees?

    “It’s a very Singaporean system: where lower-rank people don’t have rights to justice, but can only plead for better treatment.” Sad isn’t it?

  3. 12 yuen 1 December 2012 at 14:35

    about the charging of the four leaders: the government is using the opportunity to show that it has not gone soft, despite its general tolerance of anti-PAP commentary on the web; the occasion makes the risk of electoral backlash low, though the diplomatic aspect requires some finesse to handle

    I notice Ong Ye Kung is a director of SMRT; if he is there to provide expertise on labour relationship, I guess there is room for much work

    another relevant point: public transport is an essential service, and the policy of providing essential services through “private” companies need re-looking – if the objective is to take the heat off the government, this obviously has not worked; we also had the weird situation that, when the government wanted to help improve bus service by injecting money, there were complaints about public money being used to subsidize “private” companies; I believe in the long term, it will be necessary to “nationalize” the sector with Temasek buying out the public shareholders

  4. 13 octopi 1 December 2012 at 15:01

    The other aspect of this situation is the 46% that is in private hands. Having to report glowing bottom lines, or having to pay out dividends to the shareholders every year is a non-sustainable system. People should take this opportunity to highlight the direct linkage from the glossy quarterly reports to the oppression of foreign workers.

    This is not about a few executives making bad decisions. This is institutionalised oppression. It’s high time that this incident leads to more political pressure to renationalise the transport system.

    It used to be that the Worker’s party would highlight these issues, but they impinge on municipal issues: ie you kaopeh too much about SMRT, we will cut back transport to your constituency. So they are conflicted. This issue has to be driven by non-governmental bodies.

    One possibility is for transient workers to reach out to holders of SMRT stock about the possibility of starting a shareholder action during the next annual meeting. However this is not easy since a lot of the 46% is probably in the hands of institutional investors, ie individuals own the stock as part of mutual funds managed by big banks. But it is still possible. Call for the heads of directors (it won’t happen but the point is to scare them a little).

    There is the possibility that this becomes the vanguard of a new foreign worker rights movement and the possibility of raising public profile for your cause. If the foreign workers have to go back to China, well I’m sure their country needs them too. Foreign workers should get paid better so that they don’t drag down the wages of locals.

  5. 14 ricardo 1 December 2012 at 15:03

    I find it obscene that a so called ‘democracy’ has made it illegal for workers to organise & strike. Our Lord LKY declared this a while ago but only now is it being tested.

    I only hope these events highlight the obscenity and are the first step towards it’s elimination.

    For those who are unsure of what the Right to Strike has to do with Democracy and Human Rights, may I recommend one of Democracy’s greatest champions, Tony Benn.

    The Right of Workers to Organise & Strike is a Fundamental Human Right as it one of the few means for the Poor & Disadvantaged to make themselves heard by the Rich & Powerful.

    Making it illegal is the action of a Police State.

    All this is now being clearly demonstrated by the actions of SMRT, NTUC and the PAP in the strike.

  6. 15 Singaporean 1 December 2012 at 16:13

    Get Singaporeans to drive buses, and first problem will be solved. Pay higher fares to attract Singaporean bus drivers, and second problem will be solved. Get Singaporeans to pay more for their bus fares, and… ah… there’s the problem. 🙂

    • 16 octopi 2 December 2012 at 00:22

      I don’t think that’s a big problem for the general populaton, since buses are by far the cheapest form of transport (next to taxis and cars). The problem is for the people who can’t afford the increases in bus fares. You can always try to make it easier for them. The really difficult part is for the govt is how to overcome their mental resistance to providing subsidised fares to those who need it. SMRT should be trying to help the really really poor, but then again you need to be really really poor in order to qualify for that help.

      In fact, when you nationalise the transport system, you at one stroke wipe out the need for SMRT to hand over a certain percent of their revenue to shareholders, who, frankly speaking, do nothing more than bilk the system.

    • 17 We Must Be Daft 2 December 2012 at 09:51

      “Get Singaporeans to pay more for their bus fares, and… ah… there’s the problem.”

      Singaporeans already transferred $1.1 billion dollars of taxpayers money into 2 profit-seeking, profitable bus companies.
      And you still want Singaporeans to pay more in bus fares?

      How about SMRT paying merit based salaries?
      How much should SMRT Board and top management be paid in return for such debacles in recent times?
      How about reducing dividend payouts to SMRT shareholders instead of asking for subsidies from the Singapore taxpayers?

      • 18 yuen 2 December 2012 at 12:50

        > we also had the weird situation that, when the government wanted to help improve bus service by injecting money, there were complaints about public money being used to subsidize “private” companies; I believe in the long term, it will be necessary to “nationalize” the sector with Temasek buying out the public shareholders

        your view confirms what I said earlier: unless the transport companies are nationalized, we continue have the suspicion that any government subsidy will be used to increase management salary and shareholder dividends

    • 19 Lye Khuen Way 2 December 2012 at 12:09

      The assumption here is that SBS & SMRT must reap Big profit.
      The answer. Nationalise these Public Transport entities.

      Rationalize their operations : Forget that nice sounding “competition ” bull shit. Seriously, when have there been comsumers here ever benefited from so called “competition “?

      Get the rail operations all under SMRT, all bus operations under SBS and taxi under NTUC Comfort or any other taxi companies.

      By the way, the dividends paid by both SBS and SMRT seem mandated a long time ago. Correct me if I am wrong.

      • 20 Chow 3 December 2012 at 09:27

        Reading this put this into my head: Isn’t Confort DelGro already a pretty large (if not one of the largest) transport operators in the world? I don’t believe most of their profits come from running some buses and trains here. At any rate, SMRT isn’t Confort DelGro, but what with injecting so many billions of tax payers money in, it sounds more like a GM type of situation- a bailout of sorts.

  7. 21 Kelvin Tan Tuan Wei 1 December 2012 at 16:38

    Well, one reason why bus fares are not as high as they are now is precisely because of foreign drivers being paid lower than what it would take to have Singaporean drivers.

    You should perhaps ask whether Singaporeans are prepared to pay more for public transport first.

    • 22 Ian 1 December 2012 at 22:28

      No need to ask for Singaporeans’ opinion in this, as it doesn’t justify treating foreign workers as inferiors.

      You know, let’s just enslave the Indians! I mean, if we did, it would be way cheaper to use slaves than hire them as a citizen, thus the majority do not have to be prepared to pay more.

      Or we could very well just enslave those whose last names are 陈(Tan) alongside with the indians and the malays, thus reducing financial burden on other singaporeans further!

    • 23 fpc 2 December 2012 at 00:27


      save on those exorbitant fees paid out to smrt directors for literally doing nothing and fees don’t need to be increased.

      • 24 octopi 3 December 2012 at 09:31

        Actually I want to say something for the other side for once.

        Director’s fees are not that “exorbidant”. I don’t think any one director is paid more than 6 figures, correct me if I’m wrong. Also, although in practice this does not happen, they are liable to go to jail if shit happens. Sitting on a board is not a full time job. (Although sitting on more than 5 boards is probably pretty lucrative). It’s the top executives of SMRT who are paid millions, not the directors.

        As a Singaporean, you really do have a choice. You can kaopeh about the big squeeze in the trains, or rising ticket prices. Or you can go out and buy SMRT stock, lepak one corner and collect dividends like one of those fat pigs. You do have the opportunity to be a fat pig yourself. Pump in 10K, and maybe get a few hundred back every year, it will offset your rising transport costs.

      • 25 yawningbread 3 December 2012 at 10:28

        What is “exorbitant” or not with respect to pay scales for senior executives and directors is — perhaps shockingly to those without a longer historical perspective — highly contextual to time and circumstance. Fifty years ago, the average pay of the CEO in a Fortune500 company in the US was only 40 times the pay of his factory floor worker. Today, average CEO pay is close to 800 or 1,000 times the pay of his company’s lower job grades. The tide of neo-capitalism that has washed over us all has led us all to think that 800 to 1,000 times is “normal” (not exorbitant). There’s nothing carved in stone about this.

        Ultimately, the pay differential is the outcome of power differentials, and over the last 50 years, union power has been chipped away while owners of capital have amassed huge leverage over politics and the global economy. But this is not going to last.

      • 26 octopi 3 December 2012 at 14:45

        I mean – my main point is that you shouldn’t confuse director’s fees with senior executive remuneration. They are quite different. I am quite sure that CEOs are overpaid. I’m not so sure the same is true for directors.

        Similarly – CEO / senior management are CEO / senior management, directors are directors, they are not the same. They are not supposed to have the same affiliation, they are not supposed to have the same interests. Even though this is not necessarily true, the way that things stand these days.

      • 27 octopi 3 December 2012 at 15:19

        Or let me put it in slightly starker terms: the good people on the board of directors are the only people who decide what the CEO of SMRT is going to be paid. They are “supposed” to be the first line of defence against sky high wages of SMRT senior management. They are “supposed” to sometimes act against the interests of SMRT management.


    • 28 quemquemquem 2 December 2012 at 01:29

      Discrimination works both ways – most of the people who have such ignorant and petty views would feel pretty angry if they knew that a Caucasian colleague was getting 1.5 times their salary for the same job.

      The real fault lies in the government, who for years have been seducing society with the idea that everyone can be a PMET, regardless of their educational level. Even Hong Kong seems to be able to fully supply its own construction workers and bus drivers, so why can’t we? The real difference is that we have a sense of entitlement about things – we all think we’re entitled to work a white collar job and a guaranteed lump sum a month.

      The government have to start re-calibrating people’s expectations. If you can’t spell the word “resume”, you probably shouldn’t be applying for a job as an administrative assistant, demanding a university graduate’s wages. (This happened at my last job.)

    • 29 Chow 3 December 2012 at 09:31

      Much as it will eat into my budget, I am fine with it. Only if it goes into getting rid off these sort of pay distortions and not get funneled into better-er annual reports and pay increases for only a select group of people.

  8. 30 fedora 1 December 2012 at 16:57

    Superb piece. Addresses the nubs of many problems here.
    1. When the reasons for steam in a tightly sealed pot are
    not dealt with, the pot eventually explodes. And the
    consequences can be ugly and far-reaching.
    2. What worked before may not work today, and in Spore,
    it doesn’t..
    3. That there is a process for redress for wrongs that
    workers face is debatable. The unions certainly offer
    little help. Same with MOM.
    4. Meitocracy and equality tend to be nice words in Spore.
    They are not necessarily practised.
    5. The cost of growing the economy at all costs, including
    having hordes of foreigners brought in over a very short
    period, is V Costly, and involves a lot of hidden costs.

  9. 31 Tangkap 1 December 2012 at 18:38

    just a quick point – you can’t board a migrant worker (legally, at least) for 50 to 100 bucks a month. this was ages ago.

    looking forward to more posts on this matter. the way the 29 are being deported is like how many of these repat companies work!

  10. 32 henry 1 December 2012 at 19:14

    Yes, the situation reeks of overhaul, and the new leaders are not bringing in new ideas.

    You have written topics that have not been well discussed and I thank you for articulating facts. To many, these were difficult to describe without an emotive element.

    Your experience in helping foreign workers has lent you great weight in what you have written. Thank you for sharing. Much appreciated.

  11. 33 Anon Se44 1 December 2012 at 19:24

    “””The drivers’ chief grouse was that they were paid less than Singaporean and Malaysian drivers.”””

    I believe that the call to action excluded comparison to Singaporean drivers. The beef was actually that China drivers got a worse deal than the Malaysians.

  12. 34 Duh 1 December 2012 at 20:29

    What Dr Catherine Lim has written about so long ago remains true – PAP is incapable of re-inventing itself. There is and will never be any change in the PAP way of governance. The only alternative is to vote them out in the next GE. There is no point trying to negotiate or discuss with them anything (e.g., National CONversation). They are a total waste of our time.

  13. 35 smrt try to smoke us 1 December 2012 at 20:37

    I just want to highlight that the wage difference between Malaysian and PRC drivers is only $200 before July increment. This implies that the housing cost is $200, not $275 as suggested by SMRT.

    If you read the Bloomberg report on SMRT, each of the 9 directors hold an average of 26 board appointments in different companies. Speaks volume about the company.

  14. 36 GG 1 December 2012 at 21:12

    @Malaysian PR: Do you really believe that competency is a function of nationality alone?

  15. 37 CRICKET 1 December 2012 at 21:41

    Why is it that whenever the subject of higher wages for workers is suggested the threat that the increased labour cost will be passed on to the consumer inevitably follows?
    Why has it never been suggested that perhaps the salaries and bonuses of CEOs and other high ranking officers of companies might be unjustifiable high, that the remuneration gap between them and the workers is too wide?
    Why has it never been suggested that perhaps the profits of companies might be too high, that there has been too much blood sucking?

    • 38 fedora 2 December 2012 at 15:42

      These are among the many mysteries and illogical conclusions of life in Singapore, where issuing a threat, esp of rising costs, is standard proceedure, and a standard method of squashing arguments and debate, no matter how sensible these may be.

  16. 39 Jay 1 December 2012 at 22:31

    With regards to your first point Equal pay for equal work,

    Basically the China drivers are unhappy that they are paid less than the Malaysian drivers. While both are technically foreigners, you have failed to take into account two things:
    1. Language competency
    The Malaysian, especially Malaysian Chinese, generally speak better English than those from China. They can also speak Malay and probably dialect. They can connect with the people better.

    2. Other costs
    SMRT has to provide accommodation for the China drivers. That should be factored into their pay package as a whole, rather than just looking at the pay amount

    • 40 Anon 7sla 2 December 2012 at 20:26

      @jay – regarding language competency – I take the bus all the time and have never needed to speak to the driver. I just need them to drive me from A to B. Simple.

      I’m from the UK and accommodation is not an issue. In the UK foreign bus drivers get paid the same as British drivers – which is enough to live on. Why is it such a problem here to pay a living wage to people – especially when Singaporeans are generally better off than Brits.

  17. 41 K Das 1 December 2012 at 22:48

    I fear implementing the concept of equal pay for equal work in any sector requiring significant percentage of foreign workers can have disastrous consequences. Labour wages can shoot up many fold. The quota implementation scheme will lose its relevance and become hard to apply. Singapore will become a magnet for immigrant workers and locals may lose their jobs and job seekers may have to compete with foreigners.

    There should probably be no problem for the equal pay for equal work principle to be confined to Singaporean workers, however.

    • 42 quemquemquem 2 December 2012 at 15:01

      Das, so this is the “democratic society based on justice and equality”, “regardless of race, language or religion” crap that our schoolchildren have to recite every day?

      The SMRT workers aren’t even the worst treated, by a long stretch. At one major listed company my dad worked at, the Indian workers are paid $250 a month, with a 0.28% annual bonus (which I think is a legal requirement). Do you know what they eat for lunch? Two of them share a big box of rice, with curry drizzled on it.

      That’s the Singapore we live in. So much for the pledge – it belongs in the rubbish bin. Economic productivity gleaned from exploiting workers as slaves is unconscionable.

    • 43 fedora 2 December 2012 at 15:50

      Well, we are now paying the foreigners less than Sporeans.

      As a result, we are having to compete with them – and are proving we are no competition to them – and we are losing our jobs….

      In what way will the consequences of equal pay be more disastrous?

  18. 44 Roy 1 December 2012 at 22:59

    to Kelvin Tan Tuan Wei,

    You are repeating what the mainstream media is telling you. Think about the situation.

    Why must fares increase to pay drivers more? SMRT’s management has been more than generous with their salary increment. One would say, had they been less initiated with their own increment and share it downstream with the drivers that bring in the revenue, this incident would not have come.

    An organization is made of 3 owners, the workers, the management and the shareholders. The shareholders had years of increasing dividends, the management had years of remuneration increase. Why should their X% of increase not be as impactful to the fares?

  19. 45 Not Going To Tell 1 December 2012 at 23:43

    Load of nonsense. The grievances may be real, and deserving of redress. But once we accept that an aggrieved person can take matters into their own hands and break the law, where does it end? If they think that they should be able to use armed force to barricade the office? To slash bus tires? Where does it stop? Once you go down the slope of saying that people can do what they “need” to do to have their problems aired, there is really no end. Equal pay for equal work? What an idealistic fairy tale. Its different pay for different folks. Has always been the case. Why does a foreign construction worker get employment? Because he’s a lot cheaper than a Singaporean equivalent. Why are foreign construction workers not from Europe? Because if they did come out here for such work, they would cost a lot more that even the Singaporean equivalents. Get real. Get a clue.

    • 46 Keanne 2 December 2012 at 12:25

      That’s just a load of slippery slope nonsense lar.

    • 47 quemquemquem 2 December 2012 at 15:07

      The question here is did SMRT brief those workers about avenues to record their distress, and did SMRT tell these workers that should they want to declare a strike, they need 14 days grace? I think not.

      Well, they did commit an offence, albeit one that they didn’t know about. But if SMRT didn’t inform them about their rights as a worker, then the company deserves a substantial fine for precipitating this crisis. They also deserve a fine for allowing unhygienic conditions in the dorms.

      People like Not Going To Tell are the classic Singaporeans. When they see injustice, they say, “well, that’s life, we’ll always get fucked by the system”. It’s when the injustice happens to morons like him that he starts to wonder why nobody is standing up for his pathetic rights.

  20. 48 reservist_cpl 2 December 2012 at 00:09

    Alex, what about the industrial arbitration court? I think the workers should have at least tried that avenue first, although I have no info if they did.

  21. 49 Daniel Yap 2 December 2012 at 01:06

    Great read. Do note that the biblical standard of how the Jews (and Christians) ought to treat foreigners is this:

    33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.
    34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

    Leviticus 19:33-34

  22. 50 BigSigh 2 December 2012 at 08:03

    Its time to spring clean SMRT again. After the departure of Cleopatra Saw in late Dec 2011 after the big SMRT train failures prior to Xmas, its time for another round of spring cleaning of top management. How else do you explain the failure in wage negotiations that turned into a strike? Cleopatra Saw brought over with her from DFS several executives into the top ranks of SMRT. One of them, a lady, was quoted in the ST, she is one of those at the forefront of the SMRT wage negotiations that turned sour.

    Everytime a major failure happens in our transport system, I look with envy at Hong Kong’s public transport system. As you already know, they do not need any foreigners from China driving their trams, buses and private buses becos these drivers are paid well as reported in our ST recently. But what I most envy about Hong Kong are the private bus companies that you can hail anywhere on the street & alight anywhere you want provided you give these bus drivers ample time to stop.

    One way to ease the shortage of Spore’s bus drives is to allow private operators to ply within HDB neighbourhoods and let the 2 major public bus companies ply from the HDB central bus interchange to long haul routes to areas outside the HDB neighbourhoods.

    Its frustrating sometimes to get around your own HDB neighbourhoods when you need to take 2 or 3 buses to get there. With private bus operators, you can make it one stop & hassle free. It will be a doorstep to doorstep service just like a taxi operator but at a much cheaper rate like those charged by our public buses.

    For example, mom&pop shop style operators can be registered with LTA, it can be your neighbour who owns a mini van & wants to get in on the act so he registers with LTA get his van inspected under the safety regulations. Once certified, his mini van can operate from say precinct “A” stopping right at your doorstep blocks to let the elderly folks & mothers with babies & toddlers to head to the polyclinic doorstep for their health checks. He then proceeds to pick up passengers at the polyclinic & moves to precinct “B” again dropping off passengers at their designated blocks. He will have a regular schedule with times posted in the neighbourhood void deck poster boards and at all his designated stops.

    There are many permutations to this type of operation that can make it viable, like say from the central wet market to the various precincts, from mini town centers located at each precinct to a different precinct etc.

    • 51 yuen 2 December 2012 at 12:57

      MRT and bus fares are generally higher in HK than SG for similar travel distances, but frequency is usually higher too so time is saved and efficiency is improved; further, the availability of mini buses helps people to get around quickly with just a small increase in cost, and at least within highly built up areas in HK, taxis are easier to find

    • 52 AT 2 December 2012 at 13:33

      And then what? Let Mom & Pop make money out of it? No way. All profits must and can only made by the government.

  23. 53 Follow The Money Trail 2 December 2012 at 12:44

    10 men to a room in a dormitory in Woodlands.
    $275 x 10 = $2750

    Somebody is making a lot of money renting out rooms at $2,750 per month for batches of 10 men.

    Who owns these rooms and dormitories?
    How did they end up getting this business?
    Was there an open tender?
    Did the PRC drivers have a choice of accommodations?

  24. 54 henry 2 December 2012 at 14:17

    The authorities continue with threats that higher wages will lead to higher fares, higher cost of living.

    It would be interesting to have a survey done to ask commuters how much they are willing to pay or how much an increase in fares. With an added
    statement that the fare increases are to pay higher wages for all transport staff.

    I personally would not mind paying $3 for a bus or train ride. Provided the increase is for paying higher wages. Freeze the management salaries for 2 years, freeze director’s fees for 2 years.

    • 55 Anon 7sla 2 December 2012 at 20:31

      Well said. For a developed country the public transport here incredibly cheap. However the mind set here is always to compare the transport costs to those in Malaysia which seems odd as Singapore is so much more developed and a lot wealthier.

  25. 56 Anon 9pRE 2 December 2012 at 21:56

    What saddens me in this whole incident is how most Singaporeans I’ve spoken to feel that the govt has done the right thing by charging the 4 men for “instigating the illegal strike”. Yes, I agree that public transport is an essential service, but as a human being, I still feel for these bus drivers and I feel that they have every right to protest if they aren’t being paid a fair wage.

    When I visited my friend in Ottawa, Canada a few years ago, the bus drivers there were also on strike in the middle of winter for week. My friend just “sucked it up” and walked to work (a good 30 minutes in -10 to -20 degree temperatures). Yes, it was an inconvenience, but she took it in her stride and even agreed with the transport workers’ cause.

    • 57 Anon b148 4 December 2012 at 02:18

      I also wonder if some of these people would have different views if those who went on strike were Singaporeans. It seems like some people don’t see that a big part of the problem (that is, the current situation of unions here), is also something that could affect them some day.

  26. 58 SingaporeSpring2016 3 December 2012 at 00:49

    Public Transportation is a necessary Public Service that taxpayers are entitled to at any cost including paying a reasonable salary to the workers. Privatising it is the first evil that this government did so that the excuse for profits allows the monopoly to apply for and get increases in fares and more increases in fares.

    Given that the adjoining land and MRT station vicinities are owned and developed profitably by the government and it’s chosen GLCs, the MRT if they do a proper job in these developments should be FREE if not, nearly free with fares to offset part of the operating costs.

    The last thing such a public monopoly should be allowed to do is to enrich a self proclaimed- nobody retail “chosen” such an obscene salary that she can afford a Ferarri in a city where the costs of buying such a machine can buy more than a large landed bungalow in other countries such as Australia, the US.

    NO, it is time we start knowing and demanding that the MRT should be nationalised and that the government ceased continuing to use a necessary public service to suck the hard earned money of it’s citizen which it has to serve.

    As it is, they way the screw car owners with ARF and COE and many other taxes for car usage such as parking/annual road taxes/ERP etc etc, HDB parking charges, those who cannot afford a car should be provided with efficient and low cost transport.

    How can we ensure this happens?

    Singapore Spring 2016

  27. 59 Peggy 3 December 2012 at 02:00

    Have to agree to what you said, but to a certain extent.

    What should be used to measure equal pay for equal work? What about the increased in accidents caused by PRCs? What about the loss of directions caused by PRCs? And what about the communication barrier, causing greater inconvenience to our multi-lingual country?

    Definitely, if judging from these, Singaporeans stand the greatest chance for higher pay. Including citizen benefits. We speak our own language, we’re more familiar with our culture, and we’re more familiar with our roads and law.

    Say, Singaporeans are not willing to take up jobs as bus drivers. True for most highly educated people. But there are still less educated people around.

    As much as we are using them to boost our own economy, they are also taking advantage of us, which I think, in a deeper way. If they’re able to “eat” us, they’ll do so. They can easily find jobs in other countries, why us? Cos we’re easy. They are also becoming more demanding when they think we need and can’t survive without them.

    Truth is, we don’t. Their own country even value the pandas more than them.

    • 60 yawningbread 3 December 2012 at 10:24

      You wrote: What should be used to measure equal pay for equal work? What about the increased in accidents caused by PRCs? What about the loss of directions caused by PRCs? And what about the communication barrier, causing greater inconvenience to our multi-lingual country?

      Indeed these are valid metrics for performance appraisal, but appraisal should always be done on an individual basis. In other words, each driver doing a similar job starts with a similar pay, and then each is adjusted according to his/her own appraisal findings. Do not stereotype by entire groups.

  28. 61 concerned commuter 3 December 2012 at 07:25

    Hi Alex:

    Thank u once again for this yet another insightful article. With all the recent events that had happened to SMRT. One interesting fact that many have overlooked is the roles of its BOARD. This is taken from business week and i have confess i do not know how accurate the info is but here goes:

    What so worrying is the number of board relationships each member has..why is that so? Do u seriously think that they actually do have the time and energy to be so involved in so many boards..Perhaps with their experience and talents, they do..BUT..i always thought board members do have to take some forms of accountabilities and responsibilities when things happened. Maybe i am wrong ???

  29. 62 Yue Fei 3 December 2012 at 09:40

    I do not agree with equal pay for equal work in this case. Singaporeans bring the bacon home and feed their families at the cost here. PRC workers remit the money home and magically it transforms 5 times more. How is it fair? How is it equal?

    Alex Au should get off your moral high horse and live amongst us Singaporeans. Stop siding with foreigners to dish Singaporeans.

    • 63 Saycheese 3 December 2012 at 14:17

      That is also the view of our MIW.
      They pay themselves the highest salaries while doing lesser work – just look at how many are at the PMO.

    • 64 Anon 31uy 3 December 2012 at 20:02

      It’s scary to see how a genuine grievance can degenerate to such a poisonous comment.

      If anything, in this instance, what has happen to the PRC ought to be a warning sign to the true blue Singaporean. If they persists on expecting foreigners to get lower pay, then Singaporean, they do nothing but encourage Singapore corporation to save more money by going for foreigners.

  30. 65 mjuse 3 December 2012 at 15:47

    I have a number of issues with this post of yours:

    1. Equal pay for equal work
    This statement sounds self-evidently true on paper, until we get down into the weeds.

    For example, why are women in the workforce entitled to full pay during their maternity leave?

    For another, I used to work in the quasi-public sector. It was an unspoken but acknowledged fact that male employees hired for entry level positions would be paid more than female employees hired for the same positions on account of the males having served out their fulltime National Service obligation.

    [As an aside, some women in my company would invariably bring up the second point every year at the management Q&A, but no one, least of all the women, would bring up the first point.]

    And even more prosaically, in every company, I am sure that there are pay differentials between people who work pretty much the same jobs and have similar performance ratings.

    The fact of the matter is that remuneration is a contractual matter between employer and employee, so it’s a function of relative bargaining strength and information (as)symmetry. It’s also subject to legislation, such as government mandated minimum wage and paid maternity leave (which in turn should reflect societal norms and values).

    Part of the reason why unions exist is an attempt to close the power differential between employer and employee.

    Beyond what is covered under employment legislation and reasonable market norms, I am inclined to leave questions on the fairness of remuneration to be answered by market forces.

    That is why I am actually OK with SMRT paying their PRC drivers less than Malaysian and Singaporean drivers.

    As to whether market forces should result in equitable outcomes congruent with our societal norms and values, and how they can be structured to do so, well, that is a separate, much more complex matter altogether.

    I am in favor of market regulation by the way.

    2. On China’s response:

    I wouldn’t put too much stock in “Red” China’s concerns with this labor debacle.

    This is a weak argument for saying that we should pay greater attention to how our labor relations affect our diplomatic relations with other countries. I think you are hyperventilating here, and perhaps you know it too.

    China has plenty of cases of human rights abuses and employee exploitation within its own borders to look too closely at what’s happening in other countries. In China, human rights abuses are a competitive advantage.

    There are few political points to be gained by China from demonizing the Singapore government for employee abuses, unlike say the Japanese government. This no doubt factored into our government’s decision to deport the troublemakers summarily and bring the matter to a quick resolution.

    The same could be said of the regional countries in Asia from which we source much of our immigrant labor. Every government has skeletons in their closet. That’s why the principle of non-interference is something every country in ASEAN agrees on.

    3. On the use of official channels for dispute resolution:

    I have something to say on this in long form, but it would be inappropriate for me to use comment space on your blog to do so. This will be a post on my own blog.

  31. 66 Rabbit 3 December 2012 at 16:04

    A xenophobic me, am greatly spurred by PRC drivers launching a two days consecutive strike against worker’s exploitation in Singapore. From now on, the present of foreigners has become more crucial, not just an economic digit but to help amplify human treatment shortages and challenge the systems that were long overdue for change. These PRCs, are brave souls who will someday lead change in our political landscape, in some ways, that Singaporeans weren’t capable of doing at this moment. As such, I sympathies with these drivers and there is no better time than now for us to throw away our xenophobia and stand alongside them, who stood firmly against big bullies from playing injustice..

    I hope they do not hate Singaporean after this episode, but already shared similar view with Singaporeans that PAP system is “wayang” pretending to be efficient before a strike. The PRC’s united gesture that brought the power to its knee is an eye-opener for Singaporeans even though there is risk to take, but foreigners have nothing to lose unlike locals. The PRC who were deported, I believe, were glad. Those who were not affected, by charge or repatriation, told local Chinese tabloid that they won the battle but lost the morale to work while their colleagues were unjustly punished. They can’t wait to finish serving their existing contract and return home soonest possible. The driver also added that Singapore is not a “haven” for workers. Strike was their only resort to finally succeed in getting their voices heard, prior to that the management didn’t seem to care.

    While it may be easier to focus the blame on SMRT with its umpteenth lapses enough to render a major internal overhaul, we cannot ignore the systematic issues coming from different entities leading to “seconds from disaster” situation here. Vincent’s long essay speaks volume of the pathetic worker’s rights linked to policy makers.

    NTUC, MOM, NTWU…or what other exclusive clowns and msm have you in Singapore? including the deeply rooted expensive board members (a couple of who with conflicting interest in the corporate world when made known) formed the collective laughing stock trying hard to act independent when industrial dispute arises.

    Tripartite has been a toy for the big bullies for too long, if it were allowed to remains so, than all the hot air at PAP CEC about value and winning hearts are nothing more than fanciful words to uplift many unresolved issues closer to our heart. If one still believe PAP wish to listen to its people and change for the betterment of the middle ground voters, you are in for great disappointment.

    The clueless leader treated Singapore like a chess board and has became so engrossed about strategy and winning votes one may think election is just around the corner.

  32. 67 Alan 3 December 2012 at 17:33

    When SMRT adjusted the the salaries of Singaporean bus drivers with a higher increment than the rest, SMRT is in essence admitting the fact that Singaporean bus drivers have been grossly underpaid all these years.

    As all other hiring costs has already been factored in by different starting salaries & amount of AWS/bonus, so there is really no reason for them to give different increment to the different nationalities and to cite accommodation costs as the reason for different increments is only trying to misrepresent the facts. All said, it was simply plain exploiting of the PRC bus drivers.

  33. 68 Kelvin Tan 3 December 2012 at 18:37

    I am a Singaporean who works in Switzerland (which sits at a more civilized location on the Gini coefficient scale) where the issuance of a work permit is dependent on me being paid at least the same as my equivalent Swiss counterpart (after proving that no other European or Swiss could do the same job or possess the required skills/ competences).

    It has not made this small Alpine country less attractive than its European neighbours in terms of attracting enterprises to invest – of course, there are manifold reasons for this, which includes level of corporate taxes and the scope of employment laws, amongst others.

    I just wanted to point out that it’s a red herring to say that applying equal pay systems to “foreigners” as “locals” will result in the collapse of the labour market as we know it. I think it bodes well for a nation to have all its residents (whether “foreign” or “local”) move on a equal footing, once it has been established that there is a need for such “foreign” employment because the equivalent cannot be hired locally, based on competence and skills.

  34. 69 Bluex Spore 3 December 2012 at 20:35

    Alex, Vincent Wijeysingha posted on his facebook page that “Some several weeks before July, the workers were informed that their contracts were to be varied effective July. Salaries were to be revised upwards. However, the working week was also to be lengthened from five to six days. Recalculating their raised wages against their longer working hours meant an actual drop in wages.” However I recall SMRT clarifying back then that the change to 6-day week does not involve any increase in total working hours i.e. the same working hours are now simply spread over 6 instead of 5 days. Are you familiar with the situation? So far, all we seem to hear in mainstream and online media, including from your post above, is that the living conditions were poor and the PRCs’ pay increase was too low compared to Singaporeans and Malaysians. Is there anything more to the grievance? It would be good if you could clarify.

  35. 70 Ah boon 4 December 2012 at 08:49

    Problem is an administrative one. Wouldn’t it be fair if Tge PRC drivers were paid the same wages as Malaysian drivers, and later charged lodging fees? It gives them choice of either renting the dorm or a room outside.

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