Singapore's 'collective indifference' to low wage workers hurts ability to cope with COVID-19: Walter Theseira

·Senior Editor
·5-min read
(SCREENSHOT: Nominated Member of Parliament Walter Theseira/ YouTube
(SCREENSHOT: Nominated Member of Parliament Walter Theseira/ YouTube

SINGAPORE — Amid ongoing efforts to restructure the Singapore economy for the long term, Nominated Member of Parliament Walter Theseira has called for greater access to and debate on economic data, as well as a paradigm shift in the perception of what is socially essential work.

Speaking on Thursday (4 June) during the parliamentary debate on the Fortitude Budget, which will provide $33 billion in financial support for businesses, workers and households, Prof Theseira warned, “We must examine the hidden cost to social stability when we expect to have a first world standard of living, delivered at third world prices.

“Despite what we consider to be low wages and difficult working conditions, our collective indifference to the struggles of low wage workers in Singapore, whatever the nationality, has hurt our ability to cope with this crisis, and it will continue to harm our ability to build a compassionate and resilient society.”

While migration has enabled migrants and locals alike to better meet their needs and aspirations better, it still creates winners and losers, according to Prof Theseira. There is an obligation to the public to understand how labour migration affects the jobs of Singaporeans, and discuss its consequences on the local economy, he added.

“If we fail to build the capacity to question, understand and reform our system if necessary, to provide better treatment and living wages for low wage workers, we will each bear the complicity of the bystander.”

Data on the impact of foreign labour

In recent weeks, there have been calls to reduce Singapore’s reliance on cheap foreign labour, amid a massive COVID-19 outbreak in migrant worker dormitories. While acknowledging the need to do so, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said recently that it is not possible to do away with migrant workers completely.

“The fundamental question is… what proportion of our labour force is prepared to do these sectors’ jobs?” Chan was reported as saying. "Do you think you'll be recruiting, at every cohort of Singaporean babies, about 6 to 8 per cent of them into the construction industry? I think realistically, our Singaporean children... want a diversity of jobs."

Prof Theseira noted that a dependence on migrant workers is not unique to Singapore - successful cities throughout history have grown rapidly through migration, and not because of the fertility of the existing population. He noted that in 1970, there were about 21,000 foreign workers in Singapore, making up just above 3 per cent of the labor force. By 2019, the number was closer to 1.42 million, which was about 38 per cent of the country’s labor force.

“The unseen engine behind global cities worldwide is the vast army of essential workers who are frequently paid too little to live next to those they provide services to,” said Prof Theseira, noting that Singapore has been able to cope in part because migrant workers and Malaysian day workers are willing to do these jobs at wages which are “nearly unliveable” in Singapore.

“But it's not sustainable to depend on continuing low wages in migrant workers' source countries to excuse us from finding a solution.”

And while the concerns of economists on the impact of foreign labour date back to the 1970s, there seems to have been little progress in understanding the role of such workers in Singapore's economy. Microeconomic data on the Singapore labour market is rarely available to researchers, even though the government has likely conducted high quality studies on migrant labour and the Singapore economy over the years.

“But the quality of the public discourse is harmed when such research is not put into the public eye, is not taught or conducted by our universities and is not debated by the public. This is an issue that goes beyond politics: it's part of the democratic discourse that we need to progress as a nation. A great society is able to confront the unpleasant realities beneath the surface and resolve to make painful but necessary changes for collective progress.”

Paradigm shift needed

The country’s unprecedented fourth Budget for its current financial year brings the total of pandemic-related measures to almost $93 billion, with the government dipping into the national reserves for only the third time.

But Prof Theseira urged, “We must resist the temptation to use the reserves simply to preserve the economic model of the past, in the hopes that we can return to it once the COVID-19 outbreak subsides. Is the right economic model for our future that which has driven us over the past decades, one where we aim as far as possible to have Singaporeans take up PMET jobs and migrant workers the rest?”

In this regard, he urged an expansion of the Emerging Stronger Taskforce (EST) beyond captains of industry. Co-chaired by Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee and PSA International Group CEO Tan Chong Meng, the EST has been tasked with managing the long-term economic impact of the coronavirus.

The NMP echoed Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim’s call for greater diversity in the composition of the EST, and said it should include members from essential services, social services, civil society and academia, as well as greater engagement of the public.

Prof Theseira advocated building an economy that includes many skilled and decently paid craftsmen, technicians and service workers. “If we recognise that all work, especially socially essential work, has value, then we need to agree, there is no shame in having Singaporeans take up manual and service jobs.”

He added, “The only shame is if we who have power and influence fail to ensure that the conditions of work and wages in these service jobs are such that Singaporeans find no dignity in taking them up.”

Stay in the know on-the-go: Join Yahoo Singapore's Telegram channel at

Related stories:

COVID-19 economic recovery taskforce does not have enough women: Sylvia Lim

COVID-19 testing at migrant worker dorms may take up to September: Gan Kim Yong

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting