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Speech at Launch of the Tripartite Centre for Fair Employment

Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Defence

Mr Stephen Lee
President, Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF)

Mr John de Payva
President, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC)

Mdm Halimah Yacob and Mr Bob Tan
Co-Chairs of the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon,

I am pleased to join you today at the launch of the Tripartite Centre for Fair Employment.


2.   Let me start by sharing the stories of two workers, both May Day award winners. Mr Tan Beng Huat joined the Ritz-Carlton Hotel as a housekeeping attendant when he was 61 years old. Now at age 72, he continues to be proactive, energetic and is regularly complimented by hotel guests for his "magical touch" and good service. For his dedication and contributions, he was recognised as Ritz-Carlton's 5-star Employee of the Quarter, and as a May Day Model Worker. Mdm Sarasvathy, a healthcare assistant with the Institute of Mental Health, is a mother of four young children. Despite her heavy family commitments, Mdm Sarasvathy exhibits tremendous enthusiasm and motivation when caring for her patients. Her consistently good performance won her the NTUC Model Worker Award.

3.   It is appropriate to begin this ceremony with stories like Mr Tan and Mdm Sarasvathy and their contributions to their employers. Because this is the outcome that the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices, or TAFEP, seeks to accomplish – to give equal opportunity to all workers, and for employers to benefit fully from the individual worth of every worker. Discrimination at the workplace is a triple tragedy. It robs employees of a chance to prove their value, make a living and feed their families. It limits employers from getting the most from all available human resources. Lastly, but certainly not the least, it impoverishes our nation, which has become an icon of meritocracy and equality. Just think of what might have been lost if their employers chose not to interview Mr Tan just because he was 61 when he applied for the job, or Mdm Sarasvathy because she had several young children.

Action against Obvious Discrimination

4.   At work or in society at large, all of us want to be given an opportunity to prove our worth and not be stereotyped or to have to contend against inherent biases. In Singapore, because of our multi-racial and multi-ethnic society and our deeply held belief in meritocracy, discrimination at work is fortunately at a low level. From time to time, my Ministry receives complaints from older workers about employers who rejected their job applications because of their age, or from workers who were turned away on grounds of pregnancy or for having young children. These cases are small in numbers, compared to the size of our workforce. Nevertheless, we continue to act on these complaints to check these unwanted practices. But not all cases of rejected job applications or bypassed promotions are due to discrimination. Most employers are fair, and we sometimes mediate and help employers and employees resolve their misunderstandings.

5.   When discrimination is obvious, we take a tough stance. In 2005, my Ministry did so against a condominium and its managing agent for their policy against the hiring of Indian security guards. The incident also triggered public outbursts. This is a positive sign - it demonstrated that Singaporeans understand, and agree that discrimination has no place in Singapore. But examples of such overt discrimination are not common.

Focus on Results, rather than Form

6.   Discrimination, where it exists among the few black sheep, can be practiced in subtler forms, here and in workplaces in the rest of the World. Other countries have used different approaches to weed out the problem. Take France as an example that uses a doctrinaire and legalistic approach. In France, you are not allowed to classify people by their ethnicity, as the country considers all citizens to be equally French. This information cannot be asked or put down in public documents. The assumption is that the prescribed form will help change mindsets and rid discrimination. Has it worked? Not quite. It did not prevent some of France's ethnic minorities from perceiving that they were discriminated against. As a result, in 2005, civil riots erupted in some communities. Likewise, in the rest of Europe, well-established anti-discrimination laws have been laid down for many years. But a recent Standard Eurobarometer survey in 2006 revealed that a large proportion of Europeans still perceive that employment discrimination is widespread in their countries. The root problems of discrimination are as deep and old as the human nature itself, and will not be eradicated by simply prescribing outward forms through anti-discrimination laws or practices. Where this has been attempted, they introduce rigidities and increase compliance costs, while not addressing the core issue. Those who are bent on discriminating can find ways around laws, and can seldom be prosecuted in these jurisdictions.

7.   In Singapore, we should take a practical but effective approach. The challenge is to shape mindsets and behaviour so that fair employment becomes an integral part of corporate culture and practices, even an inherent trait. This will of course take time but we can capitalise on our close tripartite partnership to help us tackle this complex issue. This was the genesis for TAFEP, where together with the employers and unions, we have adopted a promotional approach in engaging the various stakeholders, to raise awareness and facilitate the adoption of fair and responsible employment practices.

Tripartite Efforts in Tackling Discrimination

8.   Our tripartite partnership has been effective in bringing about positive changes on employment and industrial relations issues, such as wage restructuring and work-life initiatives. This consensual tripartite approach has also been used to address workplace discrimination, and is already showing positive results. For instance, the release of the Tripartite Guidelines on Non-Discriminatory Job Advertisements1  in 1999 has led to a significant drop in the number of job advertisements that would have been perceived to be discriminatory, from over 30% in 1999 to less than 1% in 2006.

9.   The tripartite efforts have been gathering pace since the formation of TAFEP in May 2006. Under the able leadership of the co-Chairs, Mdm Halimah Yacob and Mr Bob Tan, TAFEP has spearheaded a number of promotional programmes to shape the perceptions and mindsets of employers, employees and the public against discriminatory workplace practices. TAFEP has also formulated a comprehensive set of tripartite guidelines to assist employers in adopting fair employment practices in areas such as job applications, interviews and dismissal procedures. These guidelines set out key principles and take a practical approach towards shaping corporate norms for employment practices that are fair and based on merit. The results have been encouraging, with more than 500 employers so far pledging to embrace the principles of fair employment and adopt the tripartite guidelines. Notably, Singapore's ranking for workplace discrimination under the World Competitiveness Yearbook 2007 improved significantly from 25th placing in 2006 to 5th position this year

10.   It is timely for TAFEP to build on the progress made, and take it to the next level. The launch of the Tripartite Centre for Fair Employment signals the long-term commitment of the employers and unions, with the strong support of the Government, in bringing about fair and progressive workplace practices. The Centre will help to enhance TAFEP's promotional and outreach efforts. It will be a one-stop centre where workers and employers can provide feedback and seek advice on fair employment practices. Employers can also tap on the Centre's assistance to build up capabilities such as HR processes.


11.   We are on the right track, and I would like to commend our tripartite partners for getting us off to a good start. By adopting a promotional and practical approach, I am confident that TAFEP would realise its vision of achieving workplaces based on fairness and merit. This would enable our employees to realise their full potential and help employers achieve organisational excellence. On this note, let me wish TAFEP success in its endeavors, as well as encourage our employers to be fair and hire on merit.

12.   Thank you.

1 The Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices or TAFEP has since revised and updated the guidelines in 2006 taking into consideration public feedback.