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Speech by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister of State for Manpower and National Development at the STF Conference on Fair Employment Practices 2012, 18 April 2012, 9am, Compass West Ballroom, Resorts World Sentosa Singapore


  1. Mr Stephen Lee, President, SNEF, Mr Heng Chee How, Deputy-Secretary General NTUC and TAFEP Co-Chair, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
  2. A fair and inclusive workplace is very much an extension of our desire to build an inclusive society and a stronger Singapore. What is this inclusive society? We envision that everyone aspiring to work towards a better life for themselves and their families will be able to do so. Being employed and having access to good jobs is an important part of that process.
  3. Unemployment in Singapore is at an all time 14 year low of 2%. For Singaporeans, it is at 3%. This are very good figures.
  4. Even though unemployment is low, there is still 3% of the Singaporean workforce without a job. This affects them and their families. Being at near full employment means very little to them if they are struggling. There are many reasons cited for not being able to find jobs. Employers and the unions here will be familiar with them. We have heard many different stories. Some include biased behaviour that they have encountered at the workplace during the employment process, and seemingly discriminatory practices.
  5. We want to be able to see that Singaporeans who want to work can be able to provide for themselves and their families; they must not be denied the chance to work because of bias at the workplace.
  6. We have made good progress for example, in raising the employment rate for older Singaporeans and for women. But there still remains much to be done to be more progressive and inclusive in our HR practices.

    Jobs and Businesses
  7. Let me re-state the relationship between jobs and businesses. Businesses create jobs. Whether local or foreign, when businesses do well, they generate good jobs and opportunities for our people, on a sustainable basis. For businesses to do well, they need to be competitive not just within Singapore, but regionally and even globally as well. Good companies would therefore create opportunities for better with higher wages.
  8. To look after our Singaporeans, it is clearly also in our interests that these companies remain viable and successful. This in turn will create and generate jobs for Singaporeans.
  9. To stay viable and competitive, employers, whether local and foreign, have emphasised repeatedly the importance of being able to hire on merit and to tap into a diverse talent market. Given the tight labour market today and tightening access to foreign workers, employers are also increasingly facing problems hiring enough local workers.
  10. When we begin to understand this landscape and the relationship between the importance of business in this context and the creation of jobs for Singaporeans, we will also begin to comprehend the rationale behind the approach that we take with respect to our economy, manpower polices and so on. We need to strike a balance between seemingly competing needs and interests.
  11. At the heart of all that we do, our concern is primarily about providing for Singaporeans, and Singapore. Looking after businesses as well as looking after workers, go hand in hand.

    Dealing with Discrimination and Bias
  12. With this as a backdrop, you can begin to see the potential tensions as you look to workers and businesses in the workplace.
  13. Dealing with discrimination at the workplace is not straightforward. It is quite a complex issue.
  14. Many countries rely on anti-discrimination laws. Rules do indeed have a place in the overall scheme of things, but they are not the panacea or magic solution to the challenges that we faced. While we do not have a set of anti-discrimination laws in Singapore, we have a set of Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices which we expect all employers to follow.
  15. I know there are some who are critical of this approach, wondering if it will really work in terms of addressing workplace discrimination. Issues involving discrimination are complex. Actual cases handled by TAFEP reveal that in some instances, the complainant’s unhappiness is not just about discrimination but also involve disagreements over quality of work, miscommunication of expectations, misunderstanding over a company’s restructuring plans, or in various instances, it is about disgruntled employees.
  16. We do need to be careful that what we ask for in terms of introducing rigid rules does not end up inadvertently harming the very people we are trying to help. For example when employment protection for those with disabilities was introduced in the United States, this was followed by a significant fall in employment of the disabled1, the very group that these laws were meant to help.
  17. Our tripartite approach is unique. Unions, Businesses and Government work together to address these discriminatory issues. It is not one of unions versus businesses. I believe that this is the key to TAFEP's effectiveness. This is about partnerships between employers, unions and the government in trying to find the best solutions to the problems we faced. I would like to emphasise that supporting this effort is also a range of levers that MOM can bring to bear if needed.
  18. The focus of all these efforts is on practical solutions and at the heart of it is to address the real issue of mindset change.
  19. I am glad that so far even without a law, of the 400 employers approached following allegations of unfair employment practices, none has continued any discriminatory practice that is not in compliance with the guidelines. I believe that most employers are not discriminatory in nature and want to be inclusive. But we also find out that sometimes we do not pay attention to the way we do things, partly out of habit, partly out of not being sensitive or sufficiently conscious of the way things are done. TAFEP will continue to work with our employers with a light touch. But for employers who blatantly disregard the Guidelines, MOM will not hesitate to take firm action.
  20. UK's Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development2, who will be sharing later, noted the progress that Singapore’s leading employers have been making even without the presence of diversity legislation. This is something we need to continue to build on. It is early days yet. TAFEP is a fairly new organisation by all counts. It has a couple of years under its belt. But it has established a strong partnership with the employers and unions. This is something positive and we should continue in this effort.

    Enhanced Guidelines
  21. In October 2011, the Guidelines were enhanced. It affirmed the importance of Singaporeans remaining the core of the workforce, while recognising that foreigners play a role in bringing expertise, knowledge and networks that our economy needs in order to remain competitive and to continue to create better jobs for Singaporeans. Since the launch of the guidelines, the following has taken place:

    • TAFEP has approached over a hundred employers on nationality-related allegations.

    • What are the profiles of companies involved? Big and small firms. Local and foreign firms. It cuts across different sectors. We are watching the trends. There are particular sectors that we are looking out for and will speak to companies in those sectors.

    • We found a range of concerns surfacing, such as job ads that express preference for foreigners (this is probably the most common); foreign supervisors favouring their own countrymen; and exclusionary behaviour, including the speaking of different languages, eating separately, condescending remarks being passed.
  22. What are the actions taken?

    • All such discriminatory job ads were quickly removed when not compliant. In two cases, employers were issued with warnings by MOM.

    • Employers have been contacted. Employers approached have accepted that it is in their interest to attract and develop Singaporean workers on merit and they do not condone foreigners favouring their own kind.

    • At some of the dialogue sections, we met a number of CEOs and one was quite candid in sharing with us that he was quite surprised to hear from TAFEP about his Singaporean workers' unhappiness. He wasn't quite conscious of hiring patterns in his company and assured us that this is something he will be looking at and will be following up on as well. Some employers have taken extra steps to review the hiring patterns of their individual business units to check for and address potential bias.
  23. So what it means is that on an overall basis, the situation may not be quite so dire. However, when you look at specific units within the larger business structure, sometime you might find some practices taking place. This is something I urge employers to pay attention to and to look out for. Gather feedback from the ground to have a sense of how the employment landscape is unfolding in your company.
  24. A common feedback from firms is the tight labour market for locals. Firms are encouraged to improve inclusion efforts, for example, to tap on the supply of older workers and women. There are a number of people who are out of work and looking at coming back to the workforce. Firms should also look at enhancing cross cultural programmes and improve internal communications to reduce misunderstanding .This requires effort and is something well within our capacity to do. We need to get some of these programmes going.
  25. It is important to get the balance right. The principle of hiring on merit remains important. But it is also important for firms to be competitive and strive to continue to generate jobs for our people.
  26. The guidelines call for firms to make reasonable efforts to attract and develop Singaporeans. Do we want to reach a stage where we compel companies to hire a Singaporean even if he is not able to do the job? Having said that, neither do we want companies to take the soft option of not developing their local staff or just simply hiring foreigners out of familiarity. Both scenarios are not something we want to see in our landscape in Singapore.
  27. Singaporeans are not arguing that we should not have foreigners in our midst and in our workforce. Many recognise that we need to be open to remain competitive. We need to be open at both the Work Pass levels as well as Employment Pass levels. It is a question of degree and extent. And most critically, Singaporeans must be able to operate on a level playing field. I agree with this statement. I think these are fair expectations
  28. At the same time, I am fully aware of the frustrations that many employers face. Many employers do share with us quite candidly. For example, at a dialogue with Singaporeans, someone raised the concern and a very common refrain that we hear of today about Singaporeans being displaced by foreigners. I asked the audience if we should tighten up the inflow even more significantly. Suddenly, a number of hands shot up to argue why we should not and how it would damage their businesses and adversely affect the Singaporeans they employ. These are Singaporean employers who acknowledged that they are happy and keen to employ Singaporeans. At the same time, they also recognise that there are limitations both in terms of competencies, skills in certain areas. This is why they need the access to foreign talents. But they also want to hire on merit as well. So you begin to see the different perspectives that are being brought out. The challenge is how we take on board these different considerations and challenges all of which are valid to one degree or another and in trying to find the right balance.
  29. The same argument about individual displacement can be extended to businesses being displaced as well, if one loses competitiveness. This is important for us to talk about. Especially in social media, we tend to hear stories of Singaporeans purportedly being displaced. But that same story can be extended to companies, if we're not careful. If we take these stories too far, companies can be threatened and displaced in a very competitive marketplace. At a much larger level, given the lower costs of operating in many other countries, and the competition provided by countries like China and from our region, could our position as a business hub be also similarly displaced? It's not just individuals, or companies, but our position as a country drawing good companies here that will be displaced as companies decide to move elsewhere. We do not need to go very far back. A couple of years ago, we faced that challenge. PSA, and certain shipping lines like Maersk, Evergreen, were thinking of relocating elsewhere. Those are the pressures we face. Capital is mobile, the labour workforce is mobile. This is something we do need to bear in mind in the overall scheme of things as we grapple with the challenges and tensions that we face.
  30. So how do we reconcile this with the frustrations that some Singaporeans have about the presence of what they consider to be too many foreigners in our midst, and the fear that foreigners are taking away their jobs?

    All Have a Part to Play
  31. We need to decide about the kind of Singapore we want. Building an inclusive society and establishing a fair and inclusive workplace is achievable. All of us can play a part.
  32. The Government has put in place a host of programmes, resources and initiatives.
  33. Employees play an active role in creating harmony at the workplace. It is something well within our capacity to do at our workplaces, to be more tolerant, more sensitive, to reach out to other people in our midst and build bonds of friendship. That's when things can begin to change, rather than an us versus them kind of mentality. This applies to both foreigners working in our midst and locals as well. For those who are encountering discrimination at the workplace, you should raise it up to management, and when you need to don’t hesitate to contact TAFEP for advice and assistance and we'll come in to see what we can do to assist.
  34. For those looking for a job, stay positive. Up-skill if you need to via the various programmes available under our CET framework. Individual supervisors and co-workers also have an important role in creating a positive inclusive working environment for new colleagues.
  35. Today I want to recognise an individual, Segar whom some of you might recognise in the TVC that was played earlier. Segar demonstrates in his own life, part of this positive and inclusive attitude I hope we can see more of. Segar lost the use of his lower limbs in a motorcycle accident 18 years ago. He and his employer were able to see him for what he can do. Today, Segar continues to be a valued worker in the company.
  36. Employers should seize opportunities to enhance their ability to tap on a wider talent pool. For those arguing they are short of workers, I would strongly suggest that they review their efforts to create more fair and inclusive workplaces that can be attractive to Singaporeans who are keen to rejoin the workforce.
  37. I am glad to say that employers have also been increasingly playing their part. More companies continue to pledge their support for fair employment. At last count there are more than 1,900. More companies are improving their practices. In 2011, over 4000 participants attended fair employment training organised by TAFEP. We envisage that this will continue. Many firms are working with TAFEP to enhance and share their leading practices. At this conference TAFEP will be releasing another new toolkit, especially developed for SMEs, which sets out steps to help SMEs kick-start their diversity and inclusion journey.
  38. In this year's TAFEP Exemplary Employer Award, we have seen more employers than ever before being nominated by their own employees or union. You cannot apply for this award, the employees or unions must nominate you. It’s encouraging that more employers are taking up the challenge of the fairly robust assessment that comes with this award and sharing their practices.
  39. These companies have gone beyond hiring on merit to taking proactive steps in being inclusive. It is no longer just about hiring on the basis of merit, but looking at promoting a more much inclusive workspace. They embrace inclusivity by understanding how employees' differences and similarities can be mobilised for the benefit of the individual, the organisation and society as a whole. They also recognise that different approaches are required for different people who have different needs and expectations. The emphasis is placed on valuing differences as opposed to just about fitting in.
  40. Let me share two examples, both of whom are SMEs. Absolute Kinetics, with 95 employees, has implemented a series of inclusive practices ranging from cultural celebrations to having a prayer room within their shop house office. Despite having only 20% of women in the organisation, Absolute Kinetics has implemented different flexible work arrangements to help employees perform their professional and personal roles, exemplifying one of their core values of "care". Even though there is not a significant number of women in their midst, they do cater for women, and that is something I hope more companies will emulate.
  41. Man Diesel and Turbo Singapore Pte Ltd won the Outstanding Leadership in Supporting Fair Employment Practices award. Man Diesel’s strong family culture can saw them providing strong support for one of their service engineers who had lost his arms in an accident. Focusing on what the employee can do, Man Diesel changed his job role and employed him to assist with data entry after he picked up computer skills in typing reports using his mouth. I think we would be hard pressed to find many companies that will go the extra mile and that this is something that I hope many of us will be inspired by. We may not face the exact same circumstances, but I believe in our workspace we do encounter our employees who fall on hard times. This is where being compassionate, being thoughtful and caring for people and really walking the talk really matters. It is not surprising that their resignation and absenteeism rates are way below the industry average.

    Building a Society we can be Proud of
  42. What is your workplace like?
  43. The broader question I think we all need to ask of ourselves is: What kind of society do we want to build? All our workplaces are part of this larger society we live in. What kind of society can we all be proud of? Who do we want to be as a people? This is not just about the workplace, but also about the conversations that we participate in, in person or online. Who do we really want be? How do we want to be looked at by the people observing us?
  44. For me, I believe we are really about building a fair and inclusive society for all Singaporeans. Singapore would be stronger because we all have a stake and play a role, be it big or small. Our strength comes from a common sense of who we are and what we stand for, and the values we share as a people.
  45. I believe that we are a society that treats each other and others with respect. We are a society that cares for others in the community and we should be a society where people will look beyond the self.
  46. We are, from history, a society that embraces diversity.
  47. At the workplace, we treat our workers with respect regardless of background. I hope to see employers who are based here embrace Singaporeans and Singapore. Employers should make their best effort to attract and develop Singaporeans, even as they seek to hire on merit. Employers need to take proactive steps to ensure a harmonious workplace where employees of different age, race, religion, gender, family status or physical ability work well together.
  48. At the employee level, our foreign friends likewise should embrace Singaporeans and Singapore. Just as I trust Singaporeans will be in turn be warm and welcoming.
  49. Singaporeans believe in the ethic of hard work. Singaporeans want to aspire to have good jobs, to look after themselves and their families. They want to be treated fairly and with dignity. With Singapore’s diverse population, there is no place for discrimination. Employers must remember this, and provide workplaces where differences are respected and nurture employees who are engaged and enabled to do their best.
  50. The kind of society and future really, is determined by all of us. If we stay silent and do nothing, we may let the tide of xenophobia, bias, discrimination wash over us. We should stand up and fight for what we believe, and we will build something that represents the very best of all of us.
  51. This is too important an effort to ignore and to shy away from. At the end of the day, we are building a brighter future not just for ourselves, but for our children, and for their children in turn. If we don’t do this, no one else will.
  52. Thank you very much and I wish you all a good conference.

    1 The Americans with Disabilities Act study on the drop in employment of the disabled after the law was first introduced.
    2 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development whose team will be providing the key note address for the Conference.