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From The Gallery

No perfect time to change a law, but good to plan ahead

When is the best time to change a law? That question cropped up during debates on both the Bills that were up for a second reading in yesterday's Parliament sitting.

Even if a piece of legislation is sound in principle, the timing of its implementation can raise concerns. Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC), for instance, supported moves to better protect retail investors in the Securities and Futures (Amendment) Bill, even asking if the penalties were punitive enough. But she also raised concerns about the timing of the Bill. In the current poor economic climate, she said, the "overwhelming number and rate of regulatory changes" can exact "heavy compliance costs".

Relationship managers in banks are already struggling to comply with previous changes, she added.

Similar concerns were raised by MPs in the debate on the Retirement and Re-employment (Amendment) Bill.

From July 1, employers will have to rehire older workers up to age 67, if they have satisfactory work performance and are fit to work. A firm can also transfer the workers to another company, with their consent - failing which the employer must offer a payment.

While MPs recognised the value of older workers and supported efforts to ensure their employment, some raised concerns about the timing of the Bill and its impact on firms in today's weak economy.

While MPs recognised the value of older workers and backed efforts to ensure their employment, some were concerned by the Bill's timing and its impact on firms in today's weak economy.
While MPs recognised the value of older workers and backed efforts to ensure their employment, some were concerned by the Bill's timing and its impact on firms in today's weak economy. ST FILE PHOTO

Nominated MP Randolph Tan, an economist from SIM University, was concerned about the regulatory burden the changes could put on small and medium-sized enterprises in particular, which might not have the manpower to cope.

NMP Thomas Chua, president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, noted that in the current economy, many industries are restructuring and shedding workers. At the same time, the productivity push is also about reducing the need for manpower.

Yet under these circumstances, the Government is asking firms to find a role for older workers "even if there is no position available", or pay a "substantial amount" instead, said Mr Chua.

Businesses can continue to provide jobs - including those for older workers - only if they are doing well, he concluded.

Yet for other MPs, these changes have come too late. Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh observed that back in 1993, when Parliament raised the retirement age from 55 to 60, the Government also aimed to raise it to 67 within a decade. He said that only 23 years later has the target age - now for re-employment rather than retirement - been reached.

He asked: "How many senior Singaporeans who had wanted to work longer have lost many good working years as a result?"

He also suggested that the target age of 67 be updated, given that life expectancy has risen since it was set more than two decades ago - a point also made by labour MP Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC). Similarly, labour NMP K. Thanaletchimi highlighted the plight of older workers who lost their jobs before the law was changed.

For his part, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say explained various sticking points that slowed down tripartite negotiations - between the Government, employers and unions - on the subject. He also reassured members that, compared with other countries, Singapore was not moving too slowly.

When the changes kick in this July, Singapore will actually move ahead of Japan, where the re-employment age remains 65, he said.

Perhaps the broader conclusion to draw is that there is never a good time for certain policy changes.

Even under ordinary conditions, legislative change can take a long time, especially if negotiations are required.

Urging caution during tough economic times is prudent. But on the flip side, what this means is that the drive to support older workers "can easily lose momentum", as labour MP Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC) observed.

Rather than putting off changes that the labour movement has long fought for, in this case, it is best to move forward while providing firms with help - as the Government is indeed doing.

Responding to calls from various MPs to provide incentives for employers to keep older workers, Mr Lim said the Government is "actively looking into this".

The nature of the help will be decided upon well ahead of the July 1 implementation date, he added.

Also, to keep legislation up to date and effective, it cannot be too early to anticipate future challenges. Even as yesterday's Bill - so long in the making - was about to be passed, Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Heng Chee How was flagging future changes that could be made.

He noted that in future, firms will keep a small core of permanent staff and rely more on contract, outsourced or freelance labour. More workers will be self-employed or take on non-traditional forms of work.

Labour laws and arrangements must keep up with this growing "gig economy", said Mr Heng.

Given how long the changes to the law on re-employment have taken, it is surely not too soon to start looking at this new area of concern.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2017, with the headline 'No perfect time to change a law, but good to plan ahead'. Print Edition | Subscribe