The Week In Opinion

The future of US-Asean relations; paid to work while sick?

There has been an uptick in the number of visits by senior US office holders culminating in the Asean-US Summit in October 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Having endured a season of relative neglect during the Trump years, can South-east Asia look forward to closer engagement with the United States under President Joe Biden?

Maybe - or maybe not, says Joseph Chinyong Liow, dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Tan Kah Kee chair in comparative and international politics, and professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, in his commentary.

Sure, there has been an uptick in the number of visits by senior US office holders culminating in the Asean-US Summit in October 2021, with Mr Biden himself leading the American delegation.

But at least three developments could potentially disrupt this momentum.

First, the continued absence of a robust economic pillar to support overall US engagement strategy since it withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership in January 2017. While ongoing discussions in Washington about a possible "Indo-Pacific Economic Framework" are encouraging, ultimately the proof is in the pudding.

Second, the Biden administration is preoccupied with developments at home, as the US mid-term congressional elections take place later this year.

"Faced with a surge in Covid-19 infections, a plunge in popularity ratings, and something of a minor mutiny from some conservative Democrats in the Senate, the position of President Biden and his party is hardly unassailable," observes Dr Liow.

Third, there are competing foreign policy priorities, an urgent concern being the Ukraine crisis.

Like the classic British fairy tale, Goldilocks And The Three Bears, the US has to grapple with what counts as the "optimal" approach to South-east Asia: whether the porridge is too hot, too cold or "just right", or the mattress too hard, too soft or "just right", even as it contends with a host of other distractions. Read the full commentary here.

The dark side of attendance allowances

The jailing of a pest control technician who flouted Covid-19 rules and refused a swab test, so that he could continue working and not lose his $100 attendance allowance, has sparked debate over the need for such allowances.

Where are they commonly found? In sectors such as logistics, transport, pest control, retail, cleaning, security, manufacturing, and food and beverage - where work is labour-intensive, and employers are keen to prevent workers from taking unnecessary urgent leave.

In our editorial this week, we argue that this is an unacceptable policy for a few reasons:

  • Financial incentives such as bonuses help sift out the better performers from others. But penalising those who fall ill - and worse, encouraging them to work through their illness - is a perverse incentive. The litmus test: would bosses apply the same principle to themselves?
  • It does not make commercial sense. Sick employees spread germs to colleagues and cannot perform their roles efficiently. They could even injure themselves and others when operating machinery.

Such allowances also hit low wage workers - for whom $100 is a handsome sum - disproportionately. As President Halimah Yacob put it in her Facebook post: "The real solution is to make sure that low wage workers are paid better so that they don't have to depend on such incentives to survive."

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