House sees spirited debate on issue of minimum wage

WP's Jamus Lim concedes policy cannot be implemented now, given the pandemic fallout

Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said he "would not exaggerate" the differences between the minimum wage model advocated by Professor Jamus Lim and the Progressive Wage Model.
Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said he "would not exaggerate" the differences between the minimum wage model advocated by Professor Jamus Lim and the Progressive Wage Model.PHOTOS: GOV.SG

Much progress has been made on improving the lot of the lowest-paid workers as their earnings were built up sector by sector, said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday.

Singapore's efforts to do so involve the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), which he called a "minimum wage plus", Workfare subsidies and many other means, Mr Tharman added.

"And it's not a job that's done for good. We have to do more."

Raising the standard of living of the poor is a complicated matter, he noted, with one issue being how to achieve this goal without losing the wage earner's ability to have the pride of a job and earn a salary.

"I say this, by the way, as an economist, as someone who studies overseas experience very carefully, and who - together with my colleagues - is a practitioner," he added.

Rising to join the spirited debate in the House that lasted nearly an hour on how to tackle income and social inequalities, he said no one should assume that he has a monopoly over compassion.

Noting that he had been taken by the passionate speeches from many of his party colleagues on the subject, he said: "I would like to suggest that none of us have a monopoly over compassion, and I say this not to discredit anyone."

The debate was sparked by a speech by Workers' Party MP Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC), who argued for a minimum wage in his maiden speech in Parliament.

He said there was insufficient compassion in Singapore's policymaking, and that efficiency was prioritised at the expense of equity.

"I humbly suggest that the root of these challenges is insufficient compassion in our policymaking process," he said.

This prompted several People's Action Party MPs to question Associate Professor Lim on whether imposing a minimum wage in the middle of a recession would hit workers hard.

 
 

They also wanted to know what wage level he would set as a minimum and his plans to improve youth unemployment.

Responding to the flurry of questions, Prof Lim conceded that now was not the right time to implement a minimum wage, given the economic fallout from the pandemic, but suggested it could be studied now and rolled out when the situation improved.

He also said he did not have a specific minimum wage in mind and this should be determined by an independent panel.

As for youth unemployment, he did not have a proposal, he said, as he "had not thought about it".

Joining the debate later, Mr Tharman said he "would not exaggerate" the differences between the minimum wage model advocated by Prof Lim and the PWM practised by the Government.

The Government does believe it is important to raise the wages of its lowest-paid workers, he said.

"We really believe this. We've achieved significant progress in the last 10 years and in the last five years, and we think we should go further."

He described PWM as "minimum wage plus" with a sectoral approach. It also had the benefit of allowing policymakers to set the minimum rung at an acceptable level for each sector, he said.

"If you have a single level, you'll have to decide where to pitch it," Mr Tharman said.

 
 

Responding, Prof Lim said he regretted if it came across that he was suggesting he, his party or any individual has a monopoly over compassion. He just wanted equity to be favoured over efficiency.

The House also saw exchanges between WP MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) and several PAP office-holders on the topic of race.

Ms Lim asked yesterday if the Government would consider the possibility of bringing the various race-based self-help groups under a single national umbrella.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Maliki Osman, whose speech Ms Lim was responding to, replied that although the various self-help groups do work together, having distinct groups ensures that each community has the space to understand its own issues and challenges, and work at its own pace.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2020, with the headline 'House sees spirited debate on issue of minimum wage'. Print Edition | Subscribe