National Day Rally 2021: A Singapore-style approach to bridge fault lines

Whether it's about race or wages, this means discussing issues and building consensus

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivering his National Day Rally speech on Aug 29, 2021.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - Covid-19 has cast a spotlight on vulnerable groups, and deepened several fault lines - between haves and have-nots, locals and foreigners, and over race.

It was therefore timely that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally focused at length on tackling these issues.

From raising the wages of lower-paid workers to having laws on workplace discrimination and racial harmony, these are landmark measures to prevent fault lines becoming entrenched and intractable divides.

Moves to lift the lot of lower-wage workers will impose a baseline wage for eight in 10 of them.

And after resistance from the Government to introducing anti-discrimination laws - which labour MPs have called for over the years - guidelines on workplace discrimination will become law, proscribing bias on the grounds of nationality, age, race, religion and disability. But as PM Lee put it, the hope is that workplace disputes are resolved informally and amicably through conciliation and mediation, if possible, with legal redress as a last recourse.

A similar approach is in place when it comes to disputes over salaries or wrongful dismissal.

Likewise, a proposed Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act will consolidate the Government's powers to deal with racial issues and signal that racist behaviour is unacceptable in Singapore.

But it will also incorporate a softer touch that would "heal hurt, instead of leaving resentment".

What is equally important is the Singapore-style process that led up to these changes to address critical fault lines.

Speaking about the preferred approach on how policies concerning race and religion are adjusted, PM Lee said this should be done with caution, given that these are highly sensitive issues, but also "based on our own needs and circumstances, and not just because of trends abroad".

"We have to take the time to discuss respectfully, make sure everybody understands, and build a consensus before we make any move," he said.

A similar approach appears to have paid dividends in helping lower-wage workers, by ensuring buy-in from employers.

A wage ladder for those in the cleaning sector was mooted in 2012, before being made mandatory in 2014. This Progressive Wage Model (PWM) now covers security guards, as well as landscaping and lift maintenance workers, with wage growth tied to productivity gains. Yet, many felt progress on this front was slow, and it took a pandemic to force more meaningful change.

Recognising the burden many other lower-wage workers faced during the pandemic, a tripartite workgroup comprising representatives from employers, unions and the Government was formed last October to see how to lift the lot of these workers. It has recommended expanding the PWM to more areas, as well as to specific occupations across sectors, starting with administrative assistants and drivers.

What is effectively a base wage - the local qualifying salary - must be paid to all staff if a company wishes to hire foreign workers.

There will also be a system to accredit companies that pay all their workers decent wages. Businesses are expected to baulk, as they will have to foot part of the costs.

Customers, too, must chip in.

But the toughest fault line will remain race and religion, which have been in the spotlight following recent incidents.

PM Lee had, in his Chinese speech, said it is baseless to claim there is "Chinese privilege" in Singapore as all races are treated equally, with no special privileges.

He also reminded Chinese Singaporeans of the need to be sensitive to concerns and difficulties that ethnic minorities face, such as when renting a home or looking for jobs. "If we let the preferences of such employers and home owners build up over time, they will become prejudice, and minorities will feel they are discriminated against," he said.

"If left unaddressed, such preferences will gradually deepen the fissures in our society."

PM Lee acknowledged that each generation has its own perspective on racial issues - older Singaporeans prefer not to discuss them too much, but a younger generation wants to be more open and relook assumptions afresh.

These generational differences are understandable and should be accommodated, he added. After all, racial and religious harmony is not just delicate, but also dynamic.

Going by reactions on social media on Sunday night to the Prime Minister's remarks on race - in particular on the subject of privilege - consensus on the issue might be harder to achieve.

But it should not take a crisis to bring about change.

There has been a rise in conversations on race in recent weeks, where among others, participants agree to disagree but more importantly, continue to engage one another to find a way forward. These must continue, as an opportunity for a younger generation to find its own equilibrium on an issue that is critical to a Singapore that remains united, not divided.