Racial discrimination, wage issues raised by Indian grassroots leaders at post-NDR dialogue

Participants raised the issue of racial discrimination in employment opportunities and at the workplace. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Discrimination and racism in Singapore were the main concerns that Indian community leaders raised during a dialogue session on Tuesday night (Sept 7) to discuss views on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech.

About 200 participants, from various Indian organisations as well as grassroots volunteers, attended the two-hour virtual session, which was organised by the People's Association Indian Activity Executive Committees Council (Narpani Pearavai).

Other issues raised included the impact of the Progressive Wage Model and mental health concerns among isolated elderly residents.

One of the dialogue participants, undergraduate student Loshini Sivakumar, 21, said the session helped her gain a fresh perspective on some of the topics mentioned during PM Lee's speech.

Ms Loshini, a grassroots volunteer since last year, said: "The session gave me a chance to share my views on how our civic curriculum in school can be restructured to dismantle racial stereotypes and promote better understanding.

"My takeaway was that, beyond the school curriculum, lived experience outside the classroom can be equally important in fostering good relationships between the communities."

In the opening segment, participants raised the issue of racial discrimination in employment opportunities and at the workplace. They also offered their perspectives on Chinese privilege.

They cited the recent case where the managing agent of Hillview Heights condominium was flagged by the Security Association Singapore for discrimination against non-Mandarin speakers and older workers in its tender for security services.

The participants also discussed how some racists acts that had taken place this year and how discussions on the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) could lead to racially charged rhetoric.

Transport Minister S. Iswaran and Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary, who are advisers to Narpani, provided clarifications on the issues and discussed potential steps the Government could explore in the future.

In his speech on Aug 29, PM Lee said Singapore would introduce a new Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act to encourage moderation and tolerance between different racial groups. To prevent workplace discrimination, he also touched on enshrining the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) guidelines into law.

This will protect workers against discrimination based on nationality, age, race, religion and disability, as well as other kinds of discrimination covered by Tafep.

Beyond race issues, the participants questioned if the new measures requiring firms that employ foreign workers to pay all local employees at least $1,400 a month will be sustainable in the long run.

This tightened Local Qualifying Salary (LQS) requirement is among efforts the Government will undertake to support lower-wage workers.

A participant representing the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association raised the issue of merchants facing a manpower crunch, as locals were either not skilled in traditional tasks such as flower-tying or production of sweet and savoury goods, or were unwilling to do such jobs, which include long hours of shop assistance.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the National Day Rally 2021 on Aug 29, 2021. PHOTO: ST FILE

During his speech, PM Lee had said that lower-wage workers needed long-term support that went beyond emergency assistance.

A representative from a local non-profit organisation lauded the collective effort of the Government and community groups to help individuals struggling with mental health issues amid the pandemic.

In their concluding remarks to the media, Mr Iswaran and Dr Janil said the dialogue session reflected residents' balanced views on pertinent issues and an opportunity to promote constructive conversations at the grassroots level.

Dr Janil said that the key issues that were raised were very much aligned with what PM Lee talked about during the Rally.

He noted that "participants were also concerned about what will happen to the vulnerable in our community and especially the lower-wage workers".

"And there were questions and views about the approach we are taking through the Progressive Wage Model and the LQS, and whether this is going to be simple to execute, and there was quite a lot of understanding that this is going to assert some pressures on employers and potentially on customers."

Mr Iswaran observed that the participants were very engaged.

"They were quite balanced in the way they addressed the topics, especially when you take the totality of views that were expressed. And I think they were also very constructive in the way they were thinking about issues," he said.

"The discussion was balanced in acknowledging our challenges and issues, but also in acknowledging what our strengths, and the progress we have made."

The grassroots leaders not only identified some areas for improvement, he said, but also "talk about, and ask questions around 'what can we do as grassroots leaders on the ground, perhaps in the education system'... 'how can we promote the conversation, the dialogues further, so that we can do this without creating ill will, but actually to build a constructive dialogue around how we can make, Singapore, an even better place'."

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