Singapore — Former National University of Singapore (NUS) Associate Professor Ho Ting Fei has asked, in the midst of the discussion on whether there should be a minimum wage in Singapore, how anyone can survive on less than S$1,300 a month.

The debate was sparked in Parliament on Oct 15 when Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh called on the authorities to implement a universal minimum wage set at S$1,300 per month since the Government’s Progressive Wage Model (PWM) was taking too long to roll out to all sectors. The call sparked debate between People’s Action Party and WP MPs.

The PWM, which takes a sectoral approach to lifting the wages of Singapore’s least-paid workers, has been in force for eight years but has only been applied to three sectors in that time. The Government has in the meantime positioned the PWM as a “minimum wage plus” initiative in the face of calls for it to implement a minimum wage.

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While the WP held that it is not acceptable for any number of workers to earn lower than a liveable wage, no matter how small the numbers, the PAP argued that implementing a minimum wage can handicap or kill small-medium enterprises and lead to greater unemployment, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

During the debate in Parliament, it was stated that about 100,000 workers earn below S$1,300, including about 25,000 who are self-employed and would not benefit from a minimum wage. After Workfare disbursements and Central Provident Fund contributions by employers, 56,000 workers – 32,000 of whom work full-time – earn less than S$1,300  each month.

In a Forum letter published on Wednesday (Oct 21) in The Straits Times, Dr Ho said the priority should not be on whether there should be a minimum wage level but on how anyone can survive on less than S$1,300 given Singapore’s high cost of living.

Dr Ho, who said that the 32,000 full-time workers who earn less than S$1,300 a month “should not be tossed around as statistics whenever the topic of minimum wage is raised”,  added that uplifting their wages would give them some hope and that it is futile to discuss skills upgrading unless they are lifted “out of the pit of low wages”.

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The doctor argued: “If we cannot help them put food on the dinner table or provide for their basic needs, it is futile to talk about increasing productivity.

“Be practical and realistic. These are our fellow Singaporeans who are poor and desperate. These are people we should not ignore regardless of the number. The question is whether we give them the dignity and respect they deserve.”

Dr Ho taught at NUS for three decades, between 1979 and 2009, before stepping down to focus on her private practice. Read her forum letter in full HERE.

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