Singapore — The minimum wage issue was debated in Parliament on Thursday (Oct 15) by the Senior Minister of State for Health, Dr Koh Poh Koon, and the Workers’ Party’s (WP) Pritam Singh and Jamus Lim.

Dr Koh referred to a social media post from Mr Singh (Leader of the Opposition and WP Secretary-General) from earlier in the week that called a universal minimum wage of S$1,300 a “moral imperative”. Dr Koh said adapting a minimum wage risked generating a “political auction”, according to a report by Yahoo Singapore.

“In a political contest, a political party will surely come along and say, well, S$1,500 will reflect higher ‘moral imperatives’. Yet another will come along and say S$1,300 is good, S$1,500 is better, but S$1,700 must surely be more divine, more imperative. It can become a political auction,” he said.

Dr Koh, who is also Deputy Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), instead advocated for the Progressive Wage Model, which is based on the consensus of the tripartite alliance.

“We look at data, but incorporate the consensus of all the stakeholders, including businesses, so that they also must be prepared to price this into their business costs, and have a way to also socialise it to the consumers,” he said in Parliament.

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He quoted a saying in Hokkien from Toh Hock Poh, a long-time union leader: “(If a minimum wage was) so easy to do, we’d have done it long ago.”

Associate Professor Lim replied that depending on “folksy wisdom and beliefs” from union leaders is inadvisable. He instead pointed to studies showing that the minimum wage does not bring about an appreciable increase in joblessness.

“All evidence from countries all over the world, demonstrate that a minimum wage has minimal impact on unemployment, as long as it’s not set too high.”

He also addressed a point Dr Koh had raised that the minimum wage would be detrimental to Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), saying that in the case of US entrepreneur Henry Ford, who mass-produced cars: “He said that he has to pay his workers enough so that they can buy his cars. So when we pay our workers enough, it need not be the case that our small businesses end up suffering as a result.”

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The reports that Dr Koh also told Parliament that the proposed minimum wage figure set by Mr Singh is not met by only a “very small number” of Singaporeans who work full time or 1.7 per cent of full-time workers. He explained that according to data from the Ministry of Manpower, among the 100,000 lower-wage workers in the country who earn this amount, after factoring in Workfare wage top-ups and employers’ Central Provident Fund contribution, around 56,000 take home less than $1,300. From this number, about 32,000 are full-time employees or 1.7 per cent of the work force, he added.

Mr Singh pointed out that if the Government perceives that this is a small number indeed, then paying all Singaporeans a minimum wage should not be difficult.

He said: “My question quite simply is, do we need to wait so long to cover these Singaporeans? I don’t think it is acceptable that any Singaporean is earning below this number.”

In order to prevent the issue from becoming a political matter, he said that the National Wages Council could implement the minimum wage.

Dr Koh replied that the cited 1.7 per cent of the local work force earning below S$1,300 is “not a very clean data” as this figure could include people who work “in jobs like hawker assistant, helping a family member, they’re drawing a salary, but they’re happy to be just getting S$700 a month, helping the father or a mother or something like that, manning a store for example”.

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A/Prof Lim responded: “We are not comparing these particular special cases, we are talking about individuals that happen to be working just a regular full-time work week, and without disability and are nevertheless, struggling to make ends meet.

“And even if it is 32,000 people, I do not think that any of these 32,000 people feel that they are being taken care of and I also don’t feel that we should let them, in as rich a society as we are, flounder on their own.” /TISG

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