On the President’s Address – Speech by He Ting Ru

Mr Speaker

In Madam President’s speech, and over the last few days, we have heard that many of us in this House agree that we must stay united, in order to face the turbulence in our journey ahead of us. In an increasingly multi-polar world, I hope that we will at the same time sharpen our skills and ability to maintain Unity In Diversity, whether this is the diversity of different backgrounds, cultures, abilities, or even political views and allegiances. It is not a foreign concept in fields such as management and relationship counselling, that disagreement – done respectfully – can be turned into an opportunity to strengthen bonds and build a stronger team. And it is my hope that we can sharpen our skills and ability to do this Singapore, and to lead by example in this House.

Indeed, greater inclusivity and respect between diverse individuals and groups has to go beyond lip service – the multiple cross-ministry and cross-agency task forces, national conversations and consultation exercises set up to look into this matter are only one step in the work to be done for us as a nation to move towards greater inclusivity and accommodation for all. The principle and embrace of our diversity must form the backbone and core of our systems in all areas, whether they be the education system, our built environment, or the workplace.

I recall from my growing up years the oft-repeated refrain that our people in Singapore are our only – and greatest – resource, and it is this that I will focus my speech on today. To strengthen inclusivity amongst our people, I believe these groups of workers need further attention:

  • Our invisible workers who undertake the unpaid labour that forms the backbone of our families and society, and 
  • Our blue collar workers, including migrant workers

Some of these points have been made time and again in this House, but they bear repeating, because we have a ways to go when it comes to moving the needle in a meaningful way.

On our invisible, unpaid workers, the Workers’ Party manifesto calls for greater recognition of unpaid labour, as a first step to develop policies that guard against these essential workers ending up with a lack of resources and even becoming indigent in what should be their golden years. In my maiden speech in 2020, I had called for quantification of the work done by these workers, asking for time-use surveys to be a part of our national statistics system. This would make such work more visible, better valued, and ultimately allows us to concretely measure the magnitude of the work undertaken, and also the success – or not – of our policies in supporting our unpaid workers. 

And while it is important to get the economics right, we must also ensure that holistic support coming from the entire surrounding ecosystem has is in place, from ensuring that flexible work arrangements and meaningful accommodations are accessible to individuals who have to juggle additional caring responsibilities on top of their paid work, to ensuring that these individuals are treated fairly. As brought up by many in this House, legislation in the forms of right-to-request or even anti-discrimination legislation have an important role to play in bringing this about.

And even when such schemes are implemented, we must also continue to remove internalised barriers that prevent our caregivers from leaning in to take advantage of these schemes and accommodations, and make them feel that they should not have to hesitate to use them for fear of being perceived by their employers to be less valuable as a colleague who does not have the same domestic responsibilities. 

Moving to our blue collar and migrant workers, we appear to be forgetting many key issues that captured our attention during the pandemic. The work that they do may historically have been lower wage and lower status, but without them, where would we be today?

The Met service recently released their report on the urban heat island effect being pronounced in Singapore, and I hope that this would underscore the urgency in tackling issues relating to heat inequality. The disproportionate effect that a warming world has on blue collar, manual workers, and also our more vulnerable households, needs to be better understood and addressed, and this is particularly urgent, given last week’s logging of a temperature of 36.1 in Woodlands. We need to do our best to alleviate discomfort for workers as well as ensure that workplaces – particularly outdoor workplaces – are safe.

Many of us on both sides of the aisle have spoken about the topic of worker safety, following the number of workplace related deaths and injuries in recent years. While it is likely that casualty rates could fall this year as the pressures of worker shortages and Covid-delays ease, we must reflect deeply on tackling the structural issues that contribute to unsafe working environments for our workers. It is a positive step that the Government has continued to take a tough stance through our criminal justice system against safety violations, but I cannot help but note that these responses only take place after the casualty occurs. 

I therefore reiterate the calls made by my colleague the member for Aljunied GRC Leon Perera at this year’s COS to reduce the imbalance between migrant workers and employers with a view to improve safety standards and ultimately protect lives and livelihoods. His proposals include better protection to allow workers to feel more comfortable in calling out unsafe practices by instituting whistle-blower protections to ensure confidentiality for such complaints.

And for migrant workers in particular, it sometimes seems that there is a dignity deficit in the way we treat them. These are people who literally build our country. Recent episodes relating to the way we address the most basic needs of our workers, from inadequate nutrition to poor food handling practices such as lunches left out by the roadside exposed to pests and the elements, to the debate over whether standards for new foreign worker dormitories are enough, show that we still have far to go in treating these essential workers with dignity and respect. 

This also extends to the way we handle their transportation. Just last month I was driving down the expressway with my five year old, when he suddenly blurted out: why are there so many workers riding on the back of that lorry over there? Isn’t it dangerous? Why do we have to buckle our seat belts and use car seats to keep us safe, when those workers are sitting like that? Is their safety not important?

I had no answers for him, and would like to reiterate calls that I made during the debate on the amendment to the Road Traffic Act in 2021 to ban the ferrying of workers in this manner. To address concerns about adding to the business cost, I hope that we can properly quantify what cost this would entail, both as an absolute number across the industry and as a percentage of total construction costs, as a first step to find effective solutions to replace this outdated practice. I note that Members in this House have been asking about the possibility of using buses to ferry workers all the way back to at least 2010. 13 years ago. There is dignity in ensuring high safety standards for all. I hope that we can be bold and commit to a timeline for this to happen.

Anti-discrimination Legislation

Beyond broad calls for better inclusivity, I would like to hone in on a specific piece of upcoming legislation: anti-discrimination legislation for the workplace. In Madam President’s speech, she reiterated the importance of ensuring a broader and more open meritocracy that works well for Singaporeans. I believe that anti-discrimination legislation is a key tool in achieving this goal. The workplace fairness law was announced by the Prime Minister during the 2021 National Day Rally, and we are glad that this is in line with the Workers’ Party 2020 manifesto’s proposal that we enact legislation to take this step to join the majority of countries that legislate against discrimination at the workplace.

With the Milieu Insight report last year finding that 1 in 2 workers in Singapore experienced workplace discrimination in the last 5 years, the enactment of anti-discrimination legislation for the workplace cannot come soon enough. In this regard, I noted that the interim report was published earlier this year by the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness, and would like to share some thoughts on its contents.

First, while the Interim Report proposes new prohibited grounds of discrimination such as nationality, pregnancy status, mental health conditions, on top of existing TAFEP grounds of age, race, gender, religion, marital status and family responsibilities, it does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This is glaring in the wake of last year’s repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code, and our Prime Minister’s acknowledgement that members of the LGBTQ community are our “colleagues, our brothers and sisters, or some of our children”. 

Second, the interim report does not contain a definition of discrimination, and it is unclear whether only direct discrimination will be covered within its ambit. This was noted by the law firm Baker McKenzie, who also published commentary stating that in jurisdictions such as Australia and Hong Kong, both direct and indirect discrimination is unlawful. For those unfamiliar with the concepts, “direct discrimination” refers to intentional discrimination against an individual, while “indirect discrimination” refers to a situation where a person is disadvantaged by a requirement that applies equally to all persons, but has the effect of creating disadvantage against a particular group of people because of a particular characteristic, an example of which would be a ban on headwear at the workplace for all, but has the effect of disproportionately affecting Muslim women or Sikh men more than other groups.

Clarity in the new legislation is important for both employers and employees. Upcoming legislation should make clear that all forms of discrimination will not be tolerated in Singapore, and prohibit all types of discrimination. This is important, considering that the Milieu survey found that the most common form of discrimination is indirect discrimination.

In addition, in line with best practices  around the world, the denial of reasonable accommodations should also fall within the meaning of “discrimination” in the new legislation. This would also fulfil our international law obligations as a state party to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 

Reasonable accommodations are adjustments at the workplace that are afforded to a person with protected characteristics to assist them in enjoying equal employment opportunities. This issue is especially important to the disability community, which continues to face issues of severe unemployment and under-employment. Reasonable accommodations, such as the provision of screen readers or an accessible office environment, are important for disabled people to contribute meaningfully to our economy. They are also important for other groups, such as breastfeeding mothers who may require a lactation space in the office, Muslims who require time off to go for Friday prayers, and carers who may need flexible work arrangements. 

Finally, in realising our aspiration to be an inclusive society, I also hope that we can make the procedure for bringing a discrimination claim more accessible, especially for disabled people. As the Disabled People’s Association noted in their response to the Interim Report, many disabled workers do not report the discrimination they face because the reporting channels are themselves not accessible to them. 

We should also make the process of trying to enforce these laws as simple and user-friendly for workers who may not have the time or energy to go through a lengthy process to seek recourse. Currently, the process that a worker must go through before reaching the Employment Claims Tribunal can seem complicated and daunting to someone who is not familiar with the law. The Tripartite Committee should consider how the system may be simplified and streamlined. One way is to empower workers to decide whether they wish to attempt mediation or go directly to the ECT, instead of requiring mandatory mediation. Forcing parties to mediate may be counterproductive in some situations and could also re-traumatise workers who have had particularly bad experiences at their workplace.

Additionally, the upcoming workplace fairness legislation is but a first step towards a more diverse and equal Singapore. It does not address the important principle that discrimination cannot be tolerated in every aspect of life. In December 2022, the UN called on member states to enact comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation which goes beyond the workplace. I am sure that many of us have heard troubling accounts about discrimination in schools, in the housing rental market, in healthcare and beyond. The role of the law is indispensable in sending a clear signal that discrimination is not tolerated in Singapore and I hope that we can consider our part in enacting a comprehensive anti-discrimination law to ensure that nobody in Singapore has to feel like they are not equal to or less than others.

Trust, Trust, Trust

Finally, I would like to share my thoughts on the topic of trust – another recurrent theme of late. It is true that a healthy, good relationship is always built off a bedrock of trust, and that the maintenance of this trust is a constant work-in-progress, and shifts and flexes with the effluxion of time. The Government often quotes the high levels of trust our people have in Government and public institutions as being key to our success as a nation. And it is true that we have largely avoided the deep political divide that is believed to have contributed to  phenomena like the partisan response to mask mandates and vaccine rollouts in countries like the US, and that this greatly benefited us in our whole-of-nation fight against the Covid pandemic. 

Yet, what this narrative often neglects is that for any healthy, resilient relationship to properly function, trust has to be present in both directions. During Covid, I saw the best in people not just when we trusted the institutions in their new mandates, but when members of the institutions trusted in people to do the right thing, be it residents who stayed home even when no one was watching, or residents who checked in and bought food for their vulnerable neighbours who had to isolate. People do the right thing. Not always, but very often they do. 

Apart from expecting and demanding that our people continue to trust in public institutions and leaders, we also need to find ways to repay that trust, to be able to find ways in which we can trust our people. Which makes it an appropriate time to ask the question: after all these generations of nation-building: do we trust our people? 

And if not, why not? And how can we move to building systems and networks where we can reap maximum benefits for the greater good of our nation that are built on strong MUTUAL trust?

One concrete way in which we can start to display and build the trust we have in our people, is to look at the information that we make available to all. We should start finding ways to trust our people to be able to maturely and responsibly handle more information rather than assume the worst of them. In this regard, our Manifesto contains a proposal for a Freedom of Information Act to be enacted, with exceptions for matters relating to national security and defence. Having more information in the public domain leads to a more informed society, and builds a democracy where citizens are exposed to all shades of opinion, because public interest is served through enhanced transparency, and where communities are able to make informed choices. For example, greater knowledge and transparency on the budget process lets our people understand the sometimes difficult trade-offs that policy-makers have to make, and to get buy-in on why we have to push ahead with certain unpopular policies. Indeed a 2016 paper by Hollie Russon Gilman found that more information leads to collaborative decision-making, which in turn improves processes and delivery of services, as communities work towards sustainable development and engaged civic innovation – which I cannot help but note is the ostensible goal of the Forward Singapore exercise. 

On reservations expressed about the costs of enacting such laws, or concerns that civil servants may start trying to take truncated notes as ways to get around freedom of information requests, I hope we have more faith in the integrity of the professionalism of our civil service, and to trust that they will find means and harness technology to make the administration of such requests more efficient and less costly.

After all, as noted in an 2019 article in the Harvard Business Review, when trust is given, you empower the recipient, and in doing so, you develop team members to become stronger contributors, and this leads to further empowerment of leaders.

The next lap for Team Singapore then, is how to continue to build mutual trust between the Government and the People, in a world that changes ever more rapidly, and how to keep working on this trust as a strong foundation to fulfil our ultimate aim of unity in diversity.