Singapore Media Watch

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Editorial Review: More safety nets for retrenched workers

Singaporeans were shocked by the suicide of a middle-aged Chinese man on Wednesday night. Apparently, he was driven to desperation by poverty and mounting debts.

46-year-old Tan Jee Suan had died after falling off the platform at the Chinese Garden station on Tuesday.

Members of the public had been coming to Mr Tan's wake since Wednesday and many were seen offering financial assistance to Mr Tan's wife and children.

The funeral operator is also offering his services for free. Mr Tan had been an odd job labourer, while his wife works in an electronics factory earning only $500 a month.

The children's schools and the Member of Parliament of the constituency where the family lives have assured the family that they will receive whatever assistance they need.

While we applaud Singaporeans for their compassion and generosity, questions must be raised on why this tragedy is allowed to happen. Are there many other undiscovered Singaporeans in dire straits like Mr Tan out there?

According to newspaper reports, Mr Tan was retrenched a few months ago and had difficulties finding a job. He has no money to pay his household expenses, see a doctor when he is ill and has mounting utility bills amounting to SS$1000.

It is debatable if another person in Mr Tan's shoes would have done the same thing as him. Mr Tan may be suffering from depression which can cause one to harbor suicide tendencies.

Had Mr Tan seen a doctor earlier, his condition may be detected and appropriate treatment would be started which could have prevented an unnecessary death.

Globalization and the influx of foreign workers had hit the hardest at the lower-income group. Bereft of a higher education or special skills, they are in a precarious situation in an unstable job market where employers can recruit or sack any worker at will without paying any penalty.

CPF was meant to be a form of social security for Singaporeans in old age. Part of our CPF is channeled towards Medisave which we can tap on for hospitalization bills. However, none of this can be used in the event of a retrenchment and medisave cannot be utilized to pay for outpatient consultations other than chronic medical conditions like diabetes.

According to financial consultants, we need to keep a minimum of six months' salary in the bank to guard ourselves against any potentially economic disruptive events in life such as retrenchment and illness.

How many Singaporeans are aware of this? Prevention is better than cure. The government should pre-empt this by providing free financial counseling to all Singaporeans to be spearheaded by their employers.

This should include teaching them to spend within their means, to save regularly for rainy days and the avenues available for them to seek help should they be retrenched or encounter any financial difficulties.

Madam Ho Geok Choo, MP of West Coast GRC where the deceased man had lived, told reporters that the CDCs and RCs have many schemes to help those in financially distress and Mr Tan would have received some needy help had he sought these agencies earlier.

Do Singaporeans really know where to turn to for help or are they not willing to do so? The government should conduct a comprehensive study to assess public awareness and perception of their help schemes.

There are Singaporeans who are completely ignorant of the presence of government agencies where they can seek help from and there are others who are sceptical of receiving any sort of financial assistance from the government.

These misconceptions must be addressed urgently. The idea of setting up a retrenchment fund for retrenched Singaporeans was mooted previously by Mr Chiam See Tong of the Singapore Democratic Alliance.

Now that Singapore's economy has recovered and unemployment has fallen to the lowest in 5 years, the government should keep good a promise made in 2001 to restore the CPF cuts.

The current CPF contribution from the employer is 13% compared to the employee's contribution of 20%.

Instead of restoring the 7% CPF cut for all Singaporeans, this 7% can be set aside as a retrenchment fund for the low-incomed workers with equal contribution from the government and the employer. In addition, a central fund can be set up to cover any insufficiencies in the worker's own retrenchment fund.

A one-stop agency incorporating both retrenchment assistance and employment centers should be set up to serve the needs of retrenched and unemployed workers exclusively.

When a worker is retrenched, he will immediately be referred by his company to this agency. A comprehensive multi-disciplinary preliminary assessment is done on the worker's current financial status taking into account the number of dependents he have, his monthly CPF contributions to his housing mortage, and other miscellaneous expenses such as medical bills which may not be entirely taken care of by Medisave.

Based on the above, a monthly "retrenchment allowance" is calculated to help the worker tide over this difficult period for 6 months.

At the same time, the employment center will actively help to find another job for the worker. The retrenchment fund is absorbed back into the CPF when the worker finds a new job.

If the worker is still jobless after 6 months or if the worker's own retrenchment fund is used up, another review should be conducted to assess other ways the worker can be helped.

In this way, no retrenched Singaporeans will be left in the lurch to fend for themselves. It is the sacred duty of an elected government by the people to provide and care for all its citizens without any discrimination.

We believe more can be done to help the lower-income groups in our nation without breeding a dependency mentality.

As we continue to win international accolades such as the world's most globalized nation, let us not forget those Singaporeans who are left behind in process of globalization.




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