Sunday, 9 December 2012

Why Malaysian bus drivers should earn more than Chinese ... and get preference over other foreigners for Singapore's jobs

The recent strike by SMRT’s Chinese bus drivers has started a debate about wage levels and working conditions for foreign contract workers in Singapore. Yet a couple of questions remain untouched by the debate:

1. Should salaries vary based on a workers country of origin? Yes, absolutely, as long as the wage premium / discount is based on solid reasons.

2. Do Malaysian workers deserve a wage ‘premium’ relative to their Chinese counterparts? Yes, absolutely. Malaysia is Singapore’s neighbor and Malaysians integrate better than most into the Republic’s workforce.
Singapore's foreign labor pool encompasses the entire spectrum of jobs - from the low end street cleaner to the highly paid senior executive
Labor activists and human rights purists adhering to the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’ might disagree. Certainly the principle applies to people working in their home country. However, when labor moves across national jurisdictions then different factors come into play. Amongst others, these factors include language, education levels and cultural norms. Collectively, these factors affect an individual’s ability to live and work within a foreign society.

Let’s call that concept integration.

During the last few years, Singapore has witnessed disruptive repercussions of varying degrees from foreign workers who are not easily fitting into local society. Yes, these foreign workers drive buses, clean streets or man stalls satisfactorily, in line with their employment contracts and job requirements. However, they also bring with them local customs and practices. Many of these behaviors: riding bicycles on pavements, spitting, not speaking English and sometimes indulging in (petty and serious) crimes to list a few, have created discontent within Singaporeans.

Moreover, as the numbers of a particular nationality grows to ‘critical mass’ levels, particularly within a specific occupation or organization, its citizens feel more emboldened to challenge the status quo in a manner detrimental to Singapore’s interests. That striking Chinese bus drivers’ have forced a political review of established labor management practices demonstrates the strength (and dangers) of such concentrations.

So, how does all this relate to paying Malaysian bus drivers more than their Chinese counterparts? The answer lies in Singapore’s recent history.

Malaysians have more in common with Singaporeans than the traumatic events of 1965 may suggest. Despite the obvious religious differences between certain segments of the two populations, being geographically contiguous and a part of the same ‘civilization’ for centuries has welded the two peoples into sharing many important cultural and social traits. Consider the continuing deep economic linkages between Singapore and Malaysia.
The commercial relationship is no accident. It is a byproduct of the cultural ease of carrying on business in either society as well as the geographical reality of being neighbors.

The two nations are not alien to each other. There is a natural cultural and social fit between the two nations. A large number of Malaysians already live and work in Singapore. They have done so for many years, and without the social disruptions associated with people of other nationalities. Likewise, droves of Singaporeans regularly visit, own properties, businesses and even retire in Malaysia.

It is this relatively seamless social integration of Malaysian workers into Singaporean society which justifies their wage premium. Maintaining social stability through a cohesive work force is worth that little bit extra.  

As a sovereign country, Singapore’s human resource policies must cater to the Republic’s unique characteristics. Political pressures from regional economic giants – an unintended consequence of hiring large numbers of people from one nation – can be minimized by pursuing a more balanced foreign labor policy. To this end, Singaporean businesses might benefit from additional government incentives to employ Malaysian citizens over other nationalities. Implementing policies to encourage a more balanced pool of foreign workers must be a strategic priority for public officials.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

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