I'm overseas and getting access to the Internet is not so easy in some places. A few days ago on the 19 Oct 2010, I wanted to post something on the 4th anniversary of the Wee Shu Min incident [Link] but couldn't get access to the Internet. For many Singaporeans, that incident was a wakeup call to the widening class divide in our society. The incident started when a blogger Derek Wee wrote about his worries about how the intense economic competition resulted in structural unemployment among Singaporeans and how we end up with the most having the "most highly educated taxi drivers in the world" because it is so difficult to get a job when you're retrench above the age of 40. You should read Derek's post[Link] and think about what he said and you may find answers to several questions - why people don't have children, why people leave, why our society is losing its cohesiveness. Before I discuss these issues, further I will tell you a story.
4 weeks ago, I woke up late and had to take a taxi to get to work on time. I managed to catch a cab driven by a man in his early 50s. My brain must still be half asleep when I was in the taxi because I asked him a rather insensitive question - whether driving taxi was his part-time retirement job. He told me that 7 years ago, he went to work one day and was asked to leave because his performance was poor. He couldn't believe it because he had been with the company for 20 years and did not make any major mistake or had any discipline problems. He had been in his current managerial position for the 7 years doing the same thing year after year. He went to MOM to seek help and they told him there was nothing they could do and he would have to sue the company if he wanted his job back. There was no realistic chance of him winning a lawsuit given performance assessment is a subjective thing so he decided to move on and look for another job. After looking for 6 months, he couldn't find an employer who would hire him for the same type of job (probably due to age) so he ended up driving taxis - one of the few jobs still reserved for Singaporeans. While looking around for a job, he realised his former company probably decided to sack him because they could find someone younger to fill his job for 1-2K less pay per month. After years of annual increments, the company discovered they paid him "too much". However, instead of talking to him about a pay cut to help him keep his job, they decided simply to sack him. The company probably did not want to create potential "disgruntled employee" by keeping him around after pay cuts - finding an excuse to sack him then replacing him with someone cheaper was a lot easier to do under Singapore employment rules. There was extreme bitterness in his voice when he told me what happened to him.
The above story is just one example of how companies get rid of older workers. Given the floodgates are opened for younger and cheaper foreign labour, companies have the option not to keep older workers. In the past when the labor market became tight during the good times, companies were more willing to give older workers a chance. However, now that the floodgates are open and companies have access to a large pool of cheaper younger foreign workers, it is hard for older workers to get a job that makes full use of their skills and experience.
Strutural unemployment is just one of the problems in this ultra-competitive environment. The intense competition leads to a "take care of yourself first" mentality. The profit motive dominate the decisions of companies and the "hire and fire" without any social safety net and protection creates a constant sense of instability. People do not want to have children when they feel insecure. When you add this sense of instability to the rising income gap you get many people who are unhappy with the system. In addition to that, we have a group of elites who are groomed, protected in secure jobs, overpaid and are given the best opportunities available without facing the intense competition of the average Joes in our society. This is the source of intense resentment that broke out 4 years ago when the Wee Shu Min incident ignited hatred that spread beyond cyberspace. You can see this resentment everytime there is slip up by the political elites (YOG, Temasek Holdings losses, floods, Mas Selamat etc) - people just don't like the people running a system that makes life so insecure and tough for them. 4 years after the WSM incident and nothing has changed....Singaporeans understand nothing will change for them with the same people and system in place. The frustration will turn into action and we will see some of that in the coming elections.