Tommy Koh’s ‘ST’s bias report’: Statistics?


Let the numbers do the talking – Tommy Koh vs Straits Times – ‘biased reporting’?

I refer to the article “Tommy Koh’s post on ST report sparks online debate” (Sunday Times, Oct 28).

It states that “A Facebook post by Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh accusing The Straits Times of “biased coverage” of a forum he took part in has generated plenty of discussion online, which turned at one point into a debate between him and former labour chief Lim Boon Heng on whether Singapore should have a minimum wage.

In Saturday’s (Oct 27) post, which generated over 1,500 shares in 11 hours, Professor Koh also asked why The Straits Times did not carry a picture of a panel featuring Senior Minister of State for Transport and Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary and media professor Cherian George, asking if it was because it was “against our national interest”.

“I would also point out to my friends in the ST that their biased reporting on the conference brings discredit to our media.

“For example, the paper reported Minister Josephine Teo’s argument that minimum wage could cause unemployment and illegal employment, but not my rebuttal that that narrative is contradicted by the experience of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong which have adopted a minimum wage. I think the current income disruption of Singapore is a moral disgrace.

“Many of our working people do not earn a living wage and live in poverty. The Progressive Wage Model has improved wages in certain sectors of our economy but the workers in those sectors still do not earn a living wage.

Fourth, does he agree that the low wages paid to these workers are not due to their low productivity but because we have brought in about a million lowly paid foreign workers to compete with our workers?

“Fifth, does he agree that, to date, the progressive wage model has not raised the wages to a level which enable our low-wage workers to live in dignity?””

What I find to be arguably, often disconcerting, is that the media, online discourse (like the subject one between Tommy Koh and Lim Boon Heng), and think-tanks like the IPS – hardly touch on the statistics of the issue.

So, allow me to give the statistics on this issue.

But first, as a premise to the debate – in the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council trial – one of the plaintiff’s counsel said something like ‘Ms Lim, if what you keep saying as you acted in good faith, if this is good faith, then the whole of Singapore is in big trouble’.

I am sure that Minister Tharman acted in good faith – relying on the ‘cleaners’ wages’ statistics given to him by some civil servant – but arguably, Singapore is in big trouble, when arguably our post popular Minister may seem to be out of touch with the ‘statistical’ plight of lower-income elderly Singaporeans, like the cleaners.

According to the Straits Times – in 2000 – “the median gross wage for cleaners and labourers was $1,277.

Real wage fell 30% in 17 years?

After accounting for inflation for the last 17 years or so, I estimate that in year 2000 dollars (June 2000 CPI 74.371), the $1,200 median gross pay now of cleaners is equivalent to only about $900 in 2000 dollars. So, what this may mean is that the real pay of cleaners has declined by about 30 per cent in the last 17 years or so.

A decent pay for cleaners?

Since median gross wages grew by 12 per cent from 2012 to 2017, and is $1,200 now – the take-home pay of cleaners after the maximum 20 per cent employee CPF contribution may only be about $960.

According to the article “Over 40,000 cleaners will see basic pay go up by $200 over next three years” (Straits Times, Dec 12, 2016) –

Some cleaners have to wait until July 2017?

“Cleaning businesses with new service contracts that take effect from July 1 next year must adopt the new recommendations for 2017.

Some cleaners have to wait until July 2018?

Meanwhile, those with existing service contracts that take effect before then will have until July 1, 2018 to pay their cleaners wages according to the recommendations.

Its first recommendation is a total increase of $200 to basic wages under the model by 2019. This should start with a $60 annual increase in 2017 and 2018, followed by a $80 raise in 2019.”

5% real increase in 5 years?

As to “Cleaners have seen their wages rise since 2012, when the model was first mooted. Median basic wages of full-time cleaners here grew by 9 per cent from 2012 to last year. It was $1,100 in June 2015. Median gross wages grew by 12 per cent from 2012 to last year, and were $1,200 in June 2015” – does this mean that full-time cleaners’ median basic wages’ real increase (after inflation) was only about 5 per cent in the 5 years, from June 2012 to June 2017 (since Minister Tharman is citing $1,200 now)?

65 cents a day real increase?

Does this mean that the real increase per year was only about 1.9 per cent, or about $19 a month – about 65 cents a day.

Can you imagine getting an increment in pay of just 65 cents a day per year for 5 years?

Talking about $1,000 pay since 2008?

In this connection, we have been talking about paying cleaners $1,000 since 2008 – “Full-time cleaners now earn about $1,000 a month on average, compared to about $750 before the (Town Councils’ cleaners’) scheme was launched in 2008” (“Cleaners’ pay up $250 to $1,000: Congratulations?“).

So many schemes in the last 9 years?

In the last 9 years or so, we have had so many schemes and initiatives to raise cleaners’ pay to $1,000 (see below).

– ““Progressive wage concept initiative to raise the wages of cleaners” (“Measure wage targets in hourly pay, not gross total“, Jun 20, 2012)

“Unprecedented move by a group of officials from unions, cleaning companies and the Government would raise the pay of cleaners by 23 per cent” (Oct 19, 2012)

“Contracts would only be awarded to cleaning companies awarded the Clean Mark Accreditation” (“Parliament: Replies that never answer the question?“, Nov 14, 2012)

“The National Trades Union Congress ( NTUC) has set a target to raise 10,000 cleaners’ monthly salary to at least $1,000 by 2015″ (“NTUC: Wages need to account for standard of living?“, Dec 20, 2012)”

All cleaners have to wait until 2020?

With regard to “those employed by the same business for at least 12 months will get an annual bonus, equivalent to two weeks of basic monthly pay, from 2020” – why do cleaners have to wait for another three years, in order to get an annual bonus of two weeks “from 2020”?

Hardly any real increase from 2020 to 2022?

In respect of “The TCC (Tripartite Cluster for Cleaners) also recommended a 3 per cent annual increase to wages from 2020 to 2022” – since I understand that historical inflation in Singapore is about 2.5 per cent – does it mean that cleaners may be getting hardly any real increase from 2020 to 2022?

Giving cleaners a reason to celebrate – for 6 years

According to the article “Giving cleaners a reason to celebrate – for six years” (Straits Times, Dec 13, 2016) –

Did not reach target after 3 years – short by $200?

it would appear that the target set in 2012 – “those cleaning offices will get at least $1,000 a month in basic pay and those cleaning hawker centres will get $1,200 a month” – was not reached after the three years from 2012 to 2015.

The $1,200 target for hawker centre cleaners is short by $200 ($1,200 – $1,000).

Alas, finally a new law?

“A new law that kicked in from September 2015 also made it compulsory for cleaning companies to implement the minimum wages.

Influx of foreign workers doing low-wage jobs depressed wages?

For 10 long years, between 2001 and 2010, the wages of cleaners had been depressed. This was the decade which saw an influx of foreign workers (Tommy Koh’s point) doing low-wage jobs, which, in turn, depressed wages, and cleaners were particularly vulnerable as they were mostly older, less-educated workers who did not have many other job options.

Leong Sze Hian

About the Author

Leong Sze Hian has served as the president of 4 professional bodies, honorary consul of 2 countries, an alumnus of Harvard University, authored 4 books, quoted over 1500 times in the media , has been a radio talkshow host, a newspaper daily columnist, Wharton Fellow, SEACeM Fellow, columnist for theonlinecitizen and Malaysiakini, executive producer of Ilo Ilo (40 international awards), Hotel Mumbai (associate producer), invited to speak more than 200 times in about 40 countries, CIFA advisory board member, founding advisor to the Financial Planning Associations of 2 countries. He has 3 Masters, 2 Bachelors degrees and 13 professional  qualifications.