The problem of workplace discrimination was recently highlighted in the media and by the Minister for Manpower (MOM). The latest case involved government agencies placing age limits in hiring security guards in their tenders. Last month, two companies were taken to task for explicitly indicating a preference in hiring foreigners in their advertisements.
To Gilbert Goh, 51, the founder of transitioning.org, these are not new developments.
As far back as 4 years ago, he was already highlighting the discrimination faced by Singaporean workers, particularly the PMETs – professionals, managers, executives and technicians, who make up more than half of Singapore’s workforce. He started a website, and registered a society called Transitioning.org, to provide support to the unemployed. He even took to Speakers’ Corner to try to raise awareness of the problems faced by these workers, and ran in the 2011 General Election under the banner of the opposition National Solidarity Party, contesting in Tampines GRC together with Goh Meng Seng, Reno Fong Chin Leong, Syafarin Sarif and Raymond Lim Peng Ann.
Gilbert is familiar with unemployment, having gone through it himself. “I myself went through a rough patch, was unemployed. 18 months of hell,” he says. “Nearly killed myself because of ythe debts I had.”
He managed to pull through that dark period and decided to use the experience to help others going through similar situations. He eventually got himself a certificate in counselling and later a graduate diploma.
He then worked with a Family Service Centre in Woodlands, doing social work, helping poor families. “Subsequently, I went into helping the disabled, working as a case officer, and later working with the jobless in the Central Singapore CDC in 2007.”
That’s where he realised that the PMETs were finding it tougher to find help as the CDCs were more focused on the lower-income, lower-educated, and lower-skilled. “Every month, I could see hundreds of these professional people coming forward. We couldn’t help them.” In the last recession, some 10,000 PMETs were laid off.
But even after starting transitioning.org with a few friends, his attempts at raising awareness and trying to instigate changes mostly went unnoticed or ignored.
His was a lone cry in the wilderness – until, ironically, the Government released its White Paper in February.
The protest he held a week after the paper’s release saw a turn-out of some 5,000 people at Speakers’ Corner. Even politicians like Jeanette Chong, Vincent Wijeysingha and Tan Jee Say were roped in to speak at the protest.
The Government’s perceived backpeddling from the 6.9 million population figure in the White Paper shows that it is important for Singaporeans to express their views on such matters collectively, Gilbert says. “They now say 6.9 million is just a projected figure, not a target,” he says. It is important for Singaporeans to continue to stand together because the problems faced by those whom transisitoning.org counsels could very well be faced by other in time to come, he cautions.
“It’s difficult not to do something,” he says, referring to the cases he sees. “It eats at you everyday, when someone tells you, ‘I lost my job, had to handover to this foreign talent.’ Or, ‘I’m retrenched because they bring in a foreigner to replace me.’ So when you hear so many cases, they cannot be fabricated. It makes you want to take action.”
“Unemployment causes insecurity,” he explains, “lack of confidence, and many marital issues when a breadwinner loses his job, including losing the trust and faith of their families.”
He relates the case of a 50-year old. “He was retrenched and could not get another IT job. He had all these certificates, including a Masters degree. Still he couldn’t get a job. His family ostracised him, they don’t care what reasons you give. You’re excluded from family gatherings, even dinners.”
It was because of this that transitioning.org decided to start a support service 2 years ago for divorcees. “We see many social problems caused by joblessness, which I think the government has not addressed yet,” Gilbert (who is also divorced) says.
His main concern remains the discrimination at the work place, either through unfair practices by companies, or through policies of the Government. While the authorities have urged employers to play fair and have tightened up some areas with regards to the issuance of work permits and such, Gilbert feels the situation has not improved. “I don’t think so because people still write in, people still say, ‘I went for many interviews and still can’t get a job.’ People still say, ‘I’m in my 40s, I’m experienced, but I still can’t get a job.’ Ageism is another big problem. Like, once you’re above 40, you’re like a dead duck.”
With the Government insisting that Singapore needs a bigger population to continue to thrive economically, especially with an ageing population and a declining birth rate, some feel that the current problems will only be exacerbated.
“I think some [Singaporeans] fear that they might be the minority in 17 years’ time,” Gilbert says. “I think that has shaken a lot of people. Some say that we’ve been sold out by our government.”
It is perhaps this fear, this uncertainty of the future which brings with it a sense of insecurity, which saw the large crowd at Hong Lim Park in February – the biggest post-Independence protest in Singapore.
However, his passionate championing of the cause of the unemployed, especially with his series of “Singaporeans First” events the last few years, has attracted criticisms that he is fanning xenophobia from some quarters. Gilbert sees this as unfortunate because he sees the issue as pro-Singaporeans rather than anti-foreigners. Even all the major political parties in S’pore have championed a pro-Singapore, pro-Singaporean cause.
Gilbert also points out that at transitioning.org, besides having a foreigner as one of its coaches, the organisation also provides help to unemployed foreigners when approached.
“There aren’t many of them,” Gilbert says. “But they include Indian PRs, PRC Chinese, converted citizens. They need the support. We are probably their last avenue. But I’m glad they see us, we will help them too.” However, he readily admits that transitioning.org’s primary focus is Singaporean workers. Increasingly, he says, those approaching his society for help are from the younger set too.
“The bulk of [the people we see] are in their late-30s to mid-40s. Increasingly, we’re seeing mid-30s and even early-30s,” he says. “Some have been working for long periods, like 7, 8 years, when they’re told to leave. The reason could be because their pay has become too high, or maybe the company needs fresh blood. And fresh blood often means foreign talent, so they come and replace locals. But we also have locals who job-hop. I don’t deny this.” There are also cases where foreign nationals and companies prefer to hire workers from their own countries, rather than to hire Singaporeans.
Such seemingly discriminatory practices were raised by several MPs in Parliament in March. They called on the Government to do more to ensure that employers give Singaporean workers fair treatment.
Mr Liang Eng Hwa, MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, said: "There are clearly still a number of firms that had visibly hire a large proportion of foreigners particularly in the managerial level. You can't help but think whether it is really that difficult to find Singaporeans to fill those managerial positions. These include job roles like HR, finance, compliance, auditing or general admin.
"Or is it a case where some employers or hirers may already have pre-determined mindset that foreigners with international experience can do a better job?
The Manpower Ministry has said it will continue to tighten criteria for Employment Pass or EP holders.
While the Government continues to tighten the noose on foreign hirings, it is important for Singaporeans to be aware of the consequences of an enlarged foreign population, Gilbert says, not only on present workers or Singaporeans but also on future generations.
“Those who attended the first event [in February], a number of them came for their children, amazingly,” Gilbert explains. “I’d spoken to some parents who are jobless themselves, they said they were at Speakers’ Corner for their children. They say to me, ‘Ya, I’m already 50, jobless, and this 6.9 million thing will hit my children in 17 years’ time.’ Already now with 5.3 million, they themselves (the parents) are facing competition for jobs and space and of course sky-high property prices.”
For the longest time, the unemployed have been silent because of shame, or fear, or resignation to their circumstances. The February event, however, has given some of them hope.
“I also receive emails which touch me,” Gilbert says. “One of them sent me an email – with just one line. It’s the best email I’ve received, out of hundreds, after the February event. It said, ‘Gilbert, your event gives me hope to live on.’ I think that is marvellous. I think this guy must have been feeling hopeless, that by himself, he could not do anything. But when masses of people gather together, at last there is some hope in our society. All along, the government can just produce policy after policy and you can’t do anything about it. But now I think he sees that there is hope.”
It is this hope for a better Singapore which is at the heart of the series of protests – a better Singapore for Singaporeans.
As for the man himself, he finds encouragement that more people have come forward to support his society’s work.
“Many who found jobs and came back to volunteer with us also make me feel that I am not doing a thankless job,” Gilbert says.
And his is also a lone voice no more.
Details of the event:
Title: For A Better Singapore
Venue: Speakers’ Corner (Hong Lim Park)
Date: 1 May 2013
Time: 4pm – 7pm