TL;DR – Labour chief Ng Chee Meng said, “Simply because we care.”
Parliament sessions are usually boring affairs. A bunch of over-represented middle-aged men in boring garb giving speeches in a manner more monotonous than my Statistics lecturer from China.
These sessions are only interesting when one, the Finance Minister of the day has a budget or stimulus package to deliver (read: goodies for Singaporeans), or two, when PAP MPs and opposition MPs cross swords.
There were no fighting sparks in Parliament yesterday, but Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim did raise some interesting and important questions.
Workers’ Party Sylvia Lim fired the first shot
In a Parliamentary sitting on Thursday (June 4), Lim questioned the Government’s decision to task NTUC with the administration of a government support scheme, saying this could have implications for accountability.
She was referring to the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS). She spoke about how SIRS involves the use of public funds and Singapore’s past reserves, and asked why there was a need to outsource the handling of applications and appeals to NTUC.
“From a governance perspective. Why was there a need to outsource the administration of Sirs appeals to NTUC in the first place? Was this done due to a lack of manpower or other reasons?
“Will this set a precedent for the Government to outsource its schemes to external parties to manage. What does this mean for government accountability?”
TL;DR – Labour Chief Ng Chee Meng’s reply
Labour chief Ng Chee Meng, who is also a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), said NTUC got involved with SIRS when the Government made the request because it cares and also has the capability to help.
Ng said the fate of the self-employed, including taxi drivers, has always been a concern for the labour movement, which has given feedback to the Government about the issues they face.
The answer is actually short and very sweet! I was a little surprised he didn’t take a more combative stance. Instead, Min Ng gave an earnest and authentic-enough-for-me answer that I loooooved!
He’d effectively said it’s “cos we care, and we can!”
He even humbly said NTUC could have done better in the handling of the SIRS cases and yes, lessons will be drawn from the experience.
Here’s a four-minute from his entire 26-minute speech, and this part was where he addressed why NTUC was doing the processing of applications and appeals from SEPs who didn’t auto-qualify for SIRS.
Ng’s reply gives useful background and also helps us better understand tripartism, long touted as the secret sauce to Singapore’s success.
Here’s the transcript if you prefer reading:
Ms Sylvia Lim spoke about the SIRS (Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme) that NTUC helps to administer. But maybe she does not quite remember the history of why NTUC stepped into this space.
You see, back in January / February, when COVID-19 started to hit, NTUC with our National taxi Association, noticed that taxi drivers’ income was dropping like a rock. I remember going to Newton Circle Hawker Centre with Mr Khaw to talk to taxi drivers because incomes were impacted – at that time, already 50% or more. We set up a quick reaction small group and put up $77 million to help our drivers cope with the initial hit of COVID-19.
So why is NTUC in this space?
Simply because we care.
Why are we in this space?
Because we have some capabilities to augment the Government in extending this help to taxi drivers or freelancers as quickly as possible.
Well, are there things that we can do better? I think in time to come when we can settle the immediate issues that we have to deal with COVID-19 and the transformative things that NTUC is embarking on, I will humbly say that yes, we will look at areas where we can do better.
But as it stands now, NTUC has extended care fund to help all workers. And likewise, we would like to do our part to help freelancers or self-employed persons deal with the current situation as well. We have put up a SEP (Self-employed Person) training fund, beside SIRS, to help SEPs and freelancers upgrade themselves and get into some training in dealing with COVID-19. We think that this is important. And in the course of three budgets, NTUC feedback to the Government that these are needed things to do.
And I recall one late evening, when the Ministry of Finance called me up, and I went to the Treasury.
And at the request of Government to administer this SIRS fund, I gladly informed Ministry of Finance that NTUC will take up this role, not because we want to be at the centre of things but because we thought we have the capabilities to do our part as a tripartite partner.
So, if we look at the National Jobs Council that they set up – should NTUC not be in it? Should the Singapore National Employers Federation not be in it? If all of us are not together in this fight against COVID-19 as a team, then I think we would have lost the capability unique to Singapore.
Yes, the Government has put up the hundred billion dollar budget but I think there is space for business owners, NTUC and the workers to play a part. Tripartism is a strength. And we should ride on this strength to execute this strategy, that I’ve mentioned, well and to the extent possible, remain adaptive and learn lessons along the way.
I am humble enough to say that NTUC could have done better in some of the SIRS things that we have done. But let us draw those lessons when the time comes. But immediately now, let us extend assistance to as many as possible.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted many of us, not just in terms of bringing out a change in lifestyles, but many people’s livelihoods have also been threatened. Many of us are grateful for the support and relief funds that the Government is offering under the four budgets totalling 92.2 billion.
Here’s one Singaporean self-employed person who has taken to Facebook to share her joy in receiving notification that her SIRS application has been approved.