a community of singaporeans

Time to get tough on job discrimination (Part One)

Posted by theonlinecitizen on January 2, 2007

1.jpgThis is the first part of a special feature on employment discrimination in Singapore.

By Koh Jie Kai

Employment discrimination is with us. On December 29th, Today reported that Frontline Technologies had posted an advertisement with, preferring non-Indians to apply for a job vacancy.

The same report also highlighted a recent survey by staffing solutions firm Kelly Services. That survey found that out of the 1,500 respondents polled in Singapore, two thirds of them complained of having experienced prejudice of some sort when applying for a job in the last five years. Age was cited as the top reason for discrimination (29 per cent), followed by race (19 per cent), gender (11 per cent) and disability (2 per cent).

The government’s effort

The government has taken the first tentative steps towards stemming this discrimination. Together with NTUC and SNEF ( the Singapore National Employers’ Federation), it has set up a “tripartite” committee to look into discrimination issues, known as the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices ( or TAFEP). So far this committee has come up with revised guidelines on non-discriminatory job advertisements, as well as a seminar on 6th September this year, where a number of public and private sector employers pledged to adhere to non-discriminatory practices. Advertisements on bus stops around the island extolling the virtues of hiring older people have also sprung up within the last few months.

But considering that a large number of jobseekers face discrimination unrelated to their potential for a position, surely the government should do more to combat the problem of job discrimination. And there is a lot that has not been done.

3.jpgIn the first place job advertisements represent the tip of the iceberg. They are merely one of many ways people may be discriminated against in employment. The staggering problem of job discrimination in the selection process, prospects for training and promotion, benefits and who gets sacked first in a retrenchment exercise has not received much attention in Singapore yet. TAFEP has issued scant guidelines on these issues.

Furthermore it is highly doubtful that a “persuasion only” approach is going to work. One striking feature about the anti-discrimination measures in Singapore is how little the government or individuals can do anything when employers discriminate. Under the current laws ( apart from some provisions with respect to sacking people before retirement age and maternity leave provisions) the government cannot fine or take any legal action against employers who choose to discriminate. Individuals cannot sue employers either.

The UK’s experience

And TAFEP’s approach of persuasion is unlikely to make any headway among employers. One of the reasons why anti-discrimination guidelines against older workers in the UK failed to make any impact on employers before October this year ( when new regulations on age discrimination came into force ) was because employers would not have broken any laws if they chose to discriminate against older workers.

The common criticisms of employment discrimination law also do not stand up under scrutiny. Critics of laws outlawing discrimination claim that they would make the labour markets more rigid, and raise unemployment. They also claim that anti-discrimination laws do not mean the end of discrimination. The first claim is not supported by the evidence. Indeed a UK study showed that anti-discrimination edicts were some of the least worrying of the employment regulations employers there had to face.

The second claim, even though supported by some evidence, does not mean that there should not be anti-discrimination laws. The UK study which showed that almost half of pregnant or new mothers were discriminated against at work despite 20 years of the relevant law in force emphasised that the reason why the law was ineffective was the lack of support for both employer and employee- many small employers were unaware of their duties under the law, for instance.

More pertinently, how does Singapore, with no employment discrimination protection laws whatsoever, fare against its developed country counterparts? The answer is…we don’t know.

workers.jpgA chronic lack of information

One finds a chronic lack of information about the patterns of job discrimination in Singapore. The current information available is just not good enough. For example, the fact that the statistics show a nominally low unemployment rate among older workers with better education may be concealing a chronic pattern of underemployment, working in jobs which do not fulfil their potential. Similarly, not much is known about the patterns of race, gender or disability discrimination.

Without such additional knowledge, it is difficult to confirm if Singapore is doing well without anti-discrimination laws, let alone compare our performance with other countries. To point to the number of complaints made to the Ministry of Manpower as an accurate yardstick of the extent of discrimination is simply wrong- we should expect under-reporting of incidents of discrimination, especially when we have little to help employees with in terms of what sort of standards of behaviour they can expect from their employers.

We have seen how TAFEP can and should do more about the problem of employment discrimination in Singapore. In order to take more effective steps than mere campaigns, it needs to understand the nature and the extent of the problem of discrimination in Singapore. It is to the issue of what questions should be asked that the next part of this essay will explore.


Tripartite Guidelines On Non-Discriminatory Job Advertisements


Say “Yes” to fair employment practices

The author is a second year law student in the United Kingdom, and helps run a current affairs discussion group called the Young Republic. He can be reached at:



17 Responses to “Time to get tough on job discrimination (Part One)”

  1. ney reed said

    what is required at the minimal is clear, strong regulations to prevent job descrimination. this is how every matured country deals with this problem all around the world. whenever any job applicant applying for a job/worker within an employment feels descriminated due to ethnicity, language, age, religion, gender or any other differences is able to seek recourse through a fair and transparent process that allows for the employee to bring forth his/her claims of descrimination and the employer to explain his/her decisions/attitudes/treatment/actions of the job applicant/employee.

    you need three kinds of laws for this. firstly sexual harrassment laws which apply generally in all circumstances. secondly racial harrassment laws which also apply generally in all circumstances. thirdly work place anti-descrimination laws. most of the descrimination in any typical workplace all over the world, will be mainly due to either gender or racial descrimination. that is why those former two additional laws are required.

    beyond just legislating the laws, it must be made simple, convenient, affordable and equitable for job applicants and employees to utilize this process. finally the enforcers must have the ability to apply the law evenly regardless of whether the defendent is an government agency or multi-national corporation.

  2. The_Latest_H said

    I think we do need fair employment practices. Laws should also be passed.

    But as the article said, we also need people to help educate people about it, and to spread the message about the need to do so. Because even with laws, as long as the general public, employers and employees remain in the dark, for whatever reasons, it remains nothing but words.

    Then, we need to explain why the government has refused or ignored the need to publish figures about the patterns of job discrimination. At least, in the West, and in places like South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, even if the government, by law, doesn’t need to publish figures, the newspapers always does, the new websites always does. So you will always get a rough idea.

    Here, we don’t even have any figures to speak with.

  3. Dr.Huang said

    I just read somewhere that in the UK/Ireland that they are so serious about discrimination eg ageism that ( I cannot verify) on application forms, it is not advised for the application to indicate his/her age and the appropriate place to find out the name of the applicants is at the interview.
    I don’t think we need to go to this extent BUT, we should be serious about our attempts to weed out all forms of job discriminations!
    I just found out another acquiantance has just lost his job. He is in late-40’s and I am certain he will face ageism discrimination when he applies for the next job!
    How can the govt take such a laid-back attitude to this issue! We can’t just say that the market decide who they want to employ and then wash it’s hands off this problem.

  4. Dr.Huang said

    there is typos,
    2nd line application should read “applicant” and
    3rd line “name” should read “age”
    Even Europe is not so crazy as to disallow the name on the application form! ha ha


  5. Andrew said

    You guys are right. We can only hope that TAFEP is not just another coffee-drinkng session for the committee. As Dr Huang said, I feel that ageism is more of a problem than the other forms of discrimination. It is no doubt slowly taking root here.

    At the end of the day, some form of legislation is needed – coupled with education and persuasion. As LKY himself once said, changing mindsets takes generations (courtesy campaign, littering, spitting, etc..)

    But I don’t think Singapore can afford to wait for people (employers) to decide to not discriminate, unlike courtesy or littering or spitting.

  6. YokeH Chung said

    Chanced upon the above article 4 mths after its publication and 2 weeks after this issue
    hit the headlines in the press?
    What has been said so far about introducing legislation to tackle the obstacles cannot be
    I was quite amazed with some advertisements put up by some public enterprises after the so called quidelines appeared in the papers; like 2 to 3 years of experience is required AND immediately followed by “Fresh graduates are also welcome”!
    On my part, I had attended a job fair myself and out of curosity asked a staff from a participating stat board whether there is any age limit for vacancies offered. Guess what,
    the answer was “preferably below 35 as a lot of walking is required”!
    What more to add?

  7. Dr.Huang said

    Hi Chung,
    I just posted something about the TAFEP at

    Perhaps the implications of the TAFEP has not sunk into the heads of the HR dept of these “public enterprises” and stat boards.

    Unfortunately the TAFEP is merely a guideline only, but pressure would be put on the govt bodies to set the example.

  8. Carole said

    In times like these where more people will be retrenched indiscriminately, I sincerely hope the government will start to think about instituting laws to prevent job discrimination. How else can we stop discmination at work or wrongful dismissals if employers know that they get away scot free since individuals like us will not have the deep pockets to muscle it out at the court?

    It seems to me too that our labour laws tend to favour the employers. I wonder if anyone has relooked at the employment act since it was passed in 1970. Why it does not cover executives beats me especially since some executives may not necessary have managerial responsibilities or access to sensitive business info.

    The recent job credit scheme is a good measure but unfortunately companies who are unethical will not use to protect Singapore workers especially if they are MNCs or foreign setups, protecting their own expat workers are of preference.

    If the government chooses to ignore these problems, and expects us to look after ourselves, I think more Singaporeans would give up their citizenship. How else do we know we are serving a good master if not for how we are treated in times of trouble?

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