My Letter to NTUC - Protecting PMEs in Singapore

By Jacky Tan

I am happy to hear that you have organized this meeting to gather the opinions of PMEs (professionals, managers and executives) like us. Really appreciate your effort in seeking PMEs' view to create a better and fairer working environment.

I am writing as a concerned citizen who wants a fair and harmonized working environment so that everyone, (the employer, the employee and the government) can win.

Here are some of the thoughts that I have gathered on the ground.

I] Concerns of PMEs Today

1. Insecurity

Some matured local PMEs are usually afraid that once they are over the age of forty, their jobs will become insecure; and because of that, some employers will take advantage of this fear, so as to control the employee.

When matured local PMEs are asked to leave, some of them may take up lower salaried jobs or become self employed like taxi drivers, in order to earn income to sustain their livelihood (especially to finance their teenage children’s education).  

PMEs who do “backend” jobs for their companies, such as admin, operations, accounts, support and customer service, will feel more insecure as compare to PMEs who are in the front line departments such as sales, marketing, business developments and also HR.

This is because some bosses of SMEs may feel that backend jobs, unlike sales and marketing, are just some simple clerical, emailing and data mining tasks which did not bring money to the company; and anyone can just replace them easily.

We got to protect these PMEs who worked in the backend department, companies should give them equal opportunities to grow and perform; employers should also find ways to make them feel that they are also indispensable to the company.

This type of grey area is something that I can understand that government may not be able to control completely; but, they are happening today.

2. Fear of Capital Loss to Non Competition Clause

As what I know, from the employment act, non-competition clause is not applicable at all. However, employers are still creating non-competition clauses in their employment contract. Their reason is to protect the company’s interest and confidential information.

However, some companies’ non competition clause, in my opinion, is extremely unfair to the skilled or technical PMEs such as engineers, surgeons, IT developers and so on.

There are cases where some employers threaten to fine or sue their outgoing staff if they “break” their non competition clauses; some companies will also “force” their outgoing staff to not work in the same industry or profession for a very long period of time. Such practice exploits people’s right to work and to be employed.

As the non competition clause is not applicable in the employment act, the outgoing PME will be at a very disadvantaged position. If a doctor leaves a company and cannot be a doctor, what else can he do?

One of the fears for some PMEs, is that either they will suffer months of income loss or they will face potential lawsuit from their former companies if they break the non competition clause contract.

Chances of winning the civil suit, for the PMEs, may also be very slim; as they may not have a lot of capital to sustain this fight (by engaging a good and expensive lawyer) against their former employer.

So, I hope to see, that there is some form of protection here as well. Probably, in all employment contracts, the non competition clause should be reviewed by the government authority first, to see if there is any unfairness in the terms and conditions to the employee, before they even let their employees to sign; and employees are allowed to voice out to third parties should there is unfairness in the non competition clause.

3. Unfair HR Practice

Here I want to share a true story about one of my friends’ ex colleague. When the ex colleague went for her compassionate leave due to her grandma’s passing, the employer hires a new staff to take over her job.

When she came back from her leave, the HR manager, without feeling any empathy for the staff’s loss of her family member, asked the staff to tender her own resignation letter. After hearing her story, I feel that there might be also similar cases like this around, especially towards the pregnant employees.

Employers should learn to have more empathy in dealing with situation like that; building a company is not only about just money and profit, it is also about managing, and being human.

Another form of unfair HR practice is that some employers may be too biased, especially in hiring PMEs of certain nationality to hold higher management positions in their companies, while giving other nationality less opportunities or just junior positions only.

This is another grey area. Government may not be able to check whether there are any such unfair HR practices in any companies.

So, I am thinking if we could set up some type of “whistle-blowing” channel between the employees, trade unions and the government; whereby, if any such unfair HR practice is seen, the employee can alert the union and authority to investigate such issue.

Education campaigns can be set up to teach and alert the public of the availability of such channels. Employers, who will also be aware of this, will therefore, not do such unfair HR practice anymore.

4. Tired, no work life balance

I feel that some PMEs are working long hours. Sometimes during the night like 8pm or 9pm, trains are still packed with people going home from work; if you are driving at times like 10pm or 11pm plus, you could still see some offices still have their lights on, showing that people inside are still working.

Working long hours is tiring physically as well mentally, resulting in less work life balance for the employees. Less work life balance will mean that singles will have less time meeting their Miss or Mr Right.

While working parents may have less quality time to get together with their family and children. And this phenomenon might cause a decline in our fertility rate.

Working overtime is therefore, not very healthy and it does not mean higher productivity either. Employers must change the micro-managing mindset that the longer the time their employees are at work, the better business they can get.


II] Other Solution Suggested

1)      PMEs should do more things to increase their industry value

Especially with the advent of the internet and social media, we can actually share our expertise and knowledge via blogging, video tutorials and articles writing, to educate audience online about your expert opinions.

What I want to bring across here is that, there are many opportunities around for PMEs to increase our value in the industry.

In my case, while working my day to day job, I also share marketing PR skills on my blog, articles in business magazines and writing my own book. Well, doing all these will definitely increase one’s industry value.

I deeply believed that there are many talented Singaporeans in the country, so I believe everybody can do many great things.

When one’s industry value increases, the feeling of insecurity will be much minimal; and in fact, the employer will want the employee badly too. 

2)      More performance evaluation tasks for backend PMEs

Employers should also have more performance evaluation tasks for PMEs who are more on the backend departments of the company. They can evaluate their staff in terms of presentation skills, public speaking, writing and people’s skills.


3)      Think outside of the conservative business mindset

Some SMEs bosses may feel that low labour costs will increase its competitiveness in the global market; so, they may complain that the loss of manpower can lead to potential decline for their business to the competition. But labour cost should not be the only factor that can determine the success or downfall of any particular business.

 There are many other factors such as quality of product, quality of labour, branding, innovation, marketing, customer service, market positioning, public relation, social media, and many more, that will also determine the success or downfall of any company.

Competing on low prices is not the only way to brand success. In fact, price cutting may result in the downfall of brands in the long run. Imagine Louis Vuitton were to slash their prices down to 50%, in the short run, people might rush to buy the brand. However, in the long run, LV will become like a commodity. Consumers will no longer feel privileged owning a piece of LV handbag. Some of them may feel that the brand might have lost in terms of quality. The brand will look cheapskate. Furthermore, other competing boutique brands who stay strong in their pricing policy, will win the market share of LV and thereby becoming the market leader eventually.

Likewise, Starbucks will to cut down their prices to $1 per cup of coffee, their loyal customers may just run away as they may feel that Starbucks is no longer a premium brand.

In a nutshell,

I hope we can see more people, whether they are local or foreigner, employees or employers, are happy working in Singapore.


[This article is reproduced, edited and extracted from the author’s letter to NTUC (PME Alignment Unit) on 28 Feb 2013, titled, “Fixing the Grey Areas (BetweenPMES and Employers in SMEs)”; one real case study mentioned in the letter has been taken out from this article, at the request of the subject.]

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