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SMEs feel the blues of a tighter foreign labour supply

Wei Chan, owner of a mom and pop bakery in Ang Mo Kio spoke at two of events. From what I understand from Gilbert, Wei Chan wanted to convince the audience that we need more cheap foreign workers in order for SMEs to survive. However, not only did he fail to get his message across, he soon became the target for the rest of the guys in the room. The conversation soon steered from a forum for minimum wage to one about migrant worker issues. At the heart of it was a very deep-seated problem faced by most SMEs in Singapore – businesses here are struggling to survive.


Vincent Wijeysingha, Kumaran Pillai, Leong Sze Hian, Jolovan Wham and Wei Chan.

Wei Chan obviously was in the wrong neck of the woods. He soon realized that enough is enough and went back to where he hailed from and we didn’t see him around Gilbert’s forum anymore. I later found out that he sought company with ASME where his misery found other doting companions.

Like the story of Wei Chan, SMEs, who contribute to 50% of our national income, feel that they are left in the cold and with the government restricting the flow of foreigners in Singapore; these little businesses will have to either shape up or ship out (or close shop).

From the conversations that I have had with him and from what he has shared at the forum; behind his veneer of success is a struggling businessman. He depends on it to feed himself and his family. His workers depend on it and he is driven to succeed not because of greed but because of an ambition to do better than his predecessors, or plainly put because of the need to survive. For success would mean breakout from the economic trap(s) that hold us down.

Now, his hopes of building a better tomorrow, after investing thousands of dollars are dashed – the government plans to tighten the supply of foreign labour which he depends on to expand his business. He says the locals do not want to do it at the wage levels that he is offering. He can’t offer more because he will not be able to sustain his business at higher costs.

So, what can the likes of Wei Chan do?

If you’re an owner of an SME and have been adversely affected by the change in government’s foreign manpower policy, do not fret because there are ways to overcome this labour shortage by adopting strategies to overcome our over-reliance on cheap foreign labour.

But seriously, how much more can we innovate? If you have already invested in nice IT systems – point of sales, accounting, inventory management and automated your sales process or bought expensive machinery to cut down manual work, what else can you do?

Take a look at the two video below and you’ll be amazed but what our counterparts are doing:

Lay’s Vending Machine in Argentina

Automated cake baking machine in Japan

Now, why didn’t Wei Chan think of that? Or might it be that the cakes baked by an untrained foreign baker would be any better? I do not know.

But, what I know is that the noisiest fellas in our business community come from small businesses that are either too small to automate and not large enough to innovate (pun intended); and they often indulge in wallowing and attention seeking (just read the statements that come out from ASME).

Looking on the bright side, our G has decided to throw some good $$$ at this problem. However, throwing money at a problem is not a solution. What we need to do is to throw money where it matters most. There are few programmes, administered by A*Star and Spring Singapore that comes to my mind:

1. Technology Adoption Programme: A*STAR will help to link companies’ technology needs to solution providers to help companies across sectors increase productivity through adopting technology innovations and solutions. From July 2013, this programme will be piloted in six sectors – Construction, Food Manufacturing, Precision Engineering, Marine, Aerospace as well as Retail.

2. Capability Development Grant (CDG): supports up to 70% of the cost of productivity improvements and capability development that will result in greater enterprise competitiveness and business growth.

3. Collaborative Industry Projects: The Government will work with industry players and partners like Trade Associations and Chambers (TACs) to address sector-specific productivity challenges. Consortia with at least 3 SMEs, comprising solution providers and users, will be formed to develop and propose bottom-up deployable and scalable productivity solutions. SPRING will be looking at the Collaborative Industry Projects (CIP) in six priority sectors: Food Manufacturing, Food Services, Furniture, Printing & Packaging, Retail and Textile & Fashion…   for more information

There is also another programme that caught my eye – SME Talent Programme – where SMEs can attract local talent from ITEs and Polytechnics over the next three years. This is really commendable; something that they should have done years ago. Now, Wei Chan cannot say that he can’t find talent locally!

If you do need assistance or advise, please drop me an email or leave a message below.

Kumaran Pillai is a member of Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE). He also blogs actively, comments periodically, runs a business incubator daily and stages protests at Hong Lim Green when he feels the blues. 


Gilbert Goh – The Accidental Rebel

The Accidental Rebel

The Accidental Rebel

Singapore has stumbled upon a rebel, a real one, for that matter. While other rebel-rousers have dedicated their entire careers to it, Gilbert Goh almost effortlessly organized the largest protest in Singapore (since independence) through online social media and other socio-political blogs.

Now, old and new rebels want to perform at his events, but he is careful that his platform is not hijacked by any other political parties. He wants to keep his platform party-agnostic and does not want to be dictated by other political agendas.

He thinks that there are elements out there who want to portray him as a racist. “Make no mistake, “he says, “People are trying to ‘sabo’ my efforts. “ It is no accident that he has been subject to online vitriol by other netizens who think some of his pieces are written in bad taste. His article Characteristics and behaviour of our 1.8 million foreign population is definitely a “must read” for anyone following the political developments in Singapore.

However, Gilbert is not the first to profile the different races in Singapore. Former Prime Minister Lee has also written about the customs and mannerisms of the different races here. One opposition politician said that the main difference between Gilbert and LKY was:  Gilbert is a political novice while LKY is a master at this game.

I have asked Gilbert some questions and do read them to find out more about Gilbert.

1.       A lot of local politicians have gone down this path of staging public protests but have had limited success with it. You on the other hand have been wildly successful. What is your secret to success?

I am fortunate as we did the protest which affected a lot of Singaporeans i.e. the 6.9 million population White Paper (walau, no space bring more people some more). Many people are unhappy with the overpopulation issue and it sort of broke the camel’s back for many Singaporeans.

We also have done several protests the past years e.g. minimum wage, foreign influx, retirement issues among others but the attendance seldom went past 200 people.

2.       You seem to have a quite a sizable support base online. What is your primary message to them when you ask them to participate in your protests?

We use socio political blogs like TRE (Richard very helpful one), Feed me to the fish, TOC, The Real Singapore and Facebook to promote the event and it was also widely publicised via the international media e.g. Yahoo, BBC, CNN, Reuters, Bloomberg, AFP and others.

I just appeal to the protestors to save Singapore and come out with courage to protest in person than complaining behind their keyboard. We can do something together and this time round I am proud Singaporeans came out even though it was pouring (i.e. raining).

Something changed and I guess the fear factor disappeared after that historic event (Feb 16 Protest).

By now, many Singaporeans see the power of public protest done peacefully and we are able to send a strong message to the ruling elite.

3.       What made you organize the protest on the 16th of Feb? Was that politically motivated?

Like many Singaporeans, I was enraged by the 6.9 million projections that was flashed on CNA (aiya, they neber listen one) and decided that I must do something.

We also did an indoor event on the 6 million population target earlier in Dec 2012.  So when I saw the higher 6.9 million population target I knew that something is very wrong here.

I slept over it for two days before finally deciding to announce the event on my website (Gotto do it ah bro, the Government does not listen one… siow siow ah) and Facebook page and the rest was history.

4.       I understand that you’ll be organizing yet another forum on the 23 of March. This would be the 3rd in this series. So what is new this time?

The 23rd March event will be held indoors and the venue has a maximum seating capacity of sixty.  So, do sign up for it quickly.

The session will be more of a discussion – a “conversation” if you like. The press will be invited (of course). Most of the speakers are from the first protest and now they’ll be given more time to expound their ideas using audio visual tools. It will be more in-depth.

5.       Tell me more about the May Day Protest that you are organizing? Who are the speakers and what kind of support are you looking for?

We are doing a sequel protest on May 1st on the 6.9 million White Paper plus other issues that affect Singaporeans e.g. lack of a minimum wage, sky-high property prices, and huge income gap. We hope to attract a crowd size of ten thousand.  So far, Mr Leong Sze Hian, Nizam ismail, M Ravi have confirmed that they’ll be speaking.

We are still trying to get other civil societies on board and will announce them once it’s confirmed.  We will continue to use social media to publicise our event via Facebook and other socio-political sites.  I am glad that ST has also reported our event in their papers few days ago. I also heard that Media Corp radio has also announced about our Labour Day protest.

 We will also do a press conference one week before the event to generate more publicity.

6.       A lot of people think that you harbour racist or xenophobic feelings deep inside. But, I understand that you have lived and worked abroad and based on my interactions with you, you seem like a guy who gives equal opportunity to all. So, what is your response to the people, do you think you were unfairly criticized?

I guess when we stand against the 6.9 million population White Paper people will accuse us of being xenophobic as a lot of the population growth is accomplished through foreign influx. This is unfortunate.

Yes, I have lived and worked abroad in Sydney via a 4-year work visa tied to my ex-wife’s visa as she was posted there for work. They are PRs now but I am not a PR.  The work visa has since expired.

Having worked abroad, I experienced the same kind of frustrations our foreign friends face here.

I apologise if any of my articles appeared xenophobic in the past and have tried to be more careful with what I say now.

It was never my intention to turn the movement into an anti-foreigner one and we have always advocated both online and in the open that we want to be seen as anti-policy rather than anti-foreigner or anti-government.  All foreigners are welcomed to attend any of our events organised by Transitioning (admission is free).

Gilbert’s protests come in instalments – there are sequels and prequels to it. Just in case you miss the one on the 23rd of March at NVPC, you can attend the next show on the 1st of May 2013 at Hong Lim Green. Admission is free.

With movie tickets selling at $8.00 and above, Singaporeans are turning to protests as their main source of entertainment.

Sign up for Sequel protest – For A Better Singapore – organised by

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