Read a letter in the Straits Times, our local board sheet, a few weeks ago that argued that it was ridiculous and economically dangerous for Singapore to demand equal pay for people regardless of nationality. I got pissed off because the article was effectively a defense of “race-based” pay, where people are paid according to nationality and ethnicity rather than the job they do and more importantly how well they do their job. You can view the letter at: http://www.straitstimes.com/forum/letters-on-the-web/equal-rights-for-all-workers-not-possible.
I’ve written a reply, which has not been published and so I thought I’d try and publish my thoughts myself.
“Race-based” pay should be a controversial topic but somehow, everyone in Singapore seems to take it for granted and accepts it as normal. While, I am told that things are changing, I’ve found that Asians tend to accept that White people should get more merely for the fact that they are white and dark people should get less merely for the fact that they are dark.
One of the most prominent examples of this mentality came when I was asked why I had turned down the restaurant manager’s job three times. My reason was very simple – my predecessor, a Belgium was on a salary of $4,500 a month and I was being offered $2,500 a month for exactly the same job. One of my chefs told me, “You can’t think like that – he’s an ‘Ang Moh (local Singapore slang for Caucasian).” I turned down the job and the job was taken by a Malaysian Indian who started out on S$2,300 a month (the said Malaysian Indian having more experience in the restaurant business than the Belgium he was replacing.)
To me, the idea of being paid significantly less than someone for doing the same job does not make sense. Many people would argue that I’ve had the good fortune of being able to reject certain offers. While my income sources are by no means high, I’ve had various sources of income at a single time. So, I can take the stance that I don’t work for significantly less than someone else because of my nationality. My Pilipino colleague in the restaurant bit his teeth and worked alongside an Italian girl young enough to be his daughter and doing exactly the same job as him but being paid significantly more because, well he needed the job and the job probably pays him more than what he might be able to earn back home.
Still, does that fact make it right to pay people based on their nationality? I don’t think so and I don’t think any right thinking person should think so. I think people should be paid more for certain things but nationality shouldn’t be one of them.
Let’s accept the fact that a nation might not have certain skills that the economy requires. In the old days you needed “management” skills, which more often than not came out of the West. Hence, you had the wave of Western expatriates who were sent overseas at great expense of the company to run the business in far flung corners of the world. These days the skills are more often than not, technical – hence, the world has seen an increase in the number of Indian Expatriates.
OK, I am an expat kid (step-dad, Lee was a senior creative man the agency sent all over the world) and so I guess I accept that you have to pay people a certain premium and provide certain perks for people to relocate around the world. Few people would move out of their home/ comfort zones unless there was an immediate benefit to it. We need certain skills and talents and so we pay for it.
There should be benefits for taking risk and quite often one of the biggest risks that people take is leaving their comfort zones.
At the other end of the scale, you have the migrant workers who leave their homes and work in conditions many of us would consider dehumanizing. Yet, they’re willing to do it because jobs are scarce at home and what they get is better than what they’d get if they stayed. I also understand doing the jobs nobody else will do because –well, I’ve been doing it for some time.
Generally speaking, I accept that many of the Westerners in Asia and now an increasing number of Indian nationals are where they are because they provide much needed skills. We shouldn’t begrudge them their pay packages because they’ve taken a certain amount of risk to leave their homes and they do bring benefits to the places where they end up. I remember speaking to Tham Khai Meng, Global Creative Director at Ogilvy & Mather, who proudly declared that Singapore kicks ass in the global advertising scene. I credit the fact that we were open to global talents like Neil French working here. Guys like Mr. French recognized top local talents like Mr. Tham and brought them up. Good expats are good for local talents.
What I disagree with is the fact that people accept that skin colour should be a reason to pay someone more or less.
Ironically, in Asia, it’s often the Westerners who look beyond race and nationality as a reason for paying someone. While my Asian co-workers at the restaurant urged me to accept a lesser amount than my Belgium and Italian colleagues, it was a Danish customer who told me that I should ask for $5,500 a month based on what I had delivered in terms of customer experience.
Asia is home to about three fifths of the human race. We as a continent need to look beyond our “cast” system and raise and reward people based on their talents and not their nationality. The Westerners have learnt to look beyond nationality (not that the West is free of its prejudices) surely we can too. If we need Westerners to be our moral compass, then I think the talk of the Asian century will remain just that.