Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Debate on the Ministerial Statement on the Overview of Government’s Strategy to Emerge Stronger from the COVID-19 Pandemic.
This COVID pandemic has badly affected our economy, many lives and livelihoods. But if there is something positive, it has reminded us about the important things in our lives and the things we may have taken for granted.
Sir, I learned a very painful but important lesson over the Circuit Breaker: I realise that I have missed out on so much of my children’s childhood over the last couple of years.
While working from home, I was able to spend so much time with my little ones. Together, Ella, Katie, Poppy and I cooked, ate, played, enjoyed bedtime stories, and even managed to set up a tent and camped in our living room.
Before this pandemic, I was never able to spend so much time with my kids. I was often out on the ground at work, like most of us, and by the time I got home on most nights, the kids would be fast asleep.
The reality is that work from home is something that us as MPs will not be able to completely do as our work is often on the ground. But many fellow Singaporeans can benefit from it.
In a survey of 9,000 respondents across 90 companies conducted this May, 90% of respondents said they wanted to continue working from home. Singaporeans do want such an arrangement.
Sir, we should respond positively and legislate the right to work from home for all employees, and require employers who reject the request to provide a specific business-related reason.
Working from home will benefit all employees whether you are married or single. Employees will have better work-life balance, more freedom, spend less time commuting and it promotes employee well-being.
Beyond these, there are four other main reasons why we should give people the right to work from home.
Better for fathers
The first reason is that it would be better for fathers.
A survey conducted by Focus on the Family Singapore this year found that out of nearly 2,500 fathers, 70% became more involved with their families during the Circuit Breaker. Of this group, more than 80% said they connected better with their kids.
The pandemic has hurt many Singaporean families. But it has also provided an opportunity for parents, especially fathers, to bond with their children like never before.
A recent media article spotlighted the stories of several fathers during the Circuit Breaker and how COVID-19 has given fathers a chance to bond with their kids.
Marketing Manager Imran talked about how his wife and him are so glad that he now has more time to play and eat together with his two toddler children.
Imran talked lovingly about how his kids now miss him even when he steps out of the house briefly.
Shahid Nizami a managing director spoke about how he had to strike a balance between working from home and supervising his son Kian’s home-based learning and how he jammed with his son for a virtual talent-competition, with the son on drums and the dad on guitar. He said, “This has been really special for us both”.
It is clear that many fathers now want to reconsider their work-life arrangement, and we should not waste this opportunity.
The right to work from home would give fathers more flexibility and more time to spend with their loved ones.
Better for mothers
Sir, the second reason is that mothers would benefit.
One mother, Sheena, wrote to me expressing her joy at seeing more fathers picking up their kids from school these days as a result of the work from home policy, which she says used to be a “rare sight previously.”
Fathers picking up their children from school is part of a bigger solution.
A study conducted this year by the US National Bureau of Economics found that the pandemic will likely cause fathers to become more interested and experienced in childcare, reducing the childcare responsibility on mothers and increasing gender equality at the workplace.
This rings true for Singapore too. An IPS study found that fathers who had more time to be with their children at home were able to better develop effective childcare skills.
When fathers become more adept with handling childcare responsibilities, their families relied less on the mothers for childcare. This not only improved delegation of home responsibilities more equally between fathers and mothers, but also allowed working mothers to focus better at work.
In short, when fathers buck up at home, mothers get to lean in at work. Gender equality happens when everyone chips in.
Better for businesses
The third reason is that it would be good for businesses. It does so by increasing productivity.
A 2011 guide by the Tripartite Committee on Work-Life Strategy says that working from home “enhances business performance and competitiveness for employers” as employers can “optimise manpower and resources deployment”.
International examples back up this point. A study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research found that employees of China’s largest travel agency, CTrip were 13% more productive while working from home.
Having employees work from home also helps companies reduce fixed costs such as office rental and workstations set-up cost and staff turnover-related costs.
As early as 2001, MOM stated that work from home “allows workers to better combine their work and personal responsibilities” which helps to reduce absenteeism and attrition.
CTrip, the Chinese travel agency I mentioned previously, halved the attrition rate of their employees with a work-from-home policy.
Businesses that allow their employees to work from home do grow stronger. Let us help our businesses recover from this COVID economy in a way that emphasises efficiency and reduced costs.
Through the Productivity Solutions Grant, the government is also helping to make a work from home policy possible for businesses.
Better for the economy
The fourth and final reason for legislating the right to work-from-home is that it would be good for our economy.
I’ve cited research showing that a work-from-home policy reduces employee attrition. What I haven’t mentioned is that so often these attritioned employees are women. When you add up the effects on a national level, we see shocking trends.
Let’s talk about female labour-force participation rate. On that, Singapore scored 61.1% in 2019, far below even other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam at 72.5%, Cambodia at 75.2% and Lao PDR at 76.8%.
It is often said that Singapore’s only natural resource is our people. Yet we aren’t even employing half of our people – our women – efficiently.
Why is our female labour force participation rate so low? According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the culprit is caregiving and childcare responsibilities.
The study estimates that if we close this gap, more than $26 billion could be added to Singapore’s annual GDP by 2025. We need every dollar of that, and we need to close that gap.
The solution is to empower our mothers to work from home.
Tyressa, a working mother wrote to me saying that working from home has meant that she did “not have to worry about childcare arrangements” and could pick her children up from childcare, bring them to appointments and take care of them when they did not have school.
The right to work-from-home will provide parents like Tyressa, and other employees, with legal grounds to request to work from home when they need to without being penalised.
It will enable those who have been discouraged and forced out of the workforce to rejoin their fellow Singaporeans.
In these hard times, Singapore’s economy needs every leg up it can get. The right to work-from-home will help.
Possible unintended consequences?
Finally, let me address potential downsides and how we can solve them.
MOM has previously stated that legislation can have “unintended consequences” for the very groups it is meant to benefit and protect.
For example, it may discourage employers from hiring groups seen as likely to take up the benefits.
I am equally concerned about such outcomes. So I studied the issue. The UK has done what I’m calling for. It provides the right for all workers to request for work-from-home, which employers can reject only based on certain business reasons.
A study conducted in 2018 found that less than 5% of UK workers who worked from home or used staggered hours experienced negative career consequences due to their working arrangement. It is extremely unlikely that getting to work-from-home hurts someone’s career.
By contrast, the study found that work-from-home “have been shown to reduce women’s likelihood of working part-time after childbirth, reduce the motherhood penalty, and potentially increase wage premiums for women especially in the longer run.”
In other words, the evidence suggests that legislating the right to work-from-home would help, not hinder, women from succeeding at the workplace.
Sir, in conclusion, I hope we will legislate this right to work from home. Employers can reject the request with a specific business-related reason, and employees who choose to work from the office can still feel free to do so.
I believe this is a good middle-ground win-win proposal.
For years, we told everyone that work-from-home helps with work-life balance, reduces employee absenteeism, leads to higher productivity, saves cost of office space, and attracts and retains valued employees. It even helps save lives during a pandemic.
For months, we made it law. All I’m asking is that we now make this law permanent.
Minister Lawrence has said that working from home must be embraced as the new normal even after the circuit breaker ends.
We are now at a 50% work-from-home policy and I urge the government not to reduce this any further but instead take a step forward and ensure that work from home truly becomes the new normal.
Let me end by stressing that work-from-home is not just for fathers and mothers. It is for those who are not married as well.
At some point in our lives, we will have to care for someone else, be it children, parents, grandparents, spouses, partners, friends and other loved ones.
We will all need to be caregivers someday, and we should have the flexibility to do so.
Working from home also helps with work-life balance and our well-being so it is also about caring for ourselves.
Sir, let us emerge stronger. As I’ve said this many times in this House, spend time with those you love, one of these days you will either say I wish I had or I’m glad I did. Let’s give our people a better chance of saying “I’m glad I did”.
Thank you Sir.
Watch the speech here