Why Singaporeans Don’t Earn as Much as We Should

Ryan Ong



Are you Singaporean? Are you gripped by the lingering suspicion that, just maybe, you should be able to cab home without skipping lunch for three days? Then welcome to the club. Singaporeans often don’t earn as much as they could, thanks to our bizarre habits and cultural hang-ups. In this article, I look at how many of us hobble through our income streams:


Coping Without Minimum Wage

Singapore has no minimum wage laws.

We use a free market system that, in theory, motivates workers to excel. This is the guiding principle of capitalists, innovators, and people who fling spare change at the homeless to watch them fight for it. Morality aside, I can tell you one thing for sure:

Singapore’s work culture combines horribly with this system. We have cultural norms regarding work, that make the system disadvantageous to employees. Some of these include:

  • A high power distance index
  • Not seeing employment as a business decision
  • We take “low profile” to extremes
  • We don’t check the job market often enough


1. A High Power Distance Index


Toxic office cubicle
No problems with my cubicle boss; the glue holds my skin and eyeballs in place just fine.


Have you heard about that abused intern from Encore services?

Now that was wrong on so many levels. But ponder why it happened. Why would a well educated 29 year old accept a salary of $500 a month, for three years? And still tolerate punches (albeit sissy girl ones) to the face?

His may be an extreme example, but it summarizes our timidity issues. See, Singapore is a high power distance index (PDI) country. The PDI measures how much employees accept, and respect, the unequal distribution of power.

In a low index country, employees are more likely to tell the boss that “My pay sucks, let’s do something about it.” On the other hand, employees in high index countries probably raise their hands and beg permission to pee, let alone attempt to negotiate salary.

Now look at that list again. Japan, notorious for its rigid work culture, rates a 54. Hah, that must suck, having to…holy crap, Singapore rates a 74. And nearby Malaysia rates a 104.

And therein lies the problem: In a culture bred to revere authority, few employees dare to negotiate salary with their boss. We hate to feel like we’re demanding something, or that we’re initiating a confrontation with superiors. Couple this trait with a “no minimum wage” model, and you’ll see we’re ideal employees…for a slave plantation.

Even worse, our high PDI might explain why we treat our own employees (e.g. domestic helpers, foreign workers) like we bought them at a cattle market. It’s an ugly habit all around, and one we need to break.


2. Not Seeing Employment as a Business Decision


Office cubicle filled with balloons
That’s crazy talk. What makes you think I don’t take work seriously?


An employment contract should be just that: A contract. An obligation to perform a service in exchange for money. If you forget that, it can mess up your income. This often happens when you work for family, or with friends.

Human Resource Consultant Angeline Seah says:

“Sometimes employees stay on due to a social contract, not an employment contract. Perhaps it’s their close relative’s company. Sometimes a start-up is launched by a group of close friends.

These people may feel that by leaving for higher paying jobs or demanding more pay, they are betraying friends or family. I have seen people give up better career prospects, out of such self-imposed obligations…

…some feel forced to swallow significant pay cuts, when the business goes south. Because for them employment is not a simple working relationship. It has become entangled in social and emotional complexities.”

Loyalty’s admirable, but last I checked it doesn’t pay the mortgage. The best way to handle it?

Think long and hard before working for friends or family. It blurs the boundaries between professional and personal. And if you must ask friends or family for a raise, Angeline suggests you:

Explain your financial needs, and always set a future date to talk about a raise. Never insist they answer on the spot, as they will treat it as an ultimatum. If they say yes under those circumstances, they often resent you for it later.

But at the same time, set a date when you can talk and expect a decision.”


3. We Take “Low Profile” to Extremes


Hooded figure
Rumour has it that, beyond the edges of the known world, we have some kind of tech support department.


We tend not to announce our achievements.

The problem is, humility only advances a few types of careers, and the Dalai Lama’s job is taken. In large corporate settings, bosses may not be able to track every subordinate’s accomplishments.

Wait, actually, that’s an understatement. In a multi-national firm, you could be dead for a week before they notice. Small, vital contributions (e.g. coming up witb a  new filing system, being the earliest one in to take calls) can fall through the cracks.

This impacts earnings in two ways:

First, lack of recognition makes it harder to justify raises and bonuses. And don’t forget that useful contributions are not always related to your key performance indicators (KPI).

For example, say you work in the IT department. Your KPI is based on reducing server crashes, providing tech support, etc. But then you develop an inventory system, that’s a major help in the warehouse. That’s grounds for a nice bonus…but don’t assume your boss will notice. It doesn’t show up in your KPI.

Second, you are better braced to negotiate if you know your achievements are noticed. If you’ve been patted on the back once or twice, you’ll be able to ask with greater confidence.

To fix this problem, be a little bold. Do mention your accomplishments when meeting the boss in the corridor. And be sure to file away “thank you” e-mails or letters or acknowledgement.


4. We Don’t Check the Job Market Often Enough


Job Fair
I’m looking for more of the “pay” thing, and less of the “work” thing.


Are you familiar with the Mercer pay scale? Checking your appropriate salary shouldn’t be a one-off thing.

At least every three years, check out job ads and investigate the average pay in your profession,” Angeline says, “This will give you a sense of the market demand for your skills. If you see you are being underpaid, you might want to talk to your boss about it. 

You should be seriously concerned if you fall into the lowest quartile (bottom 25%) of surveyed incomes for your profession. This sort of pay range is usually for inexperienced employees, those on probation, or those who knowingly accept lower pay to work for start-ups.

Another benefit to monitoring the job market is that it highlights tangential career prospects.

For example, you may be a software tester who happens to know app development. A cursory check will reveal that some companies pay their app developers more than their testers. Knowing such things can be key to a leap in income.”

However, Angeline also cautions against jumping from one job to another too quickly. Job hopping can be hard to explain (although we’re not totally against it at MoneySmart).


Image Credits:
Eversheds LLP, Mark Drago, Tim Patterson, jobsdebmalaysia

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Ryan Ong

I was a freelance writer for over a decade, and covered topics from music to super-contagious foot diseases. I took this job because I believe financial news should be accessible and fun to read. Also, because the assignments don't involve shouting teenagers and debilitating plagues.