Willing But Unemployed – Especially those above 40s!

“Native resentment is also growing against the influx of migrant workers: 35% of the workforce of 3m is now foreign. It is often cheaper for companies to import semi-skilled and unskilled workers—there were 680,000 at last count—than to hire locals, who require pension contributions.” – The Economist

Editor’s Note: The story below are just some of the many real life cases that go unreported. Due to the open door policy, people above 40s are considered old as there are plenty of young foreigners who are hungrier, cheaper and less demanding available for hire. A few serious social problems are highlighted in this article: the lack of social safety net, the high cost of medical treatment and standard of living, the stigma and difficulty to find job after 40 year old. This is especially vulnerable for those middle and lower income group, one mis-step such as a health problem of a family member, divorce or retrenchment could set you on the course of the beginning of a downhill.

More:  Give Singaporeans a chance!

3 years ago = sales manager $4000, now = dishwasher $6/hour

Source: Transitioning.Org, Written by: Gilbert Goh

Do also sign the online petition Employ Singaporeans First if you have not done so.

I have met up with Kelvin thrice so far and am always  amazed at his survival instinct and determination to look at the bright side  of life despite the adverse odds that plagued him these past few years.

Kelvin is an avid reader of our Transitioning. Org blog.

The fact that we are born on the same year – 1961 also helped to draw us closer as close buddies.

Used to earning $4000 a month as a sales manager just three years ago before been retrenched during the global financial crisis, he is reduced to ekking out a living as a dishwasher now making $6.00 an hour at a cafeteria – a lone Singaporean amidst a sea of foreigners in this service-orientated industry.

Single, articulate and focused, Kelvin tried to see things from a glass half full than half empty perspective and perhaps this is how he has  thrived all this while –  even when things went pretty much downhill the past few years.

He has a diploma in management from SIM and used to work with the SAF for 11 years as a navy communications supervisor. His last drawn salary was around $2000 then.

He later went on to do sales for another ten years earning between $3000 – $4000 and living quite a comfortable life.

He  travelled widely and provided well for his two ageing parents. As he stays with them in a fully-paid HDB 4-room flat, he could save up quite a lot and thought that his retirement plan is pretty much in place. He has no lack and life was simple but comfortable.

He has no fancy dream to upgrade to a condo like most Singaporeans do  and after  several failed attempts to get hitched, he decided to stay single.

“Maybe marriage life is not for me!” he qulped. “And moreover, it could be a blessing in disguise as many of my friends’ marriages broke up.”

His perpetual sanguine remarks peppered the several meetings we had over the past two months and I told him that he had the hallmark of a survivor in him.


 Like many PMETs during the 2007 global financial crisis, Kelvin was retrenched from a $4000-a-month sales job and life went very much downhill from then on.

After sending out thousands of emails for work vacancies and countless failed  interviews, he decided that he could not hang on anymore.

Moreover, his savings were mostly exhausted and he has two aged parents to take care of. He tried out security work for the past two years drawing a salary of around $1200 a month.

The security job  provided for his basic necessities and soothed the frantic desperation in him when his life savings – meant  for his retirement needs, dwindled down to the low thousands.

Nevertheless, the shift work nature of the security field soon took a toil on his frail body.

He had three operations on his weak heart before and a pacemarker was finally installed so that he could breathe properly. In all, the operations wiped off $40, 000 from his CPF accounts. He also panted easily and could not take up any work that taxes the physical part of him.

He has to quit from the security job after two years as he feared that his weak body may not be able to take the physical strain anymore without futher damaging the impaired heart.

Failed Business Venture

During these few months, he tried his hand at setting up a business in Myamar and sank $20, 000 into the venture.  It was a telecommunication business venture.

He knew that he would not be able to make it back in the  sales line industry as  there were less than five interviews throughout a 12-month period despite thousands of applications emailed out.

The venture  bombed badly on him and he recounted how the failed business made him looked silly and incompetent.

“Maybe I am not cut out for business, Gilbert,” he told me.

“The business partner in Myamar simply said that the venture could not carry on anymore due to some legislation and the $20, 000 that I sank in completely went to ashes.” There was no recourse for any compensation and it took him a few weeks before he could accept that his money was as good as gone.

Part of the money was from his life savings and the other part he took out from banks’ overdraft.


Ominously, he was sued by three banks as he utilized his credit cards and overdraft to survive during that period. The accrued total amount owed was only $16, 000.

He is down to his low thousands and fortunately his sister helped to pay for the flat’s utilities bills and general basic necessities.

He is now waiting for the bankruptcy suit as he didn’t want to keep paying the minimum payment to the three banks.

I told him that it was silly to be made a bankrupt because of a $16, 000 debt.

“Its never ending,” he told me. “The amount never dwindled and if you make a payment late, the  penalty fee could be as much as $50.”

“You ended up just servicing the interest monthly but the principal is always there – umoved.”

Personally, I have never seen a person welcoming bankruptcy so readily. Many people would have borrow,  beg or even steal to pay off the small amount to avoid bankruptcy but not Kelvin.  Perhaps, the strain of having to find enough  money to pay off the monthly minimum payment took such a toil that on  him that  its better to face the music now  than dying in a slow painful death.

However, the bankruptcy suit also brought about a ugly twist of event.

I was troubled to receive a string of texts from him last month  asking me to check with a lawyer whether the bailiff could be barred from entering the person’s home.

Normally, when a bankruptcy suit is entered here, the court will appoint a baliff to serve notice to the occupiers that the home’s possessions will be seized and sold off as part of the bankruptcy’s writ.

This was troubling Kelvin a lot as he did not want his aged parents to be bothered in any way by his financial misjudgement.

He told his dad about the writ  and he freaked out calling him names that were unprintable. He loved his parents very much and the last thing he wanted is to implicate them in any way.

Hurt and wounded, he decided to move out so that he could change his address and hopefully the baliff will find him at his rental place instead of his parents’ home –  where he has stayed for the past 49 years.

He is still at odds with his aging dad.

Dishwashing Job

 In his desperation, he took up a dishwashing job which paid around $6 an hour. He worked the night shift from 6 to 10pm.

“At least my basic necessities of food and transport are provided for,” he told me in his usual cheery disposition.

He told me that he needs about $500 a month to survive on and still could give about $200 to his parents as pocket money. I told him that many Singaporeans spent $500 a week alone on food!

“There is nothing much for me to hope for now except to have three meals a day and a roof over my head,” Kelvin told me the last time that we caught up  over dinner at Plaza Singapura foodcourt.

“It’s also fortunate that I am single as I don’t have to really provide for my family. I can’t imagine what will happen to my family if I have to work as a dish washer to provide for their needs. My wife will probably leave me.”

Kelvin hoped to see more priorities in employment given to local Singaporeans who are in transition. There is hardly any policy that sees to the rehiring needs of local Singaporeans – like giving them some priority over foreign  workers.

“There are all kinds of work permits that allow our employers to hire foreigners over local Singaporeans!” he told me in a rare display of frustration.

“I have given up applying for sales positions as after three years of trying, I have more or less given up hope that I am able to return to my old trade.”

“Maybe I will be a dishwasher for the rest of my life…”

Kelvin is only 49 years old and as I looked at him that day, his situation does not look very bright and things may not turn around for him anytime soon. Ominously, when he left his previous part-time dishwashing job due to  personal reasons, he began to look up another  dishwashing job citing the ease at finding such work as one main reason.

I wondered how many Kelvins are out there washing dishes, putting on the smart security guard uniform or driving a cab when our foreign talents are happily working away and making decent salary… it just does not make any sense here. Don’t get me wrong  – I am not against people who are dishwashers, security guards or cabbies.

It’s just that after studying for 15 years in our world class educational system, clocking up decades of work experience in a first world economy and putting in the required 24 months of national service defending our nation, we are reduced to such pathetic state when we have  reach our forties? Something is very wrong somewhere out there…and our renowed meritocratic system may have failed all of us here.


Article 1: Security jobs: Not a walk in the park

Despite being in demand, security guards feel that salaries and working conditions can be improved

Source: Todayonline.com  June 20, 2011
A reader RAVINDRAN commented:

I am 70 years old. I was a property agent, property officer for over 30 years to earn a basic living. I have A level education. i passed the security course in 2009.

I worked for a few agencies. The 12 hours job was killing me. I am unemployed again. But I can work for 6 hours as a security officer and do a good job. Because of my age, I am not able to find such a job. What is the alternative? I stay home and wander in the street.

All my education, experience is wasted. I am only interested to work as long as i can and be financially independent. I can therefore maintain my self-respect. I am still healthy to work for 6 hours.
Can the wisdom of employers be humane to the elders trying to earn a living. Is it too much to ask?

Helping elders who want to work is a healthy attitude and practicing compassion and kindness. That is soul satisfaction-unconditional love.

ASKMELAH’s NOTE: If the Government (esp Ministry of Manpower) is serious about reducing the shortage of labour and reliance on Foreign imports and give some dignity back to the aged who are willing to work, nudge the NTUC or other NGOs to form a cooperative with the sole purpose of starting a revolution of hiring the old workers as security guards since the private companies are not keen to champion such social cause. My guess is the MOM officials are likely to take the easy route of allowing more work permit holders instead since this is easier than arm-twisting with the NTUC or the like.

Article 2: No chance of a job, for she’s above 60

Source: The Straits Times  Mar 5, 2011

The Sunday Times 31Jul2011I AM also a job-seeking senior citizen (‘They too need help’ by Mr Tham Siong Tuck; Feb 24). I have applied without success for secretarial and administrative positions for a year.

I have sought assistance from the Central Singapore Community Development Council, Employment and Employability Institute (e2i), unions and employment agencies, dutifully answered ads in the Internet classifieds daily and attended many job fairs.

Upon learning my age, most, if not all, agencies and employers lose interest immediately.

My second visit to e2i was particularly disappointing. The officer who interviewed me told me that even if I was hired, I would have to quit soon as I was close to the retirement age.

When I replied that the Government was encouraging companies to hire seniors, her response was that the posts I was interested in were more suited for younger people.

At the community development council, the work available for seniors were in sales, front-line customer service or as carpark attendants.

I would have thought that agencies would leverage on my substantial secretarial and administrative experience; and I don’t think that once I turned 60, some switch would turn off all that experience, rendering me fit for only non-office jobs.

The stereotyping by prospective employers that I have been subjected to just because I am above 60 is contradictory to the Government’s call for able-bodied seniors to continue working, and is extremely discouraging. One heeds the Government’s call, but it is not backed up by action on the part of employers.

I hope employers will not prejudge applicants because of their age.

Irene Tan (Madam)



Article 3: Don’t let expertise of elderly go to waste


Letter from Jeffrey Law Lee Beng

I READ Jolly Wee’s letter, “Elderly in menial jobs is not active ageing” (June 30) with mixed feelings.

To some older people, working as cleaners, pump attendants and food outlet helpers may seem lowly, but at least they are gainfully employed which they consider important to their dignity. If possible, they try not to depend on handouts.

However, I have known some retirees who have acquired much experience and talent over the years now working as taxi drivers and security guards. They are not really embracing active ageing but are being financially independent.

As these highly educated and knowledgeable people are an asset to the corporate world, it would be beneficial to tap their skills and expertise, and one good way is to set up social enterprises vying for consultancy, training and business projects at competitive rates.

If government agencies and social institutions are supportive of such self-help enterprises, the elderly will be kept healthy and productive beyond the usual retirement age.



Article 4: Older worker’s job hunt: 60 letters, 3 replies, zero offer

Source: Jul 24, 2011

” I have sent out almost 60 application letters, not for senior corporate positions but for middle to lower management roles, but have received just three replies…I have also tried applying for menial jobs, but the emplyers did not take me seriously.. 

“I am healthy and able to work long hours. But I believe many compaines have a bias against hiring older workers. Many organisations talk about rehiring but very few actually walked the talk.”


Article 5:Low jobless rate but more older workers are unemployed

Letter from Frank Young

IT IS great that the Government has kept the unemployment rate low (March 16). But too much of a good thing is bad.

Such a low unemployment rate increases the cost of living for everyone as one industry poaches employees from another with increased salaries while the other poaches them back in spiralling effect.

This unsustainable game of musical chairs does no stop, until one of these companies chooses to move to another country.

Furthermore, the euphoria of having a 2 per cent unemployment does not help the fact that there is a 61 per cent unemployment rate for workers between the ages of 55 and 64. Furthermore, those in their 40s to 50s are the first to become retrenched or let go.

Why is there such a disparity?

We have tried giving companies incentives and schemes; What did we get? A huge jump in year-on-year unemployment amongst those 55 to 64 years old, while worker shortages remain.

Perhaps, we should shine light on socially-implicit age discrimination. It is time to take this issue seriously. We cannot fix it if we are in denial. This will require a change in attitude in everyone to be a truly inclusive society.

Article 6: Doors shut for older Singaporeans

Source: The Straits Times  19 may 2012

I AGREE with Mr Yeow Hwee Ming (‘Have job-placement agency for older workers’; Forum Online, Wednesday) that prejudice against older professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) is entrenched in companies and job agencies in Singapore.

Ask older PMET job-seekers and most, if not all, will tell you that the chances of them getting shortlisted for job interviews for white-collar positions are zero.


Younger and cheaper foreigners from the Philippines, Myanmar, Vietnam and South Korea stand a higher chance even though they do not possess the prerequisites for the job and are not proficient in English and Mandarin.

In the report (‘Senior champion’; April 2 last year), Madam Irene Tan, 60, quit her job as a senior administrative assistant in 2010. When she tried to rejoin the workforce, she faced the daunting age discrimination hurdle.

Mrs Tara Dhar Hasnain (‘Prejudice against older staff is acute in S’pore, says academic’; March 9) faced the same plight. This is the grim phenomenon many Singaporean PMET job-seekers in their 50s and 60s are facing.

Government bodies should award public projects only to companies that achieve a benchmark ratio of at least four Singaporeans to one foreign professional in white-collar jobs.

If protection of Singaporeans’ rice bowl is not assured, I can fathom that:

  • Local women will not want to take time off to procreate and raise children; and
  • Structural unemployment of older local PMETs will become a mainstay of our society, and hurt the country’s economy in the years to come as these people will not have enough to support themselves.

Priscilla Poh

Article 7:

Article 7: Pro-foreigner job ads top list of grievances

Source: The Straits Times  April 28, 2012

LAST week, it emerged that discrimination against Singaporeans for the first time topped the list of grievances that workers here have over unfair employment practices.

They outnumbered complaints about other sorts of discrimination, such as by age or gender.

But exactly what sort of discrimination do Singaporeans face in the workplace?

Giving the breakdown of complaints for the first time, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (Tafep), Singapore’s fair employment watchdog, said that almost half the complaints received were over job ads by companies saying they would rather hire foreigners.

Tafep said that the second most common type of complaint – comprising about one-sixth of the total – involved foreign supervisors who would rather employ candidates from their own country.

Commenting on the first type of discrimination, Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) chief executive Phillip Overmyer said these companies are seldom justified in their actions.

After all, the fundamental reason multinationals set up here is ‘because they know Singaporeans have the skills’.

But there are rare cases where a company might simply require someone of a specific nationality, he noted.

He cited the experience of an SICC member which was working on a product meant only for the Japanese market.

They needed someone very fluent in Japanese who would have a good understanding of how to develop, brand and package the product for that country – a role for which a Japanese national would be best suited.

Similarly, with the Myanmar market opening up, talent from that country would be very attractive to companies looking to go there.

‘It doesn’t mean Singaporeans aren’t skilled, it’s about different perspectives and what you know because of your background and how you grew up,’ he said.

Executives interviewed by The Straits Times said they had sometimes seen behaviour akin to the second type of complaint – preferential treatment of employees of the same nationality – in workplaces.

One 26-year-old former analyst at a corporate bank said she felt that her colleagues from overseas shirked work, and would tell their bosses – who were of the same nationality – that it was too much for them to handle. The load would then be passed to their Singaporean co-workers.

‘Yet in terms of promotion, these people were given priority,’ she added.

The issue was brought up with the human resource department, to no avail.

Another senior engineer, who also did not wish to be named, felt his bosses demanded less of foreign employees.

His foreign colleagues also seemed to think that they could shirk work as the Singaporean workers would cover for them, said the 49-year-old.

On a more positive front, Tafep said complaints about ‘exclusionary practices’ – for example, eating separately or speaking a language co-workers cannot understand – were relatively rare.

Mr Gilbert Goh, who runs a support website for the unemployed called Transitioning.org, agreed.

He said ‘work politics that involve foreigners ganging up on locals’ was not a common complaint in the 30 e-mail messages he gets a month.

Unions The Straits Times spoke to also said their members had not reported tensions between Singaporeans and foreign colleagues.

The Union of Security Employees said both groups had been working together in certain industries for ‘a very long time’.

Still, some companies take the view that prevention is better than cure, with various measures to help local staff and those from overseas get along.

Aviva Singapore, where a fifth of the 570 workers are foreign, has social events – from pub quizzes to durian feasts – that let workers mingle across departments and nationalities.

There are even language classes where non-Singaporean employees teach their mother tongues to interested colleagues.

And to help employees who are new to Singapore integrate, an orientation scheme shows them around and introduces them to the local culture and laws.

The National University Hospital holds assimilation programmes to give new hires a flavour of Singaporean life.

It has courses which allow foreigners – who make up about a fifth of its 6,000 staff – to brush up on languages spoken here, such as English and Mandarin.

Both organisations received special mentions last week at the watchdog’s annual awards for exemplary employers.


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