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Friday January 19th 2018

Lack of skilled supervisors reason for Bugis MRT extension line tragic accident?

Like many Singaporeans,  I was saddened by news of two PRC Chinese workers  tragically killed in the MRT construction site at Bugis on Thursday.

Even our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has expressed disappointment on his Facebook page  stating that the accident should not have happened.

However, he did not elaborate further and an investigation will be conducted by the Ministry of Manpower on whether any malpractices have occurred resulting in the accident.

Increasing accident fatalities in construction sector

We have heard of more fatal accidents happening¬† recently as our country gears up on its’ construction projects all over the island.

I have not seen so much digging and toiling in my small red dot than the past five years. Sometimes, you can see a few projects going on at the same time and some even happen  right at our door step.

I stayed in Punggol for the past year and could hear   the incessant pounding sometimes till late at night when foreign workers rush to complete their work at the nearby HDB construction site.

Complaints to the town council went blank as their explanation was that since the flats are still in construction phase, the issue is not within their jurisdiction.

I was later referred to someone from the environment who told me that construction sites can  work till 10pm even on weekend if the noise generated is below a certain decibel!

HDB has being trying to complete new housing projects ahead of time due to the influx of newly-converted citizens keen on purchasing a BTO HDB flat from the government.

All along, the HDB has been constructing flats on demand resulting in a under-supply situation which caused many citizens  to vote against the government in  GE 2011.

After GE 2011, the new minister for national  development Mr Khaw stepped up production of new HDB flats resulting in a renewed furious pounding on our small island.

I always have this fear that one day, because of too much vigorous construction going on at the same time, our island may sink beneath us and disappear!

Moreover, ¬†just not too long ago,¬† the two new integrated resorts and different private housing projects have also caused the construction sector to step¬† up it’s activities incessantly.

In 2009, the total employment in the construction sector was about 385,000 Рup from about 234,000 in 2005. A total of 6,251 construction worksites were registered with the Ministry of Manpower in 2009 (

Over the past three years, the sector accounted for more than one third of all workplace fatalities, with a fatality rate of 8.1 per 100,000 workers in 2009.

The fatalities  at the construction sector have been steadily increasing from 24 in year 2006 to 31 in year 2009. For year 2007 and 2008, the  fatalities were 24 and 25 respectively.

A significant proportion of these incidents were a result of falls from height, mainly from inadequate protection from hazards such as open sides and floor openings at worksites. Struck by falling objects  was the second highest incident type. Reflecting the risks associated with working beneath cranes and scaffolds, or where overhead work is being performed, struck by falling objects accounted for nearly one-third of the total construction fatalities in 2009.

I have read somewhere on Yahoo news  that the contractors involved in the DTL Bugis line do not have enough skilled supervisors to monitor the construction site activities which may result in the tragic accident. This however is not substantiated.

I could not retrieve the article when I did another search later on.

Shortage of construction specialists

Transitioning has also recently  received emails from companies asking for construction specialists as they could not find relevant local engineers with construction-related work experience.

Local graduates who have civil engineering degrees tend to be snapped up with attractive terms  quickly so that they will stay on  in their jobs.

Many local graduates who chose engineering as their core subject also preferred the more prestigious triple-E electrical or mechanical engineering faculty.

Transitioning so far has seen less than 1% of jobless PMETs who possessed civil engineering diplomas or degrees and the few we saw are mostly snapped up fast by local construction companies.

Just two weeks ago, a local employer from the construction company emailed me:-

The shortage in the construction industry has been acute and many companies have been losing money and shrinking operations, or relocating out of Singapore because of this lack of manpower and turning to foreigners to fill these positions isn’t an option either because of the tightened conditions recently by MOM. Do let me know if you have anything.”

He has been asking me for local jobless civil engineers to fill key positions but I told him that there isn’t any available yet.on our database.

He later emailed me with some good news:-

“There are some initiatives we’re working on with the Building Authority, one of which may be to see if your M&E engineers can take BCA academy courses and then go through our 6/12 month site training under the PE to qualify them as site supervisors. ¬†Manpower problems in the construction industry are really desperate because of the tightening in the labour market and we need to find solutions before more firms close down.”

It is unsure if the construction company is related to the recent Bugis DTL construction accident.

Transitioning has lately received quite alot of requests from local employers wanting to hire our sidelined engineers Рmostly retrenched from the semi-con industry in 2008/09.

One of them is  a huge MNC specialising in oil and gas  engineering with well over a few hundred engineers on its payroll. The  one main dismal news is that 80% of its engineers are hired from overseas. 

Retraining of displaced engineers to resolve critical manpower shortage
Some engineering companies I saw personally are actually keen  to re-train some of our aging engineers with tons of technical  experience abeit on another discipline not relevant to the current engineering environment.
One MNC has  even experimented on a retraining programme with one of our displaced triple-E engineer and if the project is successful, more aged local engineers may be recruited for future project.
I must reiterate that so far we have being assisting some engineering firms by sending them resumes of our jobless engineers and a few have been successfully rehired with less attractive terms than their previous salary package.
But our jobless engineers are not complaining and appreciated the chance to have anothe new lease of employment opportunity.
This retraining programme is a viable option to consider  for companies with critical engineering manpower shortage as our government will seriously clamp down on foreign imports to protect local employment.
I have known that  foreign engineers here working on work permits via  the EP pass are also chronic job hoppers. Why not give our aging engineers a chance if they are found suitable for the industry with some retraining programme?
There should be at least 10,000 displaced manufacturing engineers now either driving cabs or staying under-employed. This is a terrible waste of our limited manpower resources and a drain on our educational budget.
Over-dependence on foreign cheap labour unrealistic
I have always reiterate that our over-dependence on foreign workers will haunt us in the long run as there will come a day when the supply source is taunted or turend off completely.
The IT sector is already flooded with Indian foreign IT specialists and I dread to see the day when due to some unforeseen circumstances, they have to return home – leaving our economy in shambles.
The dependence on cheap foreign labourers to slave in the hosuing sector is also not something that we should be proud of.   Many work for  a pittance so that they can send money back home to their loved ones in third world countries.
The majority  of  of them borrowed heavily to pay unscrupulous agents both locally and abroad to work here.
The cheap-labour formula we adopted here ¬†merely enriches the construction employers and is a shallow solution to a otherwise chronic manpower shortage with no other viable¬†options ¬†because we don’t really want to take a hard look at the overall ¬†situation.
However, the construction sector is long shunned by locals due to the  tough working conditions and low salary structure.
It will be a mammoth task  to attract local workers to work in such hell-holes even though the pay is adjusted upwards.

Thus, unskilled Bangladeshi and PRC Chinese workers earn  less than $20 a day toiling under our hot tropical weather in dangerous conditions.

Local Aussies working in costruction sector

Over here in Sydney, I have seen many White Aussies carrying out the same work activities required by the construction sector back home in Singapore.

They grind cement, fetch planks over construction site and laid bricks on pavement of new housing sites.

Seldom do I see a low-skilled non-white worker in the construction site.

Australia has strict rules to import unskilled blue-collared workers though I heard that the mines in Western Australia were given permission to bring in foreign workers soon.

I also heard that construction workers in Australia need to go for a  building construction certificate course and their pay hovers between A$3000 Рa$3500 a month Рfor starters.

Our construction workers will count themselves lucky if they earn S$1000 a month working seven days a week.

Overhaul on construction sector needed

Perhaps, we need to have an overhaul on how we view the  blue-collared foreigner-dominated construction sector.

Given the right pay scale and proper work conditions, I am sure that our locals will give the sector a favourable second look.

There will be the day when we may even have difficulty filling up positions even if we try to recruit from overseas due to political consideration.

I have  also always fear that we may be over extending ourselves by bringing in too many foreign workers to ease the low birth rate in Singapore resulting in a infrastructure bottle neck.

More than 1.8 million foreigners work and live among us now and the bulk of them arrived in the last ten years without us preparing any blueprint for town planning nor is there any attempt by the government to open up   a public  discussion to engage the  population on this important issue.

The sudden new addition  not only severely stifles our transport system resulting in the infamous MRT train shut down end of last year  but also  cause our construction companies to rush through projects resulting in accidents.

Let us learn from this tragic MRT construction accident and hopefully it won’t ever happen again.

Written by Gilbert Goh

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6 Responses to “Lack of skilled supervisors reason for Bugis MRT extension line tragic accident?”

  1. Tim says:

    I agree that the construction industry needs an overhaul but my ideas are different:

    1. Ban the use of manpower agents. They charge the workers too much commission resulting in a. worker will ignore unsafe work conditions because they need the job to pay their debts b. experienced workers are sent back if they cannot pay permit renewal commission c. workers need to work extra long hours to earn enough money. The government should recruit foreign workers themselves and rent the workers to companies who need them.

    2. Blanket ban on weekend construction work. Daily work should start at 8am and stop latest by 7pm.

    3. Hold developers responsible for workplace accidents. Ensure they allocate safety budget for main contractor and not just take lowest bid.

    • Teo says:

      Totally agreed. Not only the Construction but the whole engineering industry. Our engineering trades have no progress in technology advancements but instead we turn to cheap, unskilled labor.

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  4. Gilbert Goh says:

    Hi AhBoy

    Thanks for your comment.

    I think the paid hosting services provide us with more options for our web services.

    The $500 costing each month is meant for our total operational running cost and not just for web hosting alone.

    Web hosting cost alone per year does not exceed $500.

    Hope this helps.

    Gilbert Goh

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