Representation, not just conversation and consultation: DPA’s recommendations for Singapore’s workplace anti-discrimination law for people with disabilities

Symbol of wheelchair user (Photo by Julius Carmine on Unsplash)

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in 2021 that the government would enshrine into law the current workplace anti-discrimination guidelines. Since then, the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness, comprising the Ministry of Manpower, National Trades Union Congress, and the Singapore National Employers Federation, has been reviewing the current guidelines. The Tripartite Committee then released a report with 20 recommendations of what the anti-discrimination law should contain. The main recommendation was that the law should prohibit workplace discrimination in respect of (i) age, (ii) nationality, (iii) sex, marital status, pregnancy status, caregiving responsibilities, (iv) race, religion, language, as well as (v) disability and mental health conditions.

After the report’s release, several organisations released their responses to the report with their own recommendations. Today, we speak to a representative from one of these organisations, Max Soh, who is the Research and Policy Manager for the Disabled People’s Association or DPA, Singapore’s only cross-disability non-profit organisation. Max joined DPA in 2021 and manages the organisation’s various research and policy related initiatives. In addition to being disabled himself (visually impaired since birth), he brings experience with disability and disability advocacy through his prior involvements with disability organisations especially internationally. In this episode, we talk about the work of DPA and what DPA feels should be included in the anti-discrimination law for people with disabilities.

You can read DPA’s response. A transcript of today’s episode is also available on our website.

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  3. Representation, not just conversation and consultation: DPA’s recommendations for Singapore’s workplace anti-discrimination law for people with disabilities

This episode is part of the “Civic Engagement and Action” series of the podcast’s sixth season ( The feature photo is by Julius Carmine on Unsplash.



Here is a transcript of the episode:

Jin Yao: From, I am Jin Yao, co-hosting today’s episode with Isaac. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in 2021 that the government will enshrine into law the current workplace anti-discrimination guidelines. Since then, the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness comprising the Ministry of Manpower, the National Treats Union Congress, and the Singapore National Employers Federation has been reviewing the current guidelines. The Tripartite committee then released the report with 20 recommendations, which were linking initial notes of what the anti-discrimination law should contain. The main recommendation was that the law should prohibit work-based discrimination in respect of age, nationality, sex, marital status, pregnancy status, caregiving responsibilities, race, religion, language, as well as disability and mental health conditions.

After the report was released, several organisations released their responses to the report with their own recommendations. Today, we speak to a representative from one of these organisations, Max Soh who is the research and policy manager for the Disabled Peoples Association or DPA, Singapore’s only cross-disability non-profit organisation. Max joined DPA in 2021 and manages the organisation’s various research and policy-related initiatives. In addition to being disabled himself visually, part since birth, he brings experience with disability and disability advocacy through his prior involvement with disability organisations, especially internationally. In this episode, we talk about the work of DPA and what DPA use should be included in the anti-discrimination law for people with disabilities. We’ve linked DPA’s response in our show notes and the transcript of today’s episode is also available on our website.

Max, could you give us a brief overview of DPA’s advocacy work for our listeners? So for folks who have not heard of DPA, tell us how you introduce or share about DPA for the first time.

Max Soh (“Max”): Sure. We at DPA, the Disability People’s Association, we are the only cross-disability advocacy organisation in Singapore, which means we advocate for people from all different types of disabilities, whether it’s physical, sensory, mobility, intellectual, psychosocial, neurodivergent, for all different types of disabilities. We do advocacy work in a few ways. We do a lot of awareness raising to different talks and workshops. We partner up with different groups and entities to not only promote disability inclusion but to help make different parts of Singapore more accessible. Then there’s research work as well, which is what I do as a research and policy manager for DPA. I am in charge of the different research and policy initiatives, which include conducting original research writing op-eds policy briefs, et cetera. That’s a snapshot of the work of DPA.

Isaac Neo (“Isaac”): Cool. Max, I’m just going to dive straight into DPA’s response to the interim report by the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness. For our listeners, we’ll link the response in the show notes. But Max, maybe could you give a summary of what DPA feels was not mentioned in the interim report that is important to note when taking into account discrimination against people with disabilities in the workplace?

Max: Sure, definitely. Firstly, there are definitely parts of the interim report that DPA welcomes and supports that, right? For example, when the Tripartite Committee and the interim report laid out some of the principles that are guiding their work in forming this legislation, they talk about the need to give more assurance to workers to report incidents of discrimination without fear of retaliation. Another principle they would like to achieve is to enhance enforcement mechanisms and avenues for redress for workers of experienced discrimination. For the recommendations themselves, when the recommendations talk about the need for this law to cover all parts of the employment cycle.

Having said that to your question, in a nutshell, it still remains unclear to us as to whether or not the final draft of the law will have the adequate definitions and provisions to adequately address the various forms of discrimination that disabled people still faces on a day-to-day basis. So, for example, when it comes to direct discrimination, right? So there’s direct discrimination that talks that way. Some hiring manager will say, “Oh, I don’t want these disabled people to work for me.” Or a wheelchair user will show up at the interview and before the interview even starts, the hiring manager says, “Oh, I didn’t know you’re in a wheelchair. Sorry. You can’t proceed with the interview.” Even though the job has nothing to do with whether someone is in a wheelchair or not. That’s a real-life case I just cited. Unfortunately, things like that still happen.

So there’s direct discrimination. But then there are also forms of discrimination such as discrimination-related harassment, right? For example, we still hear from our research and from talking to disabled people that discrimination-related intimidation, unfortunately still happens quite a bit in workplaces. Disabled people are still being called all kinds of names because of their disabilities and because of the way they do things. That needs to be prohibited.

Then that is also indirect discrimination, right? May not be explicit, may not be someone saying they don’t want disabled people to work for them, or it may not be in the form of intimidation or hostile remarks, but it is still unfair for groups such as persons with disabilities. In indirect discrimination, for some of your listeners who may not be familiar, it’s when a company’s policy or practice due to the nature of that policy or practice, is indirectly but still unfairly disadvantages persons from different minority groups, in this case, persons with disabilities. For example, when a company has a policy that says that the employees can only take limited breaks, but for a particular person with a disability, they need more breaks. That’s a policy that that is unfair, especially if the consequences, if the person gets stock down, for example, for taking more breaks. Another example is if a company says they need workers to start work at a particular time. If they don’t, they’ll get marked down. But a person with a disability, say, needs more time to get to work and needs a longer time to arrive at work. That’s a policy that disadvantages persons with disability.

Another common incident that we have heard is especially from individuals who are neurodivergent or autistic individuals when they talk about things like performance reviews. Such individuals shared with us, for example, that when the manager, for example, will have criteria in the performance reviews where that says something like, did I have to repeat myself many times to this person, for example? However, for some individuals who are neurodivergent, for some autistic individuals, that’s an important requirement to have for such individuals to do well in that work. So, which just leads to a very important point, which is, I feel that the law needs to have provisions to ensure reasonable accommodations.

For some of your listeners who may not be familiar with reasonable accommodations, reasonable accommodations are not special advantages or not additional extra arrangements. Reasonable accommodations are necessary essential modifications and adjustments to a particular job or typical, particular workplace to enable a person, in this case, a person with disabilities to do their work that tasks various tasks of a job well. There are various ways that this reasonable accommodation provision can be implemented. One example is what the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities suggested regarding how to assess whether an accommodation’s reasonable, right?

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, it’s a body comprised of disability experts around the world. What they’ve concluded is that for an accommodation to be reasonable, there need to be two things present. The first thing is if that accommodation has a financial cost, there needs to be access for that company or the employer to funds to finance that cost. Secondly, if the company is not used to making that particular modification or accommodation request, there needs to be assistance to that company or employer to make those modifications, to make those implementations. In Singapore, we have access to both. In Singapore, there are funds from the government such as the open door program that assist with job redesign, job modification. There are things like accessibility funds that make where employees can tap into to make the office space and buildings more accessible.

There’s the second thing. There’s the technical assistance where there are groups like DPA, and other disability organisations from the government that are SG Enabled, that are ready to help employers make those modifications. So what we’re saying is that if an employer, or I’ll put it this way, if that’s an accommodation request that’s completely necessary for a qualified candidate to do his or her job and if that accommodation request is no cost or there is cost by this as mentioned avenues to finance those costs, and if there’s assistance to implement those accommodations or those modifications, and the employers do this, despite that, no, I don’t want to provide a reasonable accommodation, we’re saying that that should be a form of discrimination. One thing that strikes me a lot is that a lot of times from the stories I’ve heard in my research, a lot of the requests from disabled people that have been denied are things like what I’ve mentioned earlier about needing extra time to get to work.

For example, there’s one story of a person with a physical disability. He needed more time to get to work, but the company had a policy that says that they needed him to start work at a specific time and he still said, “Hey, I really can’t meet that. Can I start work later?” And he offered to end work later. He says I’m perfectly okay to end work later. After, the employees to said, “No, we can’t give that accommodation.” And this individual for disability ended up getting knocked down multiple times and end up getting fired. We’re talking about things like this where it’s perfectly reasonable. As mentioned, if there are costs, there are. Access to those finances in Singapore, there’s access to assistance in implementing those modifications. So if employees to say no to a perfectly qualified disabled candidate, we’re saying that should be considered as a form of discrimination.

In summary, these are just a few examples of the various discrimination barriers that disabled people still face on a day-to-day basis. So we’re saying, if in order for this law to be effective, the upcoming legislative, it needs to have a definition of discrimination, that’s expensive. And that covers these different forms of discrimination. At the moment, the internal report says that it will have a definition, the law will have a definition, but they did not specify what that would be. So we’re saying that these should be in there. We have communicated it to MOM and TGFEP and yeah, we hope that it will be included in the final legislation.

Jin Yao: In thinking about forms of, and you’ve shared all these in your response and sharing, thinking about direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, and reasonable accommodation, one big piece we reporting and reporting mechanisms, right? And in your response, or in DPA’s response, there was a section that said, and I quote, persons with disabilities have shared that they often do not report incidents of discrimination as the reporting mechanisms and channels available to them are not accessible. So guess the question here would be how or why the ways that these reporting mechanisms of channels can be made more accessible, especially in relation to forms of direct and indirect discrimination they might experience.

Max: Absolutely. Thanks for bringing that up. I really hope that listeners will read our full response because there’s a lot that we included that we feel needs to be in this legislation. But to that question, I believe it was in recommendation 12 of the interim report that says that they laid out how employers need to put in place grievance handling mechanisms, which is important. And they laid out the different steps that are required of such mechanisms. But one thing missing is, is the accessibility of such mechanisms. For example, we’ve heard of as you mentioned a lot of times persons with disabilities, which we heard from our research and other studies that they often don’t report because of the inaccessibility of such mechanisms. Whether that is the HR office being in a part of a building that’s not the most accessible or individuals needing to fill out a particular form that’s not screen-reader accessible information about grievance handling procedures not made into easy-read plain text formats. These are just a few examples of access with barriers that are prevalent elsewhere, but unfortunately also when it comes to reporting mechanisms. So if we are going to fully encourage individuals, including individuals with disabilities to come forward, these mechanisms whether internally or at bodies such as TADM, the employment claims tribunal need to be accessible for persons with disabilities.

Jin Yao: Another interesting thing that I think Isaac and I picked up when reading the report was this note by DPA that some job possessions, which rejected people with disabilities before Covid 19, because they requested to work from home, right? But these jobs, these very same jobs eventually became work from home during the pandemic itself, right? So give us a few examples, right? Let’s try to maintain confidentiality and without going into details, illustrate to us some of these examples that happened when, oh, before covid it was, oh, you can’t work from home, but could, you could work from home during Covid itself. Tell us some of these examples you’ve seen from your research work itself.

Max: Sure. I’ll give you the typical type of scenario that we have heard in our research and in other studies as well. For example, someone with a disability requires to work from home, let’s say three days of the week, and he or she shows up to the interview and the interview goes really, really well. And he thinks like, oh, there’s a good chance I’m going to get this job when towards the end he faces this, this thing that all disabled people have to go through with his disclosure of disability and the reasonable accommodations conversation. And he notes that because of his disability, it’s going to be much more productive and essentially a requirement if he can work from home, say three days out the week, and then the employer, a hiring manager will all of a sudden grow silent and say, oh, I’m not sure we can provide that. We have this SOP standard operating procedure that employees work in the office and in the office most days of the week, at least four days of the week if not five out of five days of the week. And they’re like, oh, I’m not sure if we can proceed with that accommodation. And the guy ended up not getting the job. But then when the pandemic hit, he would notice that the same job he applied for, he would find out that it got made into a work-from-home position, which shows that it’s a lot of times what is thought to be unreasonable or not possible for accommodation is very possible and very reasonable.

I’m glad you brought that up because I believe we said that in response to recommendation 8, which is the recommendation and the internal report that notes the need for employers to maintain exceptions when it comes to occupational requirements. For example, I think they note an example of like when in a massage parlour if they have one more female masseuse for their female clients, that employer should be able to specify that. And that’s okay to specify. We agree there should be exceptions. There should for such requirements. However, sometimes it’s not always so straightforward. So that’s why in our response, we note that if there’s going to be this requirement for this that says that if there’s a general genuine and reasonable requirement for an occupation that they shouldn’t have to take into consideration, these protected characteristics, if that’s going to be this exception, that’s why we say employers need to explain why they are making this exception. And a lot of times what is thought to be a genuine and reasonable requirement is oftentimes based in a lot of inaccurate biases about how things are done and particular groups of people as well. So that’s why we made that recommendation. I feel like the pandemic with work from home really does illustrate the need for that.

Isaac: Yeah. Actually, just to touch on a little bit further on this topic about working from home, because I think the conversation globally has gone wider. How certain countries want to legislate a right to work from home, for example. I guess just in your view, do you think such a provision that companies, if they receive a request to work from home, can apply to able-bodied and also people with disabilities? If they receive a reasonable request, they should be compelled to consider it and give it fair judgment. Do you think something like that should be in the legislation for Singapore? Maybe whether in this legislation or as a separate law, for example?

Max: Yes. I think it should be part of the legislation and there are various ways to incorporate that. It could be parked under the reasonable accommodations provision as we mentioned. Because reasonable accommodations, yeah, it’s usually referenced and talked about in the context of disability, but it can be applied to other demographics as well. For example, different religious groups where they may require different accommodations to meet their religious beliefs, for example. And yeah, there are different ways to go about it and to make sure that the reasonable accommodation request is considered fairly, right? For example, in different jurisdictions, to enforce the reasonable accommodation provision, they have what is known as the interactive process, right? Where if the employer says no, they can’t deliver this reasonable accommodation request, the employer has to specify why that is and have a conversation with the employee or the job applicant as to why they couldn’t provide it or if a compromise could be reached. However, as this, I have illustrated there are unfortunately still much prejudice and biases in our workplaces. So we believe that yes, it should be incorporated in the law, but if the employers know and provides a reason but that reason is still not very reasonable, there should be avenues for that employee or job applicant to seek redress and those channels as mentioned should be accessible. But those are just a few ways of how we can be incorporated. It can be incorporated and it should be so.

Isaac: Max, during the pandemic, we spoke before on a separate project about social protection and so on. There you mentioned that people with disabilities were often seen as an afterthought in policymaking or consultations. So just curious because I know DPA was consulted in this process for the interim report, is this still the case that people with disabilities are still seen as an afterthought, or have things improved since when we spoke during the pandemic?

Max: Yeah, thanks for that question. I believe my comments were in relation to, as you mentioned, during the pandemic. If I remember correctly, it is in relation to how, for example, things like the implementation of safe entry checkpoints were not the most accessible. Things like communications about the pandemic at times were not the most accessible. I believe my comments were in that context. Let me start with the topic of consultation, right? Let me start by saying we are DPA. We’re very glad that we’ve been able to engage with folks from MOM and TGFEP about this very important law and we hope that we continue these conversations with them. Yeah, we’ve been as mentioned, very grateful that we’ve been able to discuss with them on these certain topics and look forward to more conversations with them going forward.

There are one or two ways that I think consultations can still be improved, for example, when it comes to consulting individuals with multiple marginalised identities. For example, women with disabilities experience realities that neither women without disabilities nor men with disabilities face, right? So we are going to have a consultation with women on a particular topic and a consultation with potential disabilities. But we’re not intentional about ensuring that these individuals from these different demographics are intentionally consulted. Is it possible that such consultations will still be able to the realities of such multiple marginalised individuals? Perhaps, but it’s not a guarantee. That’s one way I think consultations can improve going forward, is by ensuring that individuals from multiple marginalised identities are intentionally consulted.

But I’m glad you brought this up area of consultation because I feel like consultation is just one slice of this larger world of policy inclusion, right? How the feedback and perspectives that are gathered in these consultations, how they are then analysed and make their way to the final white paper or policy or, or item or whatever it is, right? That’s something that also needs to be thought of and considered carefully. In that regard there, I think there’s some room for improvement. For example, recently the government released a white paper on Singapore’s response to Covid 19, which is just I think it’s an 86-page document that outlines the lessons learned from the last three years of this once-in-a-century pandemic and lessons going forward for future public health crises. Well, there are some important points in that document. I was quite disappointed to see not really not much at all regarding disability and the different issues that disabled people face during the pandemic.

I think that was one minor mention about how VWOs, voluntary welfare organisations conducted their consultations with persons with disabilities remotely during the pandemic. But in terms of the main issues that disabled people faced during the pandemic, as alluded to earlier with things like safe entry checkpoints not being the most accessible, things like the opening and closing of frequent entrances not being communicated in the most accessible ways. There wasn’t really much mention of that at all in the white paper. I provided feedback because when they release the white paper, there’s a feedback form that you can fill out regarding your thoughts on this, on the white paper.

I want to be clear. I’m not saying that the government, I’m not saying that they intentionally left out disabled perspectives or intentionally left out disabilities, that’s not why I’m saying. But what I’m saying is that there’s room for improvement when it comes to ensuring that disabled perspectives are truly integrated into all matters of policy, and protect the general public, right? For that, we need strong representation at all levels of decision-making, strong disability representation, and not only disability representation but disability representation from disabled individuals who have faced these different issues, right? Whether it’s discrimination, whether it’s inaccessibility at what or et cetera. So we need strong disability representation, these different levels of decision-making.

This doesn’t just apply to the government, right? It applies to other sectors as well. If we want to be effective in designing policies that target, that include persons with disabilities, we need not just good consultation, but strong representation at these different levels of decision-making. Persons with disabilities, especially personal disabilities who have experienced these different barriers, they need to be not only consulted but represented at different levels of decision-making. And especially not only disability-specific items but items that affect the general public because we as disabled people, we are part the general public. So consultation is important. As mentioned, we are very glad that we’ll be able to continue, to have these consultations and conversations with individuals from MOM, TGFEP, and others and we look forward to further conversations with them. But that’s just one slice of the pie, right? How it translates over and how disabled people are representing other levels of decision-making, again, not just in government, but other sectors of society and especially on matters that affect the general public, those are questions that we also need to be asking and thinking very seriously about as well.

Jin Yao: Max, I would just say your point on moving from consultation and conversation to representation is a really powerful one and applies to the work you do clearly when to many other sectors in Singapore as well. We just want to say thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us, to share about DPAs advocacy work and the work you’ve been doing on research and on the committee on workplace fairness as well. I think this is a really great episode for our listeners, so thank you very much.

Max: Thank you.

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