Since the start of the EU referendum campaign, leading Brexiteers have suggested a variety of economic models for the UK beyond Europe.
Alongside the usual suspects of Canada, Norway and Switzerland, many, such as Tory MEP and arch free-marketeer Daniel Hannan, have suggested Britain should look east to the Asian tiger economies for inspiration. Chief among these is Singapore, which was hailed as recently as December by the foreign secretary (the future Prime Minister?), Jeremy Hunt, for its economic model.
A city state of 5.6 million people, the whole population is only slightly bigger than the UK’s 4.8 million-strong self-employed workforce. As a place with no major natural resources, it has grown from an impoverished nation to having the eighth-highest GDP per capita in the world, 15 places above the UK. To get there, the Singapore government has built a reputation for being forward-looking and unashamedly pro-business in its approach.
With its support for free markets and economic liberalism, it is easy to see why many, especially world facing Brexiteers, look to Singapore. They hope to boost the UK’s flagging economy by replicating the low taxes, light but effective regulation and large amounts of trade.
The question is, would replicating Singapore’s approach work for the UK’s self-employed and freelancers?
There are striking similarities between self-employment in the UK and Singapore. For starters, around 8-10 per cent of people in both the UK and Singapore are self-employed. In both countries, there is also a large question mark over the impact of the platform economy and the growing number of freelancers on tax and employment status.
In the face of these challenges, the Singaporean government has been bullish in support of highly skilled self-employment.
Earlier this year, for example, Singapore’s manpower minister Josephine Teo said about freelance creatives: “If we look to the future of work, I think a number of features are prominent. For example, we know that human creativity will become even more important. And I think we must also expect that creative professionals will have more important roles to play.”
This would be music to the ears of many freelancers in the UK, who are more used to the government talking about ‘disguised employment’ and tax avoidance.
An interesting example of the Singaporean approach is its Tripartite Standards. These are voluntary codes that have been jointly developed by the unions, employers and the government. The Singaporean government says the standards “…boost Singapore’s economic competitiveness, promote harmonious labour-management relations and contribute to Singapore’s overall progress.”
There are now standards for self-employed people, media freelancers and fixed-term contract employees. The standards were launched in March 2018, and by mid-February 2019 nearly 500 companies had signed up for them, covering around 30,000 workers.
Reflecting on the standards, Ms Teo said that they would improve contract terms between freelancers and clients, which would help to avoid disputes that: “Can potentially take up all of the creative professional’s time, and divert their attention from what they really want to do, which is to create.”
Freelance graphic and fashion designer Joline Lim told Channel News Asia that the Tripartite Standard gives her and the hirer more confidence in their terms and conditions.
All this underlines the key difference between the UK and Singaporean approaches to freelancing and self-employment. As a country that is reliant on skills and knowledge to drive its economy, Singapore is making a clear push to make freelancing better.
Another key example of the Singaporean approach to freelancing is its governmental Infocomm Media Development Agency (IMDA). The IMDA is tasked with ensuring Singapore has a strong technology and media sector and makes sure the country recognises the value that freelancers add to the economy. It has a strong focus on training and encouraging creative talent.
The IMDA recently met with IPSE, in London, and Modern Work sat in on the meeting. Topics ranged from research to how to celebrate the contributions of the self-employed. The discussions were interesting for both sides and there is likely to be further knowledge-sharing in the future.
Of course, Singapore isn’t perfect for freelancing. The self-employed there face similar challenges to those in the UK – particularly in terms of tax and pensions. Some of the issues the Tripartite Standards were put in place to deal with are similar to those the small business commissioner is working to resolve here. But in Singapore, there does seem to be more willingness to recognise the importance of the self-employed. A bit more of that attitude would be welcome here – Brexit or no Brexit.