MORE patients requested a medical certificate (MC) yesterday, a check with general practitioners revealed. With today being a public holiday, that sick leave, if granted, would have led to a four-day weekend for some of them.

But while it is possible that workers may exaggerate the extent of their illnesses to get an MC, bosses said they would still prefer this doctor certification to an honour system where staff can call in sick and stay at home without seeing a doctor.

According to general practitioner David Tan Hsien Yung, this practice of giving 10 to 14 days of sick leave a year without an MC is common in San Francisco.

Dr Tan, who has just returned from an attachment there, wrote to The Straits Times Forum last week, calling on the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to consider removing the need for sick leave to be certified by a doctor - as stated in the Employment Act.

'This will greatly reduce the strain on public resources, freeing up time in the doctors' consulting rooms for those patients who truly need the time, as well as empower employees to take better charge of their own health,' he said.

Asked for comments, an MOM spokesman said employers and unions will be closely consulted in an ongoing review of the Employment Act (EA). 'We will review all the pertinent EA provisions to ensure that they remain relevant in view of the changes in our workforce composition and employment practices.'

Most employers, such as Bigfoot Logistics' general manager Philip Moh, are not in favour of an honour system. 'We are not doctors. How would we know if they are really sick?' asked Mr Moh, whose firm has 330 operations staff.

Manufacturing firm Besley & Pike said it is best to have a professional confirm illness. 'It is probably okay for people in an office environment to call in sick without an MC, but in a large manufacturing industry, we cannot afford to have a shortage of workers,' said manager May Ang.

Human resource experts agree that the honour system is not likely to take off here. Mr David Ang, executive director of the Singapore Human Resource Institute, noted that while small outfits are generally more flexible, bigger organisations may want documented 'oversight' of who's working and who's not.

He added that it may be easier to implement the honour system among management but it could be 'messy and confusing' to extend it to rank-and-file staff.

Then, there are operational difficulties, making it hard for bosses to release staff without an MC. Mr Ang cited the example of a production line where employees have specific roles and it will be problematic to find a replacement.

General practitioners who spoke to The Straits Times said they do not share Dr Tan's sentiments either. 'I think the MC system is ingrained in Singapore culture, stemming from the British colonial period,' said Dr Lee Kwok Keng, a general practitioner at Sanitas Medical Practice. He also acknowledged the possibility of patients exploiting their employers if they do not have to produce an MC.

In his experience, he grants more MCs on Mondays and Fridays.

Others said it would be better to see a doctor even for something that can be treated with over-the-counter medication. Dr Jotham Lim, a family physician at Clinic @ The Sail, said the symptoms could indicate something more serious.

Despite the reservations from firms and doctors, HR experts said there are payoffs for firms that adopt the honour system. There could be cost savings from not picking up the tab for clinic visits, and less work in keeping track of MCs.

Some employers practise a variation of the honour system. Staff of a Swiss-based consulting company here are allowed to call in sick without an MC once a year. The managing director, who declined to be named, said: 'We trust our employees. Why make them see a doctor for medication that they probably already have at home?'

Mr Alan Low, 29, said more should consider implementing the system. 'It's troublesome and a waste of time to go down to the doctor when I can spend that time lying down and getting better,' said the engineer.