Chee: Yale must not be complicit in suppressing rights of Singaporeans

Chee Soon Juan

Dear friends, ladies and gentleman,

I want to thank the Yale Council onSoutheast Asia Studies and Yale International Relations Associationfor organising this forum and for so graciously inviting us toparticipate in it.$CUT$

Many of you here today probably knowvery little about Singapore, at least not before the Yale-NUScontroversy erupted. What you probably heard is that Singapore isthis rich, clean island renowned for its disciplined workforce and nononsense government.

This assessment is not entirely wrong.Singapore is very rich. We have the most number of millionaires percapita in the world. In fact, Singapore is one of those places thatsome would sight as an unmitigated success story. In 2011, USAmbassador to Singapore Mr David Adelman said: “The agreement withSingapore is perhaps our most successful FTA globally.”

The US-Singapore Free Trade Agreementwas signed in 2004 by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and US President George W Bush.

At that time, I had raised serious questionsabout how such an agreement would affect workers in Singapore. Ivisited the US Congress and AFL-CIO to urge caution about the FTAbecause the lack of democratic freedoms, in general, and workers’rights, in particular, would mean that workers would be exploitedinstead of helped.

That was in 2004. Now some 8 yearsafter the FTA was implemented, the results are in. And they look verypretty, I must admit – at least for a few.

As I mentioned earlier, Singapore isthe richest country in the world in terms of GDP per capita –US$57,000, the United States is around US$46,000. This is, in largepart, due to the influx of a staggering number of millionairesemigrating to the city-state. Between 2010 and 2014, it is projectedSingapore will see a 67% increase in centa-millionaires – that’sfolks with over US$100 million in disposable wealth. We have thehighest percentage of millionaire households in the world.

It is perhaps inevitable that suchwealth will have a significant impact on the economy. This year, theEconomist Intelligence Unit listed Singapore as the 9th mostexpensive city in the world – more expensive than London, New Yorkand Frankfurt. And not just by a whisker – Singapore is 42 percentmore expensive than New York City.

But the FTA doesn’t do asmuch for the rest of the population. In fact, it keeps the poorfirmly anchored at the bottom. About 5 percent of Singapore’sworkforce draw an annual income of less than US$5,000 – that’s lessthan US$100 a week – in a city that is 42 percent more expensivethan New York City. Ten years ago they made the same amount. For adecade they saw no wage increase.

How is this possible, a city that isone of the most expensive in the world with wages that are one of thelowest? Because there is no minimum wage legislation. And why isthere no minimum wage legislation? Because there is no opposition tofight for it.

The ranks of opposition parties havebeen decimated with years of persecution, there are no independenttrade unions because labour leaders have all been imprisoned or runout of the country.

There is no free media – allSingaporean TV stations, radio channels and newspapers are owned andrun by the government.

You have just come through apresidential election where income disparity was a major issue.

Acouple years ago, you had the Occupy Wall Street campaign whichbrought to the fore, amongst other issues, the yawning gap betweenthe rich and the poor here in the United States.

I hear that therichest 1 percent of the population in this country owns 50 percentof the wealth. The statistic is indeed alarming. And yet, the incomedisparity is wider in Singapore.

Middle-income workers in Singaporedon’t have it better. According to a survey of conducted by theInternational Labor Organisation (ILO), Singaporean workers work thelongest number of hours.

And yet, the study reported that theirreal incomes have diminished. A UBS study done in 2011 used New Yorkas the benchmark upon which workers’ wages of 73 cities werecompared. New York was given the score of 100. Zurich came out at thetop at 144. Singapore? 35.8 – below that of Sao Paolo, Johannesburgand Moscow.

These are not just numbers. They have ahuge impact on the quality of life of Singaporeans. We are one of themost, if not the most, stressful places to live in Asia and one ofthe unhappiest peoples in the world. In a survey of 14 economies,Singaporean workers were found to enjoy going to work the least, arethe least loyal to their employers and have the least supportiveworkplaces. Only 19 percent of those polled in Singapore look forwardto their work each day, the global average is 30 percent.

It’snot like we can vote out the ruling party. Former prime minister andstrongman Mr Lee Kuan Yew, whom many still consider to wield ultimatepower in Singapore said: “Please do not assume that you can changegovernments. Young people don’t understand this.”

So what can Singaporeans do to makethings easier for themselves? They leave the country – for good.More than half of Singaporeans say that given the chance they wouldemigrate.

And an astounding number do. According to the World Bank,10.1 percent of Singaporeans pack up and leave the island. Anothersurvey found that more than a third of younger Singaporeans say thatfeel no loyalty to their country.

And it isn’t that the Singaporegovernment is doing all this by itself. It has ample support from theWest especially the neoliberals here in America.

In 2003, prior to the signing of theUS-Singapore FTA, the AFL-CIO wrote to the House of Representativesbringing its attention to the pitfalls of the agreement which, ifenacted, would mean that Singapore’s workers “are likely to facewidening income inequality.”

The AFL-CIO letter continued:”Singapore’s government has wide powers to limit citizens’rights and to handicap political opposition…The Governmentcontinued to significantly restrict freedom of speech and freedom ofthe press, as well as to limit other civil and political rights.”

So it wasn’t that the US Government didnot know of the problems the agreement would present. As it was,there was hardly a debate in Congress and the US Government promptlysigned the FTA – the first in the world.

To be sure, the love affair between theSingapore government and the neoliberals started a long time ago. In1986, when a minister (the late Ong Teng Cheong) sanctioned a strike in the shipping industry heincurred the wrath of some of his cabinet colleagues.

He said: “The minister for tradeand industry was very angry, his officers were very upset. They hadcalls from America, asking what happened to Singapore? – we arenon-strike. If I were to inform the cabinet or the government theywould probably stop me from going ahead with the strike.”

Since then there have been no strikes.Until four days ago when a group of bus drivers recruited from Chinastruck because of low wages and poor living conditions. The Singaporegovernment has said that it has zero tolerance for such action andfour workers have been arrested.

So what has all this to do with Yale?

When it was first announced that Yalewould be setting up a campus with NUS in Singapore, I had myreservations but kept my own counsel. My colleagues and I in theSingapore Democratic Party cautiously welcomed the set up.

We had hoped that given Yale’s proudhistory that it would not allow the Singapore government – or anygovernment – to dictate the kind of experience it provides for itsstudents.

But my worst fears were confirmed whenit was declared that Yale-NUS would not allow certain politicalactivities, including students forming party-affiliatedorganisations.

It seems now that instead of Yaleopening up the minds of Singaporeans through academic inquiry andscholarship, it is the Singaporean Government that will close theminds of the people running the College.

I also understand that degrees will beawarded by NUS, and not Yale. If this is the case, then I have toquestion why this is so. Is Yale not proud of the students ifproduces in Singapore?

I fear – and I sincerely hope that Iwill be proven wrong on this – that the Yale leadership does not,like American multinational corporations that have come before it,cynically looking to make that quick and easy dollar fromSingaporeans while completely disregarding what such actions would doto our society.

My experience with foreign academicinstitutions lead me to be very skeptical of their claims to want toprovide Singaporeans with the best that academia can muster.

Will I be unwelcome again at anacademic institution in my own country? What kind of message willYale be sending to Singaporeans when you call security to stop mewhen I visit the campus to talk to students about their rights andcivil liberties.

I don’t presume to lecture the US, andeven Yale administration, on how to conduct its business but I willsay this: Where you come to make your profits is where I bring up mychildren. Like you, I want them to grow up enjoying the quality oflife that you want for your own children. Where you come to advanceyour interests is where my fellow Singaporeans and I live in the hopeof freeing our country and knowing what it’s like to be free. Likeyou, we want a say in how our country is run and be able to elect ourown government.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not askingyou to change our country, Singaporeans are more than capable ofdoing that ourselves. What I am asking is for the US and itsinstitutions like Yale not to be complicit in helping the rulingPeoples’ Action Party to oppress and exploit Singaporeans.

But when an institution, despiteknowing the repression that goes on in a country chooses to takeadvantage of the lack of freedom to install extractive andexploitative economic policies for its own benefit, when you seek toadvance your interests at the expense of ours, then I question if youare friends at all.

If all America is interested in is tomake money regardless of the damage that profit-making venture is,then we are all going to be poorer for it. If we continue to choosethe beggar-thy-neighbour approach to globalisation, the globalcommunity will fail.

I fear, despite all the assurances, andbecause of what I have seen of what corporate America togetherwith the Singapore state has done to my country, that making money isthe be-all and end-all of all that is collaborated. I hope you cansee why the Yale-NUS venture leaves me suspicious of Yale’s motives –whether you are there to educate or simply to line your own pockets.I have never yearned so much to be proven wrong.

Asian values under the guise ofConfucianism, have been used by the Singapore government to steer thepeople away from democracy which, it argues, will hamper economicprogress. I argue the opposite – and data that I have presentedbear me out – that openness and accountability, in other wordsdemocracy, is essential for the economic advancement of a people.

But that’s not the point.

Others argue that democracy is aWestern concept not suited to an Eastern culture like Singapore. Theirony is that it was the West which subjugated and oppressedSingapore, together with much of Asia, for much of the 19th and 20thcenturies. Freedom from colonialism was not given but won; therebellion was instinctual. In short, the longing for freedom is notAsian or Western – it is primordial.

But that’s not the point either.

Humankind must not live in a worldwhere the poor and the elderly live off the crumbs that fall off therich man’s table; where Westerners, with the help of autocraticgovernments, exploit the locals in the countries that they invest in.Instead, we must work out a way to live in peace and on the premisethat human equals human.

That’s the point.

If you come to Singapore to visit, youwill see a conspicuous display of opulence. But hidden away in theunseen corners are pitiful figures of poverty.

I don’t care if this bent and gnarledfigure is an American or Singaporean and neither, I suspect, do you (see photo below, right).

For a struggling American worker is notdifferent from a struggling Singaporean worker. We’re first andforemost human beings: when oppressed, we long to be free; whenexploited, we seek to break that yoke.

And if you care enough that educationat this revered institution will prepare you for a life that not justenables you to get ahead but to also improve the lot of those aroundyou, of humanity, then you will also care that Yale University notyield on the principles of higher education on which it is founded.

You will want this proud arena ofintellection to care that it upholds its reputation of imparting notjust knowledge but wisdom, the wisdom that invites an individual toenter the door of his conscience.

Such wisdom cannot be found intextbooks, you can’t score a correct answer on it in yourmultiple-choice test. It can only be approximated when you have thefreedom to challenge authority, to question the status quo and pushthe limits of convention, a freedom that Yale so boldly and noblyembodies, a freedom that we have lost in Singapore.

Teachers and students, if you will notaccept anything less for yourselves here in New Haven, why then doyou acquiesce to a demand that will deny your counterparts atYale-NUS that same, rich experience?

I can only hope that as we progressinto the future, as the global community becomes more intertwined andour interests become increasingly linked, that our values – thevalues that people come before profit, rights before riches andwisdom before wealth – will also become inextricably bound.

I have been censored and censured,ridiculed and mocked, I have been sued and made bankrupt, and I havebeen jailed over and over. But that only makes me more determined tospeak truth to power and to you, my friends, here at Yale.

Thank you.

Read also: Singaporean opposition leaders challenge Yale-NUS

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