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Sunday Times Online
To most Sri Lankans, Singapore represents an oasis of prosperity, growth, great shopping, a high quality of life and superior wages.
But social activist and opposition politicians, who are freer to speak now than decades ago during the iron-clad rule of Singapore strongman Lee Kuan Yew, the appearance of prosperity and wealth masks a hidden reality: a growing underclass of people not moving up the ladder and a subtle form of repression.
“Our per capita income is (Singapore dollars) S$63,000 per (about US$50,000 per year) which is about the 3th-4th highest in the world. However we still have local people who are earning S$500 a month as cleaners and often they tend to be very elderly people, 60 -70 years and sometimes in the early 80s,” says Vincent Wijeysingha, a 42-year old social activist cum politician with Sri Lankan roots from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), where he functions as the treasurer.
Discussing Singapore’s success and its wealth and quality of life that has drawn admiration from across the world, Dr Wijeysingha – in Colombo to attend the annual congress of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats last week, said Singapore is a privatized welfare state with each resident contributing to a fund which tends to marginalize the older people, often tradespersons or cobblers who have no money and are forced to work even in their ’80s.
Getting work is not easy as most employers could employ unskilled foreign workers for as low as S$450 which in any way is not a living wage.
Last year inflation was 5.5 % and inflation is mainly created by housing and transport – both of which the state controls since 86% of the population live in government flats. “This masks the growing underclass.
There are various levels of discrimination in terms of race with the Malay community suffering the worse. There are inequities in how government money is spent, one being the number of non-ASEAN foreign students being gives full scholarships to local universities which costs $36 million a year,” he said adding that the reason for this spend is in the hope that they would work in Singapore after graduation and secondly to improve the university rankings internationally. There are higher marks given to universities which attract large numbers of overseas students.
He said the other resentment is government wages – that of ministers who are the highest paid in the world. “Compare a cleaner getting 20 cents an hour as against the Prime Minister earning S$1000 per hour? In fact the 10% richest (of the population) are getting richer while the 10% poorest are becoming poorer,” noted the politician, who has a social work degree and worked on issues relating to low waged migrant workers before taking to politics.
In a relaxed conversation about his roots, aspirations, where he would like Singapore to be, the Singaporean politician shares his thoughts on a range of political, social and economic issues that should interest Sri Lankans.
Excerpts of the conversation:
On migrant workers
The plight of low wage migrant workers is appalling. Singapore has always been a cheap labour economy and the country’s economic progress has always been based on capital inputs – labour and more money going into the production process.
Singapore’s wages for domestic workers range from S$320 (US$260-270) for the lowest paid to S$600 per month at the top normally where Filipinos are the recruits because they speak English, and have experience with children and old people. There are 1.1million households in Singapore of which 1/5th have foreign domestic workers, many hired to look after children or old people while the employer-couple is out working.
A recent survey said domestic workers work up to 16 hours a day and only 12 % have a day off. The wage can be low as 20 cents an hour which is absolutely scandalous.
There are one million migrants ranging from domestic workers (201,000 -who are the least paid and have little protection), to lawyers, doctors and other professionals. One out of three in Singapore is a non-resident. There are 3 types of working visas – work permits for the unskilled earning up to $2000 per month who are domestic workers and those in manufacturing, construction, cleaners, waiters, etc; the next level is those with polytechnic diploma qualifications like supervisors in factories with technical skills who earn between S$2,000-S$3,000 a month. Those above these wage levels are the professionals who are permitted to bring their families along, a concession not given to those in lower levels of employment.
This is based on the (former Prime Minister) Lee Kuan Yew theory that only the intelligentsia measured by their qualifications spawns intelligent children. These are the people encouraged to come and live in Singapore. The ‘unintelligent’ measured by the fact that you are a domestic worker or construction worker, are not allowed to stay longer than the contract permits. This also extends to the worry that Singapore has of domestic workers having children in Singapore. They have to undergo a mandatory pregnancy and HIV/AIDS test every six months. If they are found to be pregnant or have contracted HIV/AIDs, they are deported immediately.
Freedom and conscience
In 1993 when I went to the UK to study social sciences, I read many books that you couldn’t find in Singapore which gave a totally different understanding of the country. I came back twice to Singapore during my PhD studies for research purposes, one of which was a project researching the conduct of elections. This was done with the Open Singapore Centre, of which my party leader, Dr Chee Soon Juan, was Director.
However encouraged by the overtures of the government led by Lee’s son who was urging young people to return and contribute to the economy and be free to criticize government policy, I returned in 2009 with the feeling that this was the right place to be.
Nine months later I read a book by Teo Soh Lung, jailed for an alleged Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the state and in that autobiography she spoke at length of the arbitrary arrests and the repression that followed.
It shocked me but I still believed that things had changed; this was 25 years ago and the PM was encouraging people to return. About a month later (2010), a book written by a Singapore- based British journalist was released in which he looked at how the death penalty operates in Singapore and revealed several miscarriages of justice. Most worrying, according to him, was that if accused persons convicted of drugs use were poor, inarticulate and came from a backward community they were more likely to be hanged than if the accused was a urban, middle class professional. The book was published on a Thursday but on Saturday he was arrested and the books removed off bookstores. He was charged, convicted of criminal defamation and contempt of court and served a jail term. This was the turning point for me. I said to myself that in any other country if a book uncovers miscarriages of justice, the state would investigate this. In Singapore, the messenger is silenced.
Welfare and the elderly
Welfare is privatized with a portion of your earnings retained by the state under the Central Provident Fund which pays for old age pensions, healthcare and also foreign education. This often marginalizes the poor who are unable to save enough (through this scheme) to take care of their medical care when they grow old. A recent study showed that income mobility is somewhat static – people who are born poor will die poor. The resentment is not much in inequality – inequality is a fact of life. It is more in the government rhetoric and of the outcomes of policy which are skewed and out of sync with modern needs.
The government controls the mainstream media to suppress these issues. The main media group – the Singapore Press Holdings is majority-controlled by the state. The chairman of this group is always a government nominee. The CEO is also a government appointee and on occasion has been recruited from the once-dreaded Internal Security Department(ISD). The director of that unit when Teo Soh Lung was jailed was eventually promoted as CEO of the media group.
In the elite model of management at the top – all those in government, military, judiciary, civil service, etc, are related either by blood, political roots or social connections. They appoint one another to positions of authority.
There are no privately-owned, independent stations, no private newspapers except foreign papers. Even though these ‘controlled’ newspapers have a lot of revenue and readership, Singaporeans now increasingly consider this media as a mouthpiece of the state.
The general consensus seems to be that the average wage should be around S$2700. Recent figures show that 440,000 workers earn less than S$1700. Our party position is that no one can live on less than S$6.80 an hour or S$50 a day, but probably half of the population live below this level. Of the total of 3.1 million workers (out of a population of 5.2 million), two million are local workers with the rest foreigners. The government has a schizophrenic approach in its management of the economy and the people.
It acknowledges that the country needs to upgrade the economy. Our traditional industry is manufacturing and construction, for which labour and land are required, both of which we don’t have. We need to import labour while Singapore is just 720 sq km in size.
For a long time the government has been pushing the need for services and the creative arts. The thinking is that Singapore needs creativity and young people who think differently.
However in such a creative society, the political impact is going to be huge. Some level of social chaos will emerge since you cannot control a country and allow it to be creative at the same time. The creative element has led to an upgrading of the community with criticism growing on the Internet- people use blogs and all parties have websites. There is no control of these as Singapore is positioning itself as a knowledge economy.
The impact of the Internet and the freedom of thought and views have led to a decline in the government vote base. In 2001, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) won 76% of the vote, by 2006 it fell to 66% and at last year’s poll slumped to 60%, a drop of 16% in the last 10 years.
Information is the oxygen of democracy and this will change Singapore. More than the Internet, the Government is concerned about mass action and public protests, and its international image. Two weeks back 100 Bangladeshis struck work as they had not been paid for three months. The Government quickly moved in and within two days they were paid whereas some workers don’t get paid for months and no one bothers.
Singapore has one of the highest percentages of foreigners in the world accounting for 33% of the population. Fertility replacement levels are low because of the population control programmes in the 1970s where the mindset was small families.
There is significant demographic change with a growing number of foreigners and people beginning to articulate their resentment. In population density terms, Singapore has seven persons per square metre (size of a small table) or 7200 per sq km.
While going to work or shopping, there are tensions and snide remarks often directed at the migrant workers, the lowest wage earners. There is racism on the trains and offensive racist comments on the Internet. Even some politicians jumped on that bandwagon.
So the resentment is there, it’s difficult to separate these from policy issues. I won’t go far as saying it’s a powder keg situation but these are issues. The same happens in London, France or Australia where the rhetoric is similar.
Sri Lankan roots
Vincent Wijeysingha’s grandparents migrated from Ceylon to Malaysia (then Malaya) in the early 20th century. His grandmother – on the mother’s side were Burghers from Malaysia. After the Second World War ended, both sets of families moved to Singapore where his parents met and were married. Dr Wijeysingha was born and schooled in Singapore where his father Eugene was a highly, respected educationist, principal of Temasek Junior College later principal of Raffles Institution till 1994. “My mother has cousins in Wattala while my father’s cousins are in Baddegama while there are some Burgher relatives in Nugegoda. The others are spread across the world,” he says.
When he contested the May 7, 2011 parliamentary polls, unsurprisingly his party didn’t win a single seat given the country’s rigid, one-party political system. However, the ruling PAP vote base fell to 60.1% from 76%, 10 years ago, while the main opposition Workers Party secured six seats, up from its previous one. Dr Wijeysingha’s party vote share also rose 4% to close to 100,000 votes among the two million voters.