The exploitation of workers in Singapore

May 6, 2004
Singapore Democrats

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Below is the speech delivered by Singapore Democrat, Ms Chee Siok Chin, at the Think Centre Forum on 1 May 2004. The proceedings of the forum was censored by the local media.

Id like to address an issue not unfamiliar to many Singaporeans, and that is lack of protection of the exploitation of workers and violation of their rights here in Singapore. What I have to say isnt groundbreaking revelation. We, however, need to reiterate this over and over again until this government takes heed and guards the rights of workers here.

In bona fide free and democratic countries the world over, unions are formed independently, without interference from their governments to protect the livelihood and the families of the employees. Trade unions are empowered to negotiate for better working conditions, salaries and benefits for the labour force that they represent. Unfortunately, in Singapore, trade unions which were once fierce defenders of workers welfare have now been browbeaten by the government to become voiceless groups of individuals. The demise of active & effective unions began with the Operation Coldstore in 1963 whose target was to arrest those who opposed the PAP and the unfair merger terms with Malaya. This saw the arrest of 115 people, 50 of them who were trade unionists. With the independent unions seriously crippled by this event, the government affiliated NTUC emerged as the most influential trade union. Today, the NTUC has become a profit-making entity supporting the govt in its unfair practices against workers. Under the guise of the NTUC, the government proclaims that there are bodies that take care of workers welfare in Singapore.

The crunch came in 1966, when the government passed the Trade Union (Amended) Act, making strikes and other industrial actions illegal. In todays Straits Times PM Goh was reported to have praise workers for toughing out the hard times & that they did not resort to industrial strife during this difficult period. It is indeed strange that the PM should make this remark when he knows that industrial actions were proclaimed illegal 38 years ago.

The elections in 1968 saw the PAP dominating seats in parliament. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew actually admitted in his memoirs After we won the re-election in April 1968 with an overwhelming mandate, Parliament passed the Employment Act and the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act that same year. Later, the Trade Union Act was amended. These laws spelt out minimum employment conditions and placed limits on retrenchment benefits, overtime bonuses and fringe benefits. This is a drastic contrast to the man who had fought for better wages for postal workers in 1953.

The PAP ministers have been talking about Singapore-style this & that. To add on to this list of what is uniquely Singaporean is the lack of recourse for any disenfranchised personnel in any sector of the workforce here. The last of the already almost non-existent independent & more vociferous unions, the Alpa-s was frightened into compliance to the Senior Ministers demands. What Singaporeans had witnessed unbeknownst to many was authoritarianism having a field day. To have ministers swoop down on these pilots and with the senior minister having a further encounter with them at the Istana booms of repression. I am sure many people felt that government interference in thwarting the efforts of the pilots to be treated fairly was not only unreasonable but also reprehensible. Then to further ensure that this problem does not resurrect, the government amended the Trade Unions Act 2weeks ago further crippling any control that workers might have had over their fate. This virtually marked the end of any protection for workers in Singapore.

Singaporeans are now so conditioned to the despotic measures which keep us marching in line that such desperate actions taken the government to amass power is met with little protest. The PAP looks upon such compliant behaviour favourably and even uses it in attempts to instill a false sense of responsibility and patriotism in the citizens. But such acquiescence is the fuel that keeps this state machinery in power. This government is able to wield such force only because we allow them to.

Take for example the case of our CPF cut last year. The government had claimed that because economy was doing so poorly that this was inevitable and that sacred cows had to be slaughtered. I would like to contrast this with the millions of dollars that the ministers are paid each month. It is no secret that the ministers here are one of the highest paid, if not the highest, in the world. The reason given to this ludicrous amount paid to ministers was that the government needed to attract the best to look after the interest of Singaporeans. Well, the best have been trying to solve our economic woes through retrenchment, cutting jobs, slashing our wages, increasing our GST and raising other costs of living. While these ministers continued to be paid these huge amounts, Singaporeans are told to tighten our belts. It doesnt make sense that while we are hurting, the ministers continue to draw a million dollars a month and expect us to tough it out.

Its hard to sit on the fence and try to remain dispassionate when you see the incongruity between what the govt tells the people and what it actually does.
The most alarming recent example is the change in policy regarding the use of the nations reserves. As most of you already know, last week, the DPM LHL announced the change in constitution in allowing our reserves to be used for GLCs & statutory boards. I cannot overemphasize the gravity of such action. With just an announcement the government has allowed billions of dollars of taxpayers money to be used with no accountability to the people. Just as disturbing is the fact that the media downplayed it by slipping it into a news report that spoke about foreign-born children getting their citizenship. There was no debate on it, no discussion. Nothing. Just a pronouncement. It was as if this money belonged to the government & they could do what it wanted with it. Of course, you wont hear or read about the responses, arguments and protests against this in the media.

If the government can make use of our money to help their own, why does it put up such formidable & harsh resistance in helping those who are struggling to get by? LKY who opposed the proposal that a fraction of the countrys billion dollar reserve to be used to subsidize healthcare costs for the elderly now remains silent over his sons decision to use these reserves in nothing short of an arbitrary manner. That this government has the power to amend the constitution without having it debated even in parliament is really not surprising considering its autocratic stance. This lack of the governments transparency and accountability to us will continue unless Singaporeans stand up and tell them that we have a stake in our own country. That we want to be involved stakeholders of this country. We cannot continue to be pawns for this government to do what it wants with our lives. We are people who do not want to be treated as mere digits. We are individuals who want to be consulted, respected and treated with dignity. We are a community that wants to be listened to.

The message that Singapore is not a welfare state has been repeated, reiterated and drummed into us. But the authorities must also ask themselves what its responsibility is in taking care of Singaporeans especially the underprivileged? Why is the government not doing enough to take care of those in need? Why are billions of $$ lost in overseas investments when there are families living on $250 a month?

Therefore, I put forth the challenge to us all. We cannot afford to continue to merely gripe and groan about how this government dictates policies and uses the populace. You and I need to stand up and speak up for ourselves, for our friends, for our neighbours, for our fellowmen. How can we do this? Joining a political party shouldnt the only way to challenge the governments policies & views although PM Goh obviously thinks that his government can be criticized only in that arena. Civil societies, trade unions, interest groups and even religious groups should be allowed to take up social and political issues with the govt. Sadly, in Singapore making your political views public has become a taboo unless you sing the same tune as the ruling party.

But yet, Singaporeans must band together and continue to speak up even within this limited, restricted space for freedom of expression here. Join a party if you have to. Start civil societies, discussion groups, advocacy groups, trade unions. But to keep silent we will not. To allow ourselves to be intimidated must not. We must reclaim our place in this country & take ownership of what is ours, and that is our right to protect our workers, our right to free speech and assembly.