Anti-poverty as a human right in Singapore

December 7, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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Charles Tan

Amnesty International’s Secretary-General Irene Khan wrote in its 2009 annual report entitled
It’s not just the economy, its a human rights crisis

The world needs a different kind of leadership, a different kind of politics as well as economics – something that works for all and not just for a favoured few. We need leadership of the kind that moves states from narrow national self-interest to multilateral collaboration, so that the solutions are inclusive, comprehensive, sustainable and respectful of human rights. Alliances between governments and corporations built on expectations of financial enrichment at the expense of the most marginalized must be dismantled. Alliances of convenience that protect abusive governments from accountability must go.

I believe this excerpt sums up what is currently unsustainable with the state of globalisation. While globalisation has its merits such as allowing people across the world to share their ideas through newer and more efficient telecommunication and internet technologies, it has also become a vehicle for oppression.

This is especially true with one aspect of globalisation, corporate globalisation, in which multinational corporations collude with or influence governments to commit human rights abuses and/or harm the eco-environment.

As globalisation diminish the constraints of geographical national barriers, corporations become more mobile. Increasing concentration of wealth amongst these entities and an unregulated international financial markets have also increased their ability to influence global politics.

The latest example is the financial crisis amongst American banks that had serious reverberations in the world economy. Even during boom times, corporations pose a significant impact in eroding the democratic wishes and human rights of people. They often move their factories to developing countries where they take advantage of the tax breaks, lower labour costs and the unregulated workers’ and environmental standards. In doing so, the poor in these countries are subjected to a vicious cycle of exploitation.

This might sound outrageous to the average Singaporean who is fed a constant diet of positive spin by the media on the benefits of corporate globalisation. After all, the state’s economic success narrative which is lavishly praised by the business press and market think-tanks is built on the dogma of free trade.

In layperson speak, this means minimal governmental interference as the people are left to fend for themselves in the marketplace, which is supposed to adjust itself into a state of equilibrium by the ‘miraculous’ forces of supply and demand.

Also embedded in this assumption is the trickle-down theory where the economic gains made by the rich is expected to flow to the middle and lower-income groups. This also happens to be the official version of Singapore’s history since independence concocted by the PAP.

An alternative understanding of this free-market ideology would, however, show it up as one of the greatest political ruses. How many times have the government claimed that Singaporeans need to sacrifice their civil and political rights to create a pro-business (specifically MNCs and big business) environment? This fixation with an open and globalised economy engineered by the ruling elite becomes a circular argument as the society is hoodwinked into delaying their claim for democracy and human rights.

Over the years, the effects of adopting free market policies has turned out to be negative for Singapore. This is exacerbated by PAP’s aversion to welfarism which has seen the living condition of poorer or permanently out of job Singaporeans continue to degenerate into abysmal situations.

The widening wealth gap is the direct result of placing so much faith on market forces. In a recent Business Week report, Singapore was ranked (amongst the ‘richest’ states) at number two for having the greatest gap between the rich and the poor.

The SDP’s 2009 May Day message indicated the average household monthly income for the lowest 20 percent strata of the population decreased by about 15 percent as the richest quintile increased by 11.7 percent between 1998 and 2003. In the same period, the average wage fell for the poorest 40 percent of families as expenditures exceeded their income. This means that the poor get poorer as the rich get richer.

Meanwhile, the majority of the middle class, faced with increased cost of living slide down the scale and join the lower-income group. Only a minority move up the economic ladder. It is therefore very likely that poverty will soon become more entrenched and widespread.

Seen in this perspective, the wealth gap and poverty are urgent socio-economic issues with political ramifications. It also means that these concerns need to be studied on a systemic level. It is not simply arrogance when the PAP claims that poverty does not exist in Singapore or blames poverty on the individual’s laziness or misfortune. Its strategy of stigmatising poverty absolves the Government of any obligation.

But international human rights law is quite clear in this instance. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is unequivocal when it comes to states’ responsibilities in promoting the respect, well-being and livelihood of the person.

For example, Article 22 states that “Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”

Also Section 1 of Article 25 says: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

Though UDHR is not legally binding, it acts as a customary reference on global human rights standards. As we celebrate the International Human Rights Day on the 10th December, the day the UN General Assembly adopted this declaration, it is time to dispel certain myths that have impeded our imagination and determination to strive for a world without poverty.

Amongst these are the beliefs that poverty cannot be eradicated or that a happy and fulfilled life is one governed by the market, dominated by corporations in collusion with the political elites. Singaporeans could start with questioning the fundamentals of PAP’s economic policies: Do these measures create a more equal society? Have they undermined our basic human rights? How do we address the human rights and plight of the poor who have the least resources and access to influence decision-making in our society?


Charles Tan is the former president of the Young Democrats. He is currently writing a paper on the free market ideology, wealth gap and poverty in Singapore. Part of this article is based on the working drafts of the paper.