By Howard Lee
Strike – to cease work collectively as a protest against working conditions, low pay, etc (www.thefreedictonary.com/strike)
It is interesting to note the headlines in our papers that were used to describe the “industrial action” by 102 SMRT bus drivers, as they “refused to take the wheel in protest”, participating in a “day-long standoff” in a bid to obtain fairer compensation from their company.
If there is one thing I learnt in journalism school, it would be that short punchy headlines make better sense. “SMRT bus drivers on strike” or even “SMRT bus drivers ended strike today” makes more sense than the mouthfuls you read this morning.
Instead, what we had was a convoluted technical definition of a strike – they were not union members, they did not get the right permissions, and so on. Me, I call a spade a spade, not a Singular Portable Arm-operated Device for Excavation.
But we forget that the need for our traditional media to toe the lines of nation-building could have played a part in how the strike was portrayed. Singapore has been strike-free for at least the past 20 years, or at least since former union chief Ong Teng Cheong sanctioned them.
The word “strike” splashed across our national papers tells the world a very different story from the organised, disciplined, law-abiding, greater-good-before-self and sensible (read: good for foreign investment) society that we wish to project.
In reality, it is not really difficult to see it for what it is, so there is really no point in slicing it thinly.
On the other hand, it is clear that the narrative to downplay the strike and emphasise its anti-social implications forms the chief position of the organisations involved. The Ministry of Manpower, trade union and SMRT have already gone on record to condemn the strike as disruptive to an “essential service for members of the public” and professed for “the appropriate grievance handling processes” to be used, rather than the drivers “taking matters into their own hands”.
The organisations involved and the innocent people are now the victims.
For sure, there are alternative industrial actions without causing public service disruption. Bus drivers in Australia are known for continuing to run their routes without collecting fares as a form of protest, which is a direct pinch on the organisation rather than the people.
But the SMRT bus drivers involved would not have known better, and they were also not represented by the unions. One can imagine that they did what they felt was their only recourse, even if we do not agree with their exact actions.
In addition, all this rhetoric from the organisations read like standard PR spiels, when in truth, the people are really victims when SMRT refuses to improve its service standards.
Unfortunately, such rhetoric leads us to believe that service standards and cost of operations, which includes manpower costs, are opposite ends of the equilibrium. But paying staff right, be they local or foreigners, has as much an effect on service standards as getting the right equipment in place.
This includes having the right people at the helm, which determines the corporate directions for talent and whether costs should be reduced or additional budget allocated for essentials.
In this sense, SMRT still has a lot to learn about managing a public service effectively. The for-profit motive of the previous CEO might still be casting a longer shadow than we would like to believe, despite the change of hands.
It is about time that the government, NTUC and SMRT stop playing the hiding game through the traditional media, and also stop playing the blaming game by casting the drivers as the villains. Such rhetoric not only misses important points about Singapore’s approach to managing manpower and decent wages, but also drives more wedges into our already divided society.
And my plea to traditional media – for goodness sake, report it like it is. There is no need for you to defend the official line to the death. Apply some good journalistic sense instead.