By: Ng Yi Shu
The Online|Offline forum on the SMRT strike, the second so far (since the Think Centre forum on the 9th of December), focused on a peculiar angle: the strike and its implications on national security.
National security can be defined as a “requirement to maintain the survival of the state through the use of economic power, diplomacy, power projection and political power.” In essence, national security involves the five prongs of Total Defence, commonly learnt in National Education: military, civil, economic, social, and psychological Defence.
The forum focused on 2 aspects of Total Defence in its discussion on how the SMRT strike had implications for our national security: economic and social defence. The forum deduced that the arrival of migrants caused by government policy has led to an economic overreliance on foreign labour, xenophobic discrimination against the foreign nationals on our soil, and the unraveling of the ruling party’s social compact, one of rights for prosperity – hence eroding into our national security.
Economic implications of the immigration policies
Foreign worker reliance
All nations are vulnerable to national security challenges. We in this country might be more vulnerable (having terrorist elements in Indonesia, for example) but we are oddly safe within this country, having a Strategic Framework Agreement and a Free Trade Agreement with the US and being interconnected through trade with ASEAN, said Vincent Wijeysingha of the Singapore Democratic Party.
Wijeysingha felt that the issue of the SMRT strike can be easily hijacked by xenophobic discourse as migrant workers are a large constituent of the low-wage sector (therefore they are highly resented for they are believed to be increased competition). However, the taming of the trade unions meant the means for workers to negotiate were largely eliminated.
The real issue might lie in the stability of the economy – with a significant increase in foreign workers.
This sentiment was echoed by statistician and writer for theonlinecitizen Leong Sze Hian, who cited many factors that led to his conclusion that Singaporeans were not cost-competitive in the labour market. After adjusting for accommodation costs, foreign worker levies and overtime, Leong found that the PRC drivers were perhaps 25% cheaper than Singaporeans. Leong also cited National Service obligations and maternity leave as reasons Singaporeans might not be competitive in the job market relative to the foreign workers.
Citing a report which found that almost all Singaporean workers had a negative or near-negative real wage increase for the past 12 years, Leong felt that if the current situation went on, there might be social unrest on the streets.
Tony Tan Lay Thiam, a politician for the National Solidarity Party. felt the same way as well, saying that ‘the liberal immigration policy has gotten us intoxicated, so we have to detox lah’.
The possibility of equal pay for equal work
Wage costs are not the most significant pressure faced by businesses, Vincent Wijeysingha said, citing other cost pressures such as the cost of land and rental as possibly more overwhelming than that of wage costs.
Government-linked SMRT has retained its phenomenal profits despite having wages stagnating over the years, Wijeysingha added, yet a fare increase was deemed necessary by the Transport Minister in future fare reviews if wage adjustments were to be made – even with a $1.1 billion Bus Services Enhancement Fund. This, he added, was proof of the establishment socializing costs and privatizing profits.
Social implications: the social compact
Vincent also felt that the social compact that was made during early independence has begun to increasingly unravel, with an increasing number of the lower class (up to 23%) earning less than the government-proclaimed poverty line.
One wonders what goes on in their psyche of the 23% who have been betrayed by the compact, said Wijeysingha. There is nothing more certain to cause social unrest than an empty stomach and a lack of the ability to fill that empty stomach, he added.
However, he felt that fear would not be an enduring phenomenon. But without the basic freedoms we are going to limit the social exchange that will allow for real dialogue, he said.
When asked if the public’s lack of initiative could be a reason for the lack of dialogue, Vincent replied that ‘we have created a structure that does not condone people who speak freely’. Referring to his humorous opening greeting to the “Internal Security Department agents in the room”, he said that people make fun at the security apparatus as a way to say that ‘Emperor you have no clothes on’, but the metaphorical Emperor cannot run away because of the online media today.
Collective responsibility of the social compact
An intergenerational income divide has occurred within our society today, with social mobility becoming increasingly harder to achieve. Braema Mathi used the analogy of the differences in the wages of the taxi driver from 1970 to today – the children of the taxi driver in 1970 is more likely to be able to afford college than the children of the taxi driver today.
In her presentation, Braema Mathi questioned: “How are we really putting down our social policies to help those in need?” She lamented that the social safety net ‘is still a net’, and is inadequate as people still fall through it.
Echoing Wijeysingha’s sentiment that the underclass of Singapore is growing, she cited increasing insecurities about our economic future as one of the factors leading to xenophobic discourse today. However, she said that ‘something is fundamentally wrong’, as discourse should center around policies instead. “We live in a society, I feel, that is largely emasculated. We level a lot of our own frustrations and park it at our foreigners’ feet,” she said.
She also acknowledged that costs of living and the access to opportunity may be flashpoints in national security, and flet that ‘we need to engage more tightly on these discussions (on economic issues)’
What about the social impact for the foreigners?
Braema questioned whether a similar social compact with the government existed with foreign workers, adding that the role of foreign workers was framed in the public perception as ‘plugging a hole for us’.
Braema Mathi continued by outlining the indispensability of foreign workers in our midst – one million households are dependent on foreign domestic workers, while nursing and construction industries continue to be dominated by the foreign workforce. Yet, employer actions and labour agent policies continue to disadvantage these workers. Responding to labour activist Jolovan Wham’s comment that we have a ‘government that consistently does not want to prosecute employers for wage arrears’ (which was exemplified in the latest wage dispute involving foreign workers), she declared that ‘the arrogance of the strength of our currency should not supersede our value system.’
She questioned the extent to which the law is explained to them in a manner that would allow them to appreciate our laws and their rights.
Prejudices amongst nationalities
Noting that foreigners contribute up to 48 percent of GDP, Tony Tan Lay Thiam pointed out the risk of depending too much upon people from a certain nationality. “If we become overly reliant on one group of people, and relations with their home countries sour, will our economy collapse when they walk out?” he asked.
In a question and answer session, Tan voiced the fears of mass defaulting of loans, leading to a 2009 US sub-prime crisis style recession if an exodus of foreigners occurred. The government however has not addressed the fundamental issues but has only been content to tinker with policy here and there, he claimed, adding that “If we continue along this line, we will incrementalise ourselves to oblivion.”
Labour action (or any action at all) may not result in failure
Ravi Philemon, former chief editor for theonlinecitizen and forum moderator, questioned whether the Jurong crane wage dispute, which was resolved once the crane operators stopped their protest, and the 1988 SMRT train operator strike, which saw a $200 increase in basic train operator wages, were failures.
Hinting at action in the next General Election, he said that ‘we are not as powerless as the state makes you think’ in his concluding comments.
On a question of whether the opposition will unite to form a coalition against the PAP, Vincent Wijeysingha replied that it would be a question of how badly Singaporeans want change. That, history might tell to be true.