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Racism & xenophobia – statement by civil society groups disappointing

The following is a response to the statement issued by several civil society groups and individuals on the issues of racism and xenophobia in Singapore. 

You can view that statement here: "Civil society statement on racism and xenophobia".

The response below is from Dr Loh Kah Seng, who is also the Assistant Professor at the Institute of East Asian Studies, Sogang University, South Korea. It was first published on Dr Loh's Facebook page here.

racism and xenophobia

By Dr Loh Kah Seng

So for me the statement against racism and xenophobia was disappointing and misguided. It made all the right noises about the political economy as a contributing factor but decided the evil to be excised was instead xenophobia. It should have been the other way around.

Civil society would do itself a lot of good if it stopped paying lip service to 'universal labour rights'. It'd be clear to the average unhappy Singaporean worker that civil society has been far from most of their lives. There are actually two very good reasons for this:

1. Political - the state has sole oversight over the Singaporean workforce. Independent labour initiatives are discouraged - witness the deregistration of leftwing unions in the 1950s and 1960s and the pressure against community organisation efforts in the late 1960s and 1970s.

For a time in the 1980s, it was difficult for civil society to work on migrant labour issues - look at the work of some of those activists detained in 1987. This is no longer the case. The government and the Ministry of Manpower probably wish they do not have to deal with the (commendable) efforts of HOME, TWC2, etc, but tolerate them and make grudging, piecemeal concessions.

2.  Economic - the plight of Singaporean workers is a lot more complex and diverse vis-a-vis migrant workers. Homeless people, 1-room renters, single parent families and uneducated, unskilled workers have always existed at the margins of a wealthy society before the 1990s. However, with globalisation, open immigration and the ushering in of neoliberal policies, better educated and middle class PMETs, both fresh graduates and those of my age (middle age), have been pulled into a social crisis. For them, it is an unexpected end to the Singapore dream they have been brought up to believe in.

Civil society, which is also mostly middle class and well-educated, needs to find ways to speak to the concerns of this group, which are often the same people accused of racism. The plight of migrant workers is dire and challenging, but Singaporean workers are facing not unscruplous employers, or bad living and working conditions for the most part. It's not simply about going to MOM to register a complaint on behalf of the worker or to make claims against a bad employer.

The problems facing Singaporeans workers are structural and deeply embedded in the political economy. One might say, justifiably, that migrant workers labour in the same system.

What can civil society do given these political and economic constraints? I don't have an easy answer. But for a start, change the title (and thrust) of the statement to be against the political economy instead. So, xenophobia is seen as a dangerous consequence and should rightly be condemned. But the real culprit would be the political economy and the language and solutions used by civil society would have to deal squarely with it.

This may be the beginning of a compact between civil society and Singapore workers, rather than a continuing divide.