The exploitation faced by Singapore’s early pioneers were not so different from the conditions endured by the many migrant workers in the wealthy city-state today, said historian Thum Ping Tjin in a recent episode of his podcast, The History of Singapore.
“It may be hard for us today to imagine what it must be like, to be migrant labour, exploited by a system of legalised oppression and de facto slavery,” Thum said. “But the sad thing is, we don’t need to imagine.”
As of June 2015 there are close to a million work permit holders in Singapore, many of them foreign domestic workers (FDWs) and low-wage construction workers. Migrant rights groups often highlight the abuse and exploitation faced by this group of workers, some of whom lack protection under the law. FDWs, for example, are excluded from the Employment Act, which means that there is no legislation governing the maximum number of hours that they can work, nor do they have the right to appeal against unfair dismissals.
In the podcast episode entitled Politics goes into Labour, Thum draws parallels between this situation and that of workers under the colonial capitalist model, where those with capital often got rich off the backs of workers such as rickshaw-pullers, coolies and plantation workers.
“But economic growth does not happen in a vacuum. It has huge political, social, and cultural impact. Deciding to prioritise economic growth above all else is a political choice, because unregulated economic growth produces exploitation and inequality,” Thum said.
“If you want to understand how your grandfather or great grandfather lived, think of our foreign workers today… Compare the life of a Bangladeshi labourer in Singapore to the life of a rich millionaire in Singapore,” he went on to say later in the episode. “That’s the difference between how the vast majority of Singaporeans were treated, and how the European and local elite lived.”
The episode also looked at the emergence of modern trade unions in Singapore, and the influences that unionists drew on from countries such as Britain, China, Indonesia and India, all of whom had trade union movements seeking to improve the lives of workers.
In future episodes, Thum will be examining the influence of Chinese nationalism and international socialism on Singapore’s labour movement.
You can listen to the podcast on The History of Singapore’s website here, or subscribe to it on iTunes. If you would like to support Thum Ping Tjin’s work, you can pledge some money on his Patreon page here.