By Tan Wah Piow
The Singapore government jailed 22 social activists three decades ago for being Marxists. They denied the allegations.
But what was the fuss about Marxism anyway?
When Marx wrote Das Capital 150 years ago, Capitalism was in its rough state with hardly any protection or welfare for the working people. While society had moved on, the character of wealth has not.
To use a Marxist jargon, the mode of production today is capitalism. Under capitalism, then and now, in England as in Singapore, workers are employed for his labour power to produce a commodity or provide a service the market needs.
The boss pays wages to the workers, and in return he sells the goods or services at a price higher than (wages +rent + raw materials + advertisements + management costs etc). The balance, after deducting interests to the bank and taxes to the State is the wealth created for the capitalist. It was Marx who exclusively identified this wealth as surplus value, which is the value the worker had created but was appropriated from him.
When an employer invests in new machinery to increase the productivity of his work force, his capital comes from the historical surplus value created by yesterday’s work force. And if that capital was inherited, that too derived from the surplus value of his parents’ or grandparents’ work force.
‘Surplus value’ is central to Marx’s economic thinking. From this concept, he developed his political thoughts about class struggles and systemic changes. Applying Marx analysis does not necessary lead to a call for a revolution at every turn. It’s a useful analytical tool to sharpen your understanding of society.
In the Singapore case, an understanding of surplus value is particularly relevant as it will empower the working people, social activists and the opposition to make bold remands over the control of the vast State reserves.
For example, the Prime Minister had once argued that increasing welfare benefits to the poor would mean that taxes had to be raised.
This is only the half truth because the entire state reserves, which some say are over a trillion Singapore dollars*, are the accumulated surplus value of the Singapore population. Where else did the wealth came from otherwise? Every single cent collected from taxes, every gain accumulated from investments using borrowed money from the CPF etc derived from the value created by labour power. There is no reason why the population should not demand that the collective surplus value as represented in the state reserves, be used to benefit those in need.
In 2015 at a parliamentary debate on CPF, a Nominated Member of Parliament, Ms Chia Yong Yong criticised those who called for the relaxation of rules for the withdrawal, and use of the CPF by its members as irresponsible.
Her argument was that not all the money in a person’s CPF pension pot derives from a worker’s contribution because “CPF savings are enhanced, enforced CPF savings which are accumulated through our own deferred consumption, through co-payment by our employers and through top-ups from public funds,”
This speech was much ridiculed at the time on social media. The Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, however, lauded it as “excellent”. Was it “excellent” or “rubbish”?
A Marxist will criticize Chia Yong Yong as ignorant because the ‘co-payment from employers’ derived directly from the workers surplus value that the employer had appropriated. That portion was therefore, the worker’s own money. The ‘top-up from public funds’ did not come from the Prime Minister enormous personal piggy bank. That too derived from the surplus value of the entire work force, of which a CPF member can claim a share of as part of the collective.
The call for the “return of CPF” relates to the right of the individual CPF member to have control over the monies he had accumulated. With increased longevity, for many, that money is unlikely to be adequate without State intervention.
Furthermore, the transformation of society brought about by automation leading to substantial structural unemployment will eventually reach Singapore. Once that happens, it would not be just a call for the return of CPF. The demand would be “Return our Surplus Value”. For that to happen, the population must first achieve democratic control over the reserves.
The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) should be concerned when people start looking at the State reserves as their own collective surplus value. At the moment the reserves true amount is still a closely guarded secret to the extend that it’s not known to the President who is supposed to be its guardian. It was in anticipation of that political scenario that Lee Kuan Yew gerrymandered the electoral system to ensure that the so-called elected President is a PAP stooge. The political role of the President is in reality to guard against the democratic control of the reserves in the event of a progressive opposition being elected to power.
If and when “Return our Surplus Value” is adopted as the political agenda for the next 50 years, the PAP would certainly launch Operation Spectrum Mark II against the advocates.
That’s what the fuss over Marxism is about.
*Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the Cambridge-educated economist, on the value of the national assets: “All I will say with any certainty is that total assets are close to $900 billion but that net assets are only about half that amount.”