Lunch-stealing rhetoric not only unethical, but unsustainable and likely counter-productive

Migrant workers who face issues with their employers, seeking help from NGO, TWC2 and getting free food. (Photo - Terry Xu)

“Amid growing competition, and workers hungry to learn in places like Chengdu and even further away such as Russia, Singapore must not only protect its lunch but steal other people’s lunches, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has urged.” – TODAY, “Singapore must ‘steal other people’s lunches’ to stay ahead of competition

Get them before they get you. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and we gotta stay ahead at all costs. It’s Us versus Them; if they win, it must be at our expense.

Let’s talk about stealing lunches. Not long ago, I interviewed some Bangladeshi workers who worked on a big HDB estate (tender awarded to a contractor who then subcontracted the workers’ company, as is common). They’d borrowed money, sold land, took bank loans to pay for the training and agent fee to come to Singapore. They were never paid for the substantial hours of overtime they worked… and then they were not paid at all.

After three months, their employer left Singapore, leaving no money to pay them. The workers were left high and dry, and eventually repatriated with only a fraction of what they were owed. A couple said that they would be hounded by creditors when they got back to Bangladesh. They have no money to pay their debts, so it’s likely that their remaining family land will be seized to be auctioned off. They also have no more money to pay the agent fee to get a job overseas again… so what can they do? Where will their lives go from here?

Let’s talk about stealing lunches, more literally. Earlier this year I met another group of men, staying in a massive dormitory far beyond anywhere Singaporeans usually think to go. They’d been working on a couple of public primary schools, building extensions. Again, fees had been paid to secure the work. Again, they were not paid. It got to the point where 10 men pooled all the money they had left and could only buy a loaf of white bread to share for food. They’re now seeking redress through the Labour Court, but the process is a long one. In the meantime, they can’t work or earn an income. When I met them a few months back they were already saying that their children back home were on the verge of quitting school, because there was no more money to pay the fees. If that happens – as it likely has by now – we’re talking about another generation disadvantaged and robbed of opportunities.

These men work on the projects that contribute to our annual GDP. They build the homes and malls and industrial parks that buy us our international reputation. They construct the cred that allows us to steal other people’s lunches even as we steal theirs.

Remaining competitive, realistic about our economy and committed to improving our work ethic is one thing, but this sort of lunch-stealing zero-sum rhetoric is part of the problem in the first place. It feeds xenophobia because we think anything a foreigner has must have come at the expense of a local. It feeds the myth of meritocracy, telling us to think that we deserve all we have, and the have-nots must just be suckers for not having the instinct and drive we do. It simultaneously feeds inequality and blinds us to the fact; we don’t stop to think that we might have trampled on others to get to where we are, and even if we did notice we tell ourselves it was their own fault for not having the spurs in their hides to step on others first.

If we’ve seen anything in recent years, surely it’s that this model is not only unethical, but unsustainable and likely counter-productive. It’s high time for us to ask ourselves new questions and seek new solutions, reforms, both systemic and institutional, to get to the root of the issue. The longer we stick with the “eat before you get eaten” mentality, the more we will find that there’s less and less to go around for the majority of us.

This post was first published as a Facebook post by Kirsten Han

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