Singaporeans need a revitalized social contract

by Think Centre

Our island state was founded more than 50 years ago on the basis of “one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”. These ideals are enshrined in the pledge that is recited by all students before class starts every day and takes prominence during National Day celebrations.

Half a century later, these very ideals have been eroded to the point where the livelihood of citizens are threatened with rising housing, education and basic living cost with no assurance of any benefits from the wealthy state for citizens to ease their retirement after giving their lives to building the nation.

Instead, wealth inequality has not improved in the last 5 years and income growth has slowed across the board except for the wealthiest. No matter how much assistance the government gives, there will always remain a segment of the population that cannot catch up. This is when social expenditure of the government must increase.

We need a government that provides a living wage, basic health, retirement security, unemployment insurance, for everyone to support their families. We need decent work to support decent lives. The current exploitative nature of work is unsustainable where its workers clocked 2,371.2 hours in 2016, the longest in the world. Our aspiration to be the Switzerland of the East is nowhere realised after half a century when our workers are among the oldest in the world with a lack of minimum wage in an economy that ranks 4th in the world for the highest cost of living in a Mercer’s survey conducted in June 2016.

It is ironic that the hardworking and old Singaporean workers cannot afford to retire even after a lifetime contributing to the nation’s economy. This is because Singapore refuses to sign all the ILO’s core labour standards (signed 5 Core Labour Standards) after so many years of guaranteeing a minimum standard for its workers. Instead, it justifies its exclusion with its famed tripartite arrangement between government, unions and employers.

Even judging by its own justification, one is hard pressed to see how the workers’ welfare is considered when the unions are helmed by government officials, a role passing like musical chairs to prominent members of the Cabinet past and present along with other positions as heads of large government linked companies (GLCs). These giant conglomerates are built by the compulsory savings of ordinary Singaporeans who reaped none of the returns, except for miserable interest that barely keeps up with the inflation rate. The government is the largest employer in Singapore and together with the GLCs controls the economy of the country.

We turn now to ask, what then is the social contract of Singaporeans with regard to its employers and government? For this, we must look at the origins of the theory of the social contract which points invariably to the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius while tracing his inspiration to the scholastic theologian Francisco de Vitoria. From both we discern the values that undergird the concept of the social contract, an inherent concern for “a noble and liberty-loving heart, a sense of truth and justice which kept him from error… [and] condemned injustice wherever he discerned it.”[1]

These ideals echo the aspirations of our early leaders who enshrined the values in the pledge all Singaporean students recite by heart daily. These are also the values encapsulated in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which the United Nations’ General Assembly, which Singapore is a part of, has agreed to support.

Specifically, goal 16 of the SDGs is dedicated to the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies with provisions to protect civic freedoms, ensure equal access to justice and uphold the rule of law. Goal 16 can only be realised if the role of civil society is respected and civic freedoms are protected.

But it is hard to believe that Singapore can promote or protect such freedoms when it goes to the extent of persecuting an individual for expressing his own opinions in a private Facebook posting to his friends. How can an august institution like the judiciary have its reputation compromised in any way by a single Facebook post? Must they impress their power and assert their authority to prosecute an individual however misguided his/her opinions might be?

How can we reclaim our freedoms and dignity when oppressive laws like the Internal Security Act and individuals being prosecuted for their opinions still loom over all citizens, casting a chilling pall across society? The concern to overcome terrorists’ threats is adequately covered by many other legislation and there is no need for such archaic and draconian laws. This is especially true when its use has been leveraged more against political opponents than real national threats. Of the hundreds of detainees incarcerated, many were ordinary citizens like teachers, social workers, theatre practitioners and lawyers.

We urge the government this national day to help citizens overcome various injustices, whether economic, social, political or cultural and truly realise the values in our national pledge.

[1] Fruin, R. (1925). “An Unpublished Work of Grotius”, Bibliotheca Visseriana, 5, p61.