Australian Federal Senator reveals in Parliament the “tragic underbelly” of Singapore’s prosperity, Singaporean social worker Jolovan Wham’s efforts in championing migrant workers’ rights

There is a “tragic underbelly” in Singapore amidst the Republic’s economic prosperity, said Labour Party Senator for Tasmania and Chief Opposition Whip in the Senate Mrs Anne Urquhart, and that is “the plight of the one million low-wage migrant workers” hailing from “developing countries across Asia”.

Speaking in the House of Senate in the Australian Parliament on 13 Nov, Senator Urquhart spoke in detail regarding the abuse and exploitation faced by low-wage migrant workers in Singapore, much of which was previously narrated to her by Singaporean social worker and former executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) Jolovan Wham during his visit to Australia several weeks prior to her speech.

Lawyer and political dissident Teo Soh Lung shared a video of Senator Urquhart’s speech in Parliament with the following commentary via Facebook on Sunday (2 Dec): “Though Australia’s parliament like ours may be empty, the speech is available to the world and in their Hansard.”


Senator Urquhart recalled in her speech: “A few weeks ago I met a Singaporean man, Jolovan Wham—or, as he introduced himself, Jo—who was in Australia as a guest of United Voice, Amnesty International and the SEARCH Foundation.

“Jo came to Australia to share his story and advocate on behalf of one million low-wage migrant workers who contribute so much to Singapore’s economy and society. During his visit, Jo met with a range of politicians from across political parties, as well as civil society organisations, NGOs and unions, including Union Aid Abroad, Unions NSW and the Maritime Union of Australia,” she elaborated.

She expressed her shock at some of Mr Wham’s accounts “on the lack of freedom of expression and assembly in Singapore and the lack of labour rights for migrant workers”, stating that such accounts “were truly horrifying.” 

Migrant workers, she illustrated, “face numerous problems arising from lack of social protection, including debts owed to recruitment agencies, sometimes as high as $15,000; restrictions on movement; and confiscation of passports”.

Senator Urquhart added that low-wage migrant workers in Singapore “experience long working hours and physical, verbal and sexual abuse.”

“The 240,000 female foreign domestic workers are excluded from the Employment Act, which means that they don’t get mandatory days off, public holidays, annual leave or limits on their working hours. Domestic workers are also subjected to compulsory six-monthly pregnancy tests,” she said.

“When we think of Singapore, we think of a small South-East Asian island state that has been a dynamic tiger economy for the past 40 years. Singapore is Australia’s seventh-largest trading partner and fifth-largest foreign investor. Twenty thousand Australians call Singapore home. The attractiveness of Singapore for many Australian firms is as a tax haven—some Australian companies, like BHP, access concessionary corporate tax rates of just five per cent as a so-called marketing hub for their coal.

“Behind the glitz of the corporate world, there is a tragic underbelly in Singapore: the plight of the one million low-wage migrant workers. These workers hail from developing countries across Asia, such as India, Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia,” she lamented.

Senator Urquhart added: “They have travelled to Singapore seeking a chance to make some money to remit to their families. They make up 30 per cent of the Singapore labour force and they’re in Singapore on precarious one- or two-year visas, which can be cancelled by their employer at any time without showing cause.”

She underlined the importance of the low-wage migrant workers in Singapore’s economy, which further adds to why the inhumane treatment they frequently receive is not justified.

“The one million low-wage migrant workers are crucial to most economic sectors, particularly construction, domestic work, manufacturing, retail services, cleaning and transport, such as buses,” stressed Senator Urquhart.

She also drew attention to the fact that “Singapore does not”, currently, “have minimum-wage legislation,” and as a result, “it is not uncommon for migrant workers to be paid as little as $2 per hour, even though Singapore is one of the richest countries, per capita, in the world.”

Senator Urquhart argued that “without minimum-wage legislation, wage discrimination by nationality is endemic across industries, with migrants paid significantly less than Singaporeans for similar jobs.”

“Unfortunately, there are virtually no independent unions in Singapore, and strikes are essentially not practised. The most recent strike by 100 migrant bus drivers resulted in the deportation of 29 workers, the jailing of four workers, reports of assault in police custody of two workers and reports of surveillance and intimidation of the workers and supporting activists by state intelligence services,” she stressed.

Singapore government’s suppression of civil rights not limited to workers’ rights; “freedom of expression and assembly are severely curtailed”: Senator Urquhart

Citing Mr Wham’s case, in which he was found guilty of scandalising the judiciary after making a comparison between Malaysian judges and their Singaporean counterparts for cases with political implications, Senator Urquhart also raised a point about the Singapore government’s apparent suppression of the rights of citizens to exercise “freedom of expression and assembly”.

“He faces a maximum fine of $100,000 for this offence—for one Facebook post of a basic opinion,” she said, highlighting the absurdity of the situation.

Senator Urquhart added that Mr Wham had also been charged for “organising a public talk without a permit; organising a tiny protest on a train to commemorate the 30th anniversary of a security crackdown; organising a small public vigil outside a prison complex for a man who was to be executed the next day; and failing to sign police statements, because he wasn’t given a copy of those said statements.”

Touching on the pieces of legislation that are often used to curtail freedom of speech in Singapore, she spoke about how the Singapore government “uses the Public Order Act, the Sedition Act, the Broadcasting Act, the Penal Code and laws on criminal contempt of court to silence dissidents.”

“Opposition parliamentarians face the threat of legal suits from the government and its members. In the past, this has bankrupted politicians, preventing them from running for election. Currently, the only opposition members of parliament face a suit in the courts which has already cost $600,000 in legal fees and in which authorities are seeking $30 million in damages,” said Senator Urquhart, in reference to the three Workers’ Party Members of Parliament who are being sued by the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council and the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council over alleged “improper payments” made using their capacity as AHTC town councillors. 

She added that “Singapore’s Public Order Act requires a police permit for any cause-related assembly if it is held in a public place, but such permits are routinely denied unless it is held at the government sanctioned space known as Speakers’ Corner.”

“Remarkably, the definition of an assembly includes one person acting alone,” said Senator Urquhart, possibly in reference to artist Seelan Palay’s conviction over his solo performance art piece at Hong Lim Park.

She highlighted that freedom of expression and assembly and the rights of low-wage migrant workers are not inseparable, and that it is “vital” for her fellow Australian parliamentarians to “call out our friends when their behaviour is not up to scratch.”

“It is vital that, in seeking to defend the rights of migrant workers in our country, we defend the rights of migrant workers across our region. It is vital that, in pursuing our democratic project in Australia, we share strong values of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly with our friends.

“Of course, without freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, there is little that people in Singapore can do to activate large-scale change in support of migrant workers.

“I thank Jo Wham for visiting Australia and sharing his story, for sharing the work of the incredible people at HOME and for shining a light on the tragic underbelly in Singapore—the plight of the one million low-paid migrant workers,” concluded Senator Urquhart.

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