On Saturday (23 May), the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) hosted a virtual forum titled “The World has Changed with the Pandemic. Can Singapore?” featuring civil society activist and veteran Constance Singam, playwright Alfian Sa’at, playwright and policy researcher Tan Tarn How, journalist Kirsten Han and party Chairman Dr Paul Tambyah.
During the discussion, Mr Tan, who is an adjunct senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Research (Singapore) and former editor of Straits Times, proposed three ways the country can improve things in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which relate to the question of inequalities and inequities in the country.
Mr Tan noted that these problems are not new; it’s just that the pandemic has brought them into focus.
“Now that it has happened, we are duty bound to solve them,” said the playwright.
Ridding the gross inequality of power between migrant workers and their employers and the government
His first proposal relates to the inequalities faced by the roughly one million low-wage migrant workers in Singapore who work as domestic helpers, cleaners, and construction labour. Specifically, Mr Tan urges the improvement of living conditions for this group; something which the pandemic has shone a light on.
In the beginning of the outbreak at migrant worker dormitories, the unsanitary, cramped, and abysmal living conditions were highlighted by the media as well as migrant workers rights group like Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) which had predicted that such condition would lead to a massive outbreak of COVID-19 among these workers.
The change Mr Tan proposed to address this problem is on a fundamental level. Namely, he proposed that we “get rid of the gross inequality in power between these guest workers and their employers and government”.
He says, “This inequality I believe, lies at the root of many of the problems that has led to the dormitories to become hotbeds of infection.”
Describing what these workers go through, Mr Tan asked listeners to put themselves in the shoes of these workers.
“You borrow that money and you come to work here. At the present moment, what happens is that you can have your work permit summarily taken away at the whim of your boss. So there’s no appeal. And if this happens before you have worked the years needed to pay off your loan, it means that you will be forced to return home with a potentially life burdening debt.”
Mr Tan went on to stress that it is “unjust” to subject any person to this type of situation.
He elaborated, “The workers’ vulnerability also engenders other injustices because he or she is afraid that any attempt to address them or to speak up might end with them on the next flight home.”
“But with more voice and agency for them, the sometimes poor conditions that have been allowed to happen would not have continued, for example.”
He added that we should also not put too much faith in the free market or private sector to solve these problems.
Providing a digital toolkit for all students who need it, no questions asked
Mr Tan’s next suggestion pertained to addressing inequities faced by students from low income families, noting that the pandemic has exposed the fact that many students do not have the means to afford the basic digital toolkit to properly participate in Singapore’s 21st Century education as the government has described it.
This lack of access to a computer and the internet has a snowball effect.
“Poor students with insufficient material and social resources will start primary school behind and will eventually end up even further back by the end of their school years,” said Mr Tan.
When circuit breaker measures came into effect in early April, students around the country transitioned into home-based learning. In doing so, the government has had to “scramble” to find 12,000 laptops and tablets to loan to students who have none, highlighted Mr Tan. Telecommunications companies have also come forward to offer free data connectivity to these students while civil societies like Engineering Good have also stepped up.
On this front, Mr Tan proposes that the Ministry of Education (MOE) must provide these fundamental tools for free. He said:
“The Ministry of Education must provide such fundamental tools and the equally important ancillaries that we must not forget such as software and repair and service for free to all students who need it. For free. And do it with no questions asked. Consider this digital package the basic income equivalent for education.”
Anticipating certain arguments against this proposal, Mr Tan said, “Of course there will be a minority who will abuse it as in any system, right. But we should get rid of the mindset which we often have in Singapore that because of a bad one or two percent of the people, we deny the 89 or 99 percent the benefit that comes from it.”
Mr Tan went on to argue that the government will be able to afford this digital toolkit as it would not add much to the total cost that the government is already spending on education—about 12,000 a year per primary student and 15,000 per secondary student in 2018.
A government pledge that no one should go hungry
Mr Tan’s final proposal is driven by the concern for those who cannot afford to properly feed themselves or their family. His proposal is simply that “no one who is at fault should go hungry in Singapore.”
“In fact, I will say that even if they are at fault, our conscience should not allow us to let them go hungry,” he added.
While some may be surprised that there are people who go hungry in Singapore, Mr Tan said that Channel NewAsia’s feature called “Going hungry in Singapore, a Cheap Food Paradise” illustrates that this is an unfortunate reality which has been exacerbated due to the pandemic, though to a lesser extent than the previously mentioned issues.
He said, “Already in normal times where charities have willing hearts and free food for all to partially fill some of these needs, in COVID times, grassroots efforts have also sprung up and strangely enough, this aspect of inequality has not really surfaced much during the pandemic like other issues.”
Mr Tan’s is most concerned for Singapore’s children, however, seeing as they are more vulnerable as minors and so “we have the additional care of duty towards them”.
Mr Tan proposed that the government and society make a simple pledge that no child would go hungry in this country.
“And in a rich country like us, having enough to eat should not depend on the vagaries of charity and should not entail the indignities often induced from being a recipient of charity or applying for it,” he lamented.
Mr Tan stressed that it is the government’s responsibility, the collective’s responsibility, to preserve each person’s right to an adequate diet, adding that the government will act only if citizens demand it.
He added that the poor should also not be made to go through hoops to get help, especially for basic need, whether it be in providing vouchers, free school lunches or other ideas. On this point, Mr Tan acknowledged his limited expertise in the area.
However, he did note that if this particular problem is as small as the government says it is, then the cost for addressing it should not be too high. Even if it is, we should still do it, says Mr Tan.