On 15 May, CAPE and the Singapore Policy Journal hosted a forum titled “What are the ‘sacred cows’ that the outbreak of COVID-19 in Singapore has exposed and challenged?” about how the nation might emerge from this pandemic more resilient and equitable.
The discussion featured Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Associate Professor Walter Theseira, sociologist Professor Chua Beng Huat, former NMP Viswa Sadasivan, Associate Professor of Law at Singapore Management University and former NMP Prof Eugene Tan Kheng Boon and National University of Singapore adjunct professor and veteran architect Prof Tay Kheng Soon.
The question the five panellists dove into was the “sacred cows” in Singapore—meaning ideas, customs or institutions that are held to be above criticism—and the values that underpin the current system that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to reconsider.
Each of them offered several points, starting with Prof Chua who highlighted Singapore’s dependence on foreign labour which started around the mid-1970s.
Prof Chua explained, “We have been very dependent on them because they were cheap and not only that, they are transient,” adding that Singapore doesn’t allow them any rights that might be attached to the idea of permanent residency or citizenship.
Attached to that is also the problem of wages in Singapore being kept very low for low-skilled Singaporean workers. The professor estimated that this perpetuates poverty in Singapore with about 20 percent of Singaporeans living below the poverty line and about five to six percent living in abject poverty.
Connecting the two, Prof Chua said that the foreign worker issue is not just about foreign workers. He said: “It’s also about how it impacts on our low income workers and how we have been, in fact, ill-treating our own citizens for the last 40 years since middle 1970s.”
Prof Chua went on to suggest that one reason for this is the government’s “fear” of social responsibility becoming a burden on the state. This is indicative in the welfare system here which is largely based on voluntary services that the government willingly provides assistance to but doesn’t take on the actual responsibility because it fears “entitlement issues”, said the professor.
Prof Chua said, “So the idea is if you give them, if you give the needy what they need as part of their welfare rights, they begin to feel entitled and therefore become dependent on the state for the responsibility.”
On that same note, Prof Tan later agreed that the pandemic has thrown into stark relief the fault lines of society. He too agreed that the country is “addicted” to cheap transient labour. More specifically, Prof Tan raised his concern that Singapore might not use this crisis as an opportunity learn from its mistakes when it comes to the migrant labour force.
Referring to the Little India riots of 2013 as an example, Prof Tan said, “We don’t seem to have learned much from the Little India riot and I think when you look at what’s happening in the dorms, I think it does suggest that we still have a long way to go.”
Chiming in, Prof Tay asserted that the pandemic has force society to rethink the basic assumptions of Singapore. The veteran architect noted that the “cheap labour basis” of Singapore’s economy over the last four decades has been premised on the role of Singapore as an “important link” in the global supply chain and that it has to keep servicing this role, even at the cost social responsibility and protection.
One way to solve this issue is by figuring out how to regionalise Singapore’s economy, offered Mr Tay, as the country has long been too reliant on the global economy which is now stalling as a result of the pandemic. Regionalisation of the economy is crucial, he said.
Similarly, Mr Sadasivan added later that one of fundamental changes that Singapore needs to make is doing away with the country’s economic growth model that is based on rewarding capital instead of wages.
Highlighting the 2009 Economic Strategies Committee chaired by then-Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam which had identified the need to reduce dependence on foreign labour, Mr Sadasivan said this hasn’t changed.
There are close to 1.5 million foreign workers in Singapore now, says the ex-NMP, which makes up a huge part of Singapore’s population, therefore making them a part of Singapore society. However, this part of society is “dislocated”.
Mr Sadasivan stressed that this model cannot be sustained in the long run.
If Singapore continues on its current model, the country’s reliance on foreign labour will continue to increase, said Mr Sadasivan, describing it as an “untenable” situation.
Watch the full discussion here: