Election campaigning has kicked off, injecting excitement into the lives of Singaporeans well bored by months of movement restrictions since a second wave of COVID-19 hits our shores. Although physical rallies are not allowed, the interest to tune into live debates and political broadcasts remain high as before. Some things do not change with this pandemic – people are still yearning to be part of this national event that occurs every three to five years.
Some things should change however, and that is way politicians talk about their plans for the future as well as the way they rebut criticisms.
As public figures, politicians hold the potential of influencing the attitudes and behaviours of their audience, especially during an event of high excitement like a Parliamentary election. Admittedly, one will be unrealistic to expect absolutely no populist statements or slogans that will linger around for the next few years, sometimes annoyingly out of context.
However, it is time we reexamine the way we talk about the important issues which concerns Singaporeans, one of it being employment.
“The best form of welfare is a job. No amount of unemployment benefits can compensate for that.”
First of all, it is incorrect to declare that the best form of welfare is a job and that no amount of unemployment benefits can compensate for that. Employment enables a self-sustainable and meaningful life. It is also a way to contribute to the society and the world in which we live in. Employment is not welfare.
Secondly, and unfortunately, in a society that has yet achieved the level of inclusiveness in employment policies and practices, there exist individuals who are unable to find long term and gainful employment that comes with a sustainable wage. They include people with disabilities, homemakers who would like to reenter the employment market, school dropouts, former prison inmates, newly retrenched factory workers in their late 40s and 50s, as well as some transgender people.
We also live in a world where our roles are valued with a set of capital-based lens. Consequently, some occupations are paid lesser than others, due to the notion that their skills and roles may not bring in as much profit to their employers as others.
In view of the increasing cost of living, there is a need to establish safety nets to ensure that no one falls beyond the margins. Some of these measures include the establishment of a national minimum wage tied to the cost of living, a living wage for those who are in the process of seeking employment, income protection or retrenchment benefits, universal healthcare, and a good pension scheme.
All of these should be made available for all Singaporeans, Permanent Residents, and documented workers. These safety nets are part of welfare; and in many developed countries, welfare is crucial to the functioning of society because it is about investing in people who will then contribute to the economy.
In short, rather than causing mass disempowerment among the unemployed and low-waged workers using the gospel that welfare comes in the form of a job, the way arguments are framed by politicians in these conversations is important.
These conversations should be about how they intend to improve laws and establish safety nets around employment and unemployment so that the very basic need of living with dignity can be upheld, instead of inculcating the mindset that one should be grateful for just having a job regardless of what the wage and working conditions may be.
The migrants vs. Singaporeans debate
There is another conversation which occurs with great intensity at every Parliamentary election, and that is the unemployment rate of citizens.
While this is undoubtedly a crucial conversation, there is a fine line between talking about protecting jobs and being complicit in fostering ill sentiments against migrants who are already residing and working in Singapore. The former is crucial, and the latter comes with regressive and harmful implications.
We can, and should, be better than this. There are ways to engage in these conversations without using harmful or regressive language. Instead, let us talk about equal wage conditions regardless of nationalities, and point out flaws in the current set of laws that allows for some employers to employ migrants at an undignified wage which leads to the suppression of wages for all working people.
Singapore should strive to be a progressive and inclusive society, and part of what it takes to achieve this is political education and advocacy. Although the election campaign only lasts for nine days, every speech and debate functions to influence how political discourses are being discussed and acted upon.
When politicians repeatedly use lines such as “foreign workers are taking our jobs” and “it is time to stop employing foreigners”, it affirms the already growing negative sentiments about migrant workers, especially the PMETS (professionals, managers, executives, and technicians). This creates a harmful impression that it is perfectly fine to harbour and express discrimination against these migrant workers for their existence in Singapore, both directly and indirectly.
Such a divisive manner of framing the issue also alienates migrants who are already working and contributing to Singapore’s economy. They do not deserve such discrimination and alienation.
Ultimately, we must remember that the language of solidarity is one that closes the inequality gap between different groups of people. It is not one that pits a group against another, whether intentionally or otherwise.
As we have a few more days left to the end of the period of campaigning, it is never too late for politicians from all parties to reflect on the way they choose to discuss issues of public interest, and adjust their language to accurately reflect their solidarity with all working people – regardless of race, language, religion, sexual orientation or preferences, gender, age, abilities, and nationalities.