My wonderful Kiwi partner, Schmoochie, was sent to Singapore for a job that was supposed to have lasted only ‘a few weeks’ but is now going on Month Two, with another five weeks to go. Needless to say, this didn’t make me too happy. But his company did fly me to Singapore so we can spend a fortnight together. Which sounds nice in theory, but in reality means that while he’s working incredibly long hours, I wander around the streets and shops until I can’t stand the crushing heat and humidity before fleeing back to the refuge of our air-conditioned hotel to nurse my sunburns. I arrived right smack in the middle of elections in Singapore, however, which makes being here a lot more interesting for a political junky such as myself.
Singapore itself is mesmerizing, on so many levels. At night, it has an almost Blade Runner quality – the noise, the crowds, the noise, colossal video billboards and buildings pulsating with multi-colored lights, the gorgeous women in gorgeous clothing, the noise, the enormous variety of food on offer, and have I mentioned the sheer bloody noise? The city IS the country, five million people – 40 percent of whom are foreigners – all crammed into a tiny island where the only place to build is up, and up, and UP. The skyline bristles with skyscrapers and hundreds of cranes building more skyscrapers, with tiny pockets of surviving Buddhist temples and three storey art deco shophouses with their covered arcades dwarfed in a forest of reinforced concrete and glass. The majority of people are Chinese, Malay, Tamil, or Indian – or a marvelous interracial mixture of everything – and for the first time in my life I’m the distinct minority; my blonde hair and Schmoochie’s blue eyes stand out like beacons. Shopping is a national sport of Olympian proportion. Television, like television anywhere, is pretty crappy, but the advertisements are sheer genius – I could sit for hours just watching the ads. I suspect a lot of people do. Singapore is capitalism on amphetamines.
But Singapore has a dark side that has had more than a bit of uncomfortable exposure lately with a highly contentious election. Tens of thousands of opposition supporters held rallies in the weeks leading up to the election, far more than the ruling People's Action Party's (PAP), and this was the most intensely fought election since Singapore gained independence from Malaysia in 1965. To an outsider, it all seemed on the surface a fairly pointless exercise in futility, as it wasn’t likely the PAP would lose their majority no matter how pissed off the public has become; the opposition was divided into six small parties all battling each other as well as the massively superior resources of the PAP, and in a first-past-the-post electoral system none of them had much of a chance.
But the simmering anger against the government had become so palpable, and so alarming (the example of Egypt being mentioned more than once in conversations here), that four days before the election Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong felt compelled to issue an apology to voters for the government’s unpopular policies and political gaffes, the rising cost of living and very lopsided economy since the last election in 2006, and promised changes would be made if his government was given a new mandate. Even with a system pretty much rigged to support the ruling party, the PAP lost in a nearly six and a half percent swing, down to a majority of slightly over 60%, the lowest since Singapore’s independence. The opposition Worker’s Party managed to gain six seats in Parliament, taking two hotly contested seats, in an unprecedented gain while its rival opposition parties gained no seats at all despite their own higher share of the vote percentages. Singapore is on the brink of an emerging two-party political system, something that could eventually bring down the PAP in future elections.
But why should Americans care what happens in Singapore? Other than because it’s fascinating, it mirrors concerns a lot of Americans have now – the economy.
On the one hand, Singapore has benefits most Americans can only dream of – universal health care, government subsidized housing, a superb and affordable educational system, a fast, clean and efficient public transport system second to none. Singaporeans, despite their intensely urban environment, are eco-conscious. Recycling bins for plastic, glass and paper are practically on every street corner, littering is almost unheard of. Every food market offers reusable fabric carry bags with a logo of a tree and the blurb ‘Love Nature’. I bought a pair of lovely chopsticks, and when I turned down the offer of a plastic bag, the shop assistant – with absolutely no irony whatsoever – said, ‘thank you for helping to save our planet.’ Over the past few years, the Singaporean government has paid out $2 billion dollars to motorists who have scrapped their cars, offering either cash or tax credits on another vehicle. With the CEO (Certificate of Entitlement) at an all-time high, eight out of ten motorists have opted for taking the cash, and switched from cars to public transport. There’s a lot to like about Singapore.
Yes, laws here can be draconian, particularly those dealing with drugs, and Singapore’s execution rate is the highest per capita in the world. The biggest form of civil disobedience seems to be jaywalking and teenaged skateboarders cursing each other in an amusingly vulgar form of ‘Singlish’ that makes old ladies tsk disapprovingly as they walk by. Compare that to the United States, where since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, nearly 1200 people, including children and the mentally ill, have been executed, and in states where it is most frequently used, particularly in heavily Republican southern states, the murder rate outstrips those states where the death penalty is outlawed. One has nothing to do with the other. But by and large, Singapore is a safe and friendly place – not because its laws are so harsh, but because the culture is by necessity tolerant – with such a hugely diverse racial and religious population, it simply couldn’t survive with the sort of hatred and bigotry fostered by the American rightwing. People here are just… nice to each other.
On the other hand, I had a glimpse of what America could so easily become this morning, as I looked down into the construction site of a high rise being built across the street from our hotel. I was genuinely shocked to see a half dozen or so men sleeping on mats spread out on the bare concrete, their washing drying on a staircase railing, yellow hardhats used as pillows. In the evening, many of them can be found sitting on the curbs of the street in whatever shade they can find, nursing bottles of Coke or lime juice, looking tired and defeated. These are the lucky ones – they have jobs.
Despite claims that Singapore’s unemployment rate has declined to 2.7 percent, the ‘lowest’ in three years, the Manpower Ministry has only one category it takes into account to formulate its statistics, that of a ‘resident workforce’ which includes both Singapore citizens and foreign workers lumped together – workers like Schmoochie who doesn’t actually live in Singapore, but has a temporary work permit while he’s here. In comparison, a survey conducted by the Global Competitiveness Report showed that out of 59 countries surveyed, Singapore ranked 56th, with only Russia, the Ukraine and Ecuador paying their workers less than Singapore. The gap between rich and poor here is very stark indeed.
One of the big issues in this past election has been minimum wage. Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first and longest serving Prime Minister for three decades, has continuously maintained that a minimum wage would cut employment by undermining the competitiveness of the economy, that ‘market forces’ should determine the wages for workers – a view shared by his ideological counterparts in the US Congress.
Like the vote for women, the first country in the world to establish a minimum wage for workers, I’m rather tickled to say, is little ol’ New Zealand, way back in 1896, followed by Australia in 1899 and the UK in 1909. Today, ninety percent of the world’s countries has a minimum wage law to protect their lowest earning workers. The US didn’t catch up with modern progress until 1938, and today Republicans are pushing for a repeal of the minimum wage. Chris Dudley (R) of Oregon has even stated he wants to abolish minimum wage because – get this – waitresses are making ‘too much money’. At $7.25 an hour, before taxes, just how rich does Mr Dudley imagine these waitresses could possibly be getting? Meanwhile, other Asian countries already have or are taking the extraordinary step of establishing a minimum wage – Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam, fercryinoutloud, even Communist China all have a minimum wage. But not Singapore.
Curiously, this used to be something the Singapore government was openly quite proud of, spinning the lack of worker’s protection as a ‘flexible wage system’ where ‘all businesses are encouraged to reward employees and adjust wages according to how the business performs. This helps to motivate employees and at the same time gives businesses the flexibility to make quick adjustments to wages during a sudden downturn and avoid retrenchment.’ And the lack of a minimum wage, rather than exploiting these ‘motivated’ employees, left them ‘free to negotiate salaries and salary increases with your employer.’ Yeah, right.
I tested out that theory. I interviewed someone whose identity I have to be careful to protect, one of the few workers in the so-called ‘service industry’ here who was brave enough to even speak to me. The Singapore Democrats have proposed a minimum wage of $6.80 per hour, based on a weekly salary of $300, the least amount necessary for an individual to subsist in Singapore, with a 44 hour work week, for the lowest of low-wage income earners. Currently, at ten hours a day, six days a week, her salary works out to around $3.00 an hour. She has worked in the same job for six years, and only ever had one cost of living raise, a few pennies – and if her employers caught her telling anyone how much they pay her, she would be immediately sacked. It’s even in her contract that she is not allowed to reveal which political party she voted for. She would love to find another job that would pay better, but there just aren’t many available for low-skilled workers in the service industry. So much for being ‘motivated’, or ‘free to negotiate’ a salary increase.
Moreover, she was able to enlighten me about the circumstances of the men sleeping on a concrete building site – low-skilled and badly paid foreign workers are supposed to have subsidized housing at a reasonable rate available to them by their employers, but these workers are routinely brought into the country by corrupt ‘employment agencies’ who charge them extortionary fees, leaving them nearly penniless, much like Depression era migrant workers forced to shop at the company stores and ending up not only broke but in perpetual debt. These workers end up renting out their housing and sleeping rough in order to send what little money they save home to their families. But not all of these workers are migrants – many of them are Singaporean citizens struggling to survive, much like the woman I spoke to, who works long hours for low pay in the hopes that her children can excel in school, find a good job, and avoid their mother’s fate. But many young people here are looking at a very shaky global economy, and worried about their futures – fear all too many companies have exploited to keep wages down and workers cowed, with the blessing of the government.
This sort of ‘motivation’ is dehumanizing and shameful. And a stark cautionary warning what America could look like – again – if we lose our most basic of workers’ protections to the Republican union busters and corporate whores that fill up far too many seats in Congress. But unlike America, voting in Singapore is mandatory, and this time around, a good number of those low-income voters were very, very angry. It will be some time before elections ever oust the entrenched politicians of the PAP, but the power structure here has had a thorough shake-up – as well as businesses whose fear that a minimum wage could drive down their profits is beginning to be outweighed by the observation that higher wages means workers are not only able to spend more, the productivity of the local work force increases when workers aren’t exhausted by long hours, or forced to take on second or third jobs. Paying workers a decent wage is actually good for business. Even Communist China has proven the argument against a minimum wage to be fallacious: Shanghai, Guangzhou and Suzhou all have minimum wage law, while investment continues to rise and the Chinese GDP is up by nearly 10%. Let’s hope more prosperous Singapore is watching their neighbors closely.
Only a handful of countries have no laws or regulations on minimum wage – Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Tonga, Brunei, Somalia... and Singapore. Not exactly the best company to be in, should the US chose to rescind our own minimum wage laws. But given the anger with the Singaporean government’s ineptitude, or worse, sheer heartlessness, in addressing the income divide in Singapore, where workers on the bottom of the economic ladder face crippling financial burdens, popular support for a minimum wage is growing. It will be very interesting to watch the new ‘old’ Singapore government to see how well they live up to their promises of redressing their mistakes, and listening to the people – ALL the people – of Singapore. I, for one, hope the people of Singapore succeed, for if they do, then so might we.