GE102: ‘Aliens’ and the Singapore Matrix

Our uncle and our housewife aunty in the HDB are leaping with joy, they never imagined radio and television license fees can actually be scrapped and they are getting a refund for what they pay in this election year! They have always been so absorbed in soap opera because local news are more plastic and boring and they have lost touch with the bigger world out there, they don’t understand what it means by whatever changes in ‘economic’ or ‘demographic’ ‘structure’ that Singapore is going through. They just assume the elite technocrats have everything under control, they feel assured whenever they hear that thing called GDP is growing at a good figure (double-digit!), but whatever beyond that is rocket science to them and not their business.

Time to take the red pill without the sugarcoating and see a different reality of the Singapore matrix, beyond those sunny pictures on a tourism brochure. The great machinery of economy seems to keep running and running in the island nation, as there are always some major investment items thrown into the furnace to feed it (last year for example we had the YOG – do notice I am not using the word ‘burn’ here, I heard it’s very sensitive). The logic apparently is for foreigners to spend money here (just don’t ask the minister in MCYS about overspending). Therefore we had to mobilise all our school kids to welcome them.

But wait a minute, foreigners are not just invited to visit for a week or two, many seem to be staying for good – we have in fact 40% population of foreigners as of 2010, more than any other developed country in the world! (Compare Canada, Australia, New Zealand with around 22%, UK and US much lesser). They seem to be placed everywhere: you have bus-drivers from China who don’t speak a word of English, you also have doctors from China who need translators, and starting this year, New Zealand and Australian architects can register here while foreign lawyers can practise commercial law here. It looks as though Singapore is mutating into a G.O.A.T. – government-owned alien territory, while we all just gawk silently as sheep and lamb. What is happening? If economy is the reason, what is the logic or the plan?

2) Citizens as First Customers (not just an economy on full steam that leaves the masses behind)

That is where we may need opposition parties such as SDP to ask for judicious control of workers into the country; the shadow budget unveiled by Dr Vincent Wijeysingha includes a Singaporeans First Policy requiring businesses to demonstrate that skills are not available among Singaporeans before employing non-Singaporeans. In fact the very structure of the economy has also been called into question. The current government has adopted the manufacturing sector as an ‘engine of growth’ to be retained at 20 to 25% of the economy, but it is a sector deemed unsustainable in a paper by Tan Jee Say, the SDP candidate who used to work under DPM Goh.

Now MM Lee just said Singapore needs 900,000 foreign workers because they do construction and other heavy work that “Singaporeans are not willing to do” – but how exactly do these industries benefit us when Singaporeans are not employed? And are Singaporeans not willing to work as architects or lawyers? He cited the embracing of foreign talents as a “reason for the success of Silicon Valley where new ideas sprout up”… Now wait a minute, the logic is breaking up here, do we need foreign bus-drivers who are more innovative in driving and foreign lawyers who are more creative in interpreting the law? All I get is this beautiful picture painted of an old man planting a money tree for us all, in fact I have this picture that 40% of Singapore is being converted into a money tree farm with foreigners working on it, but somebody just tell me: What exactly do I get out of all this?

The engines of economy keep rumbling and trudging on in Singapore, but somehow people just seem to be left behind, thrown off down the tracks. Go read the account of this ex-NUS graduate who has called himself “a failed product of our meritocratic educational system”. Unlike lucky people in a ministry who get to work in air-conditioned offices with new ergonomic chairs, ‘career’ for people like him in the past decade has just felt as precarious as construction workers sitting in an open lorry on a bumpy road. Let’s understand it is not that we should fan hatred against foreigners, no, that is not the right direction to go. The issue with foreign workers or talents should indeed not be the “unfamiliarity with their diverse accents and habits”, as President Nathan cited, but how exactly have they “made our lives better”? Some historical or social contexts are simply missing when he said one should welcome foreigners and new citizens into one’s midst “as our ancestors were welcomed in days gone by”. (Maybe he was just addressing the Indian context, but imagine a dirty old Chinese man applying the same argument: he might divorce his wife or just take in a Chinese masseuse as mistress, then tell his son: “show some respect, don’t forget even your grandmother came from China!” Imagine the social problem when we are indiscriminate!)

It is not simply about the status of foreigners here. What touches a raw nerve will actually be the status of us all as citizens here. Say, do our men enjoy privileges as citizens for going through the army, or do we actually lose competitiveness in the job market as we have to do national service each year? Can we as citizens demand the right to work, or how about we demand the right not to work and just get unemployment benefits like in Europe? That is probably inconceivable of course, and what the opposition parties are asking for instead, is what MP Low Thia Khiang, party chief of WP, raised in the parliament in January: a minimum-wage policy. This is something which exists in more than 90% of all countries, even Malaysia is having a minimum wage model, yet PAP’s candidate Josephine Teo said that would make companies close shop and she is now again dismissing it and claiming Workfare schemes as a better alternative. Workfare has in fact been criticised elsewhere for lending itself to stigmatisation and exploitation. But eager to prevent minimum wage from being made an election issue, she now calls the issue ‘leng fan’ (cold rice).

Well I do hope PAP’s female voice Josephine Teo didn’t spend too much on her Mandarin coaching if she indeed hired some help from China just to impress the voters, for that word is not going to go down well with low-income families who find basic necessities like rice too expensive with 7% GST attached. By the way, it is really funny how that Channel News Asia report calls her the “labour movement’s Assistant Secretary-General”. Isn’t NTUC just the supermarket chain that make our neighbourhood provision shops close shop? Making our SMEs competitive?

Dear friends, time to tell your uncles and aunties: there are always other places to do shopping!

(to be continued)

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