Coordinating Among Civil Society to Take Irresponsible Companies to Task

Someone asked me about my opinion about the discriminatory hiring practices by companies and my take on the different approaches that have been taken to address these companies. Below is my response.

From my understanding, most people on all sides understand the strain that overpopulation is causing to Singapore.

I think the debate is over the approach that can be best taken to address overpopulation.

The Government Has Lost Its Effectiveness In Policing Unethical Companies

In the optimal scenario, the government should come out with policies that prevent discriminatory hiring, and actively enforce it. However, this is unlikely to happen under the PAP, who have their own business interests to protect. As such, this optimal scenario can only be achieved by another government – and which is why with this in mind, we should focus on putting in a coalition government at the next general election, made up of various political parties, which would better able represent the interests of the broad spectrum of Singaporeans.

However, in the face of an inactive government, the people have decided to take things into their own hands. Ironically, this episode is healthy for Singaporeans, as it has allowed us to take control and be empowered over how we want to manage issues – because of the PAP government’s unwillingness to tackle the issue, and their subsequent denial of this issue, this has opened up a space for the people to take up the issue.

Civil Society Has Expanded to Fill The Gap In Enforcement

At this point, there are varied approaches. If one might describe the different approaches available, they could be – (1) direct aggressive advocacy against the employers, (2) direct aggressive advocacy against the foreign worker(s), (3) constructive engagement with foreign workers against unethical employers, (4) advocacy to the Ministry of Manpower on policing unethical employers, (5) refocusing the issue into advocating for a change of government to implement effective policies to prevent discriminatory hiring.

Personally, I’ve taken the last approach – to advocate for a change of government. On each of the other approaches, my concern is mainly this – (1) do we understand the short and long term repercussions of the approaches we adopt and (2) do we understand how our approaches fit into the longer term aim – of a change of government, without disrupting the transition into a “better” government, which I define as one that is socially fairer and responsible.

The Differential Effectiveness Of Civil Society

The truth is some activists have worked on this issue for a longer time and understand the value that cooperation can work for them. For example, because of how Jolovan Wham and the other activists, such as Lynn Lee, who had rallied in support of the SMRT bus drivers from China, this has garnered international attention, and support against the discriminatory practices and which has also resulted in the other SMRT bus drivers receiving higher wages. Also, this has caused the SMRT to sit up, and which is why they had started hiring ex-military men, in an effort to regain control over the organization.

If we compare Gilbert Goh’s approach, thus far, the international media have refrained from showing their support – to the protests against the Singapore Population White Paper released earlier this year – because despite the number of assurances that Gilbert has given, the media is unconvinced that the approach that Gilbert has taken is not “xenophobic”. The issue here is because Gilbert’s protest might have started on a wrong foot. When the white paper was released earlier this year, many Singaporeans were taken aback – their initial reaction was one of misdirected anger. As such, the first protest held against the white paper has thus set the tone of the movement, which has been difficult to erase now.

I believe that Gilbert has evolved his approach over the past few months. He has some understanding of the implications that discriminatory attitudes towards foreigners can have. Gilbert is also very aware of the need for support, and thus is aware of the need to find balance his approach. However, because of the support that he has managed to garner among a population which still contains significant anger, he has to work with the energy generated from there as well.

Seeing The Pros Of the Different Approaches

If I were to weighed in, I believe that there’s a need to respect Jolovan’s approach, one that has been refined for many years working on the issues of migrant workers, and in engaging with the organisations that concern themselves with labour issues. He is very aware of how we can collaborate with the disadvantaged – in this instance, the foreign workers themselves – to gain an upper hand. He is also aware of the long term implications.

However, Gilbert and The Real Singapore (TRS) have also recently developed an unique approach of shaming the companies into admission of their mistakes in hiring practices. One can argue that this has worked to some extent. The companies shamed have admitted their wrongdoings and have apologized. For a long time, we have been shy to embarrass companies because of the government’s unwillingness to “show disrespect” to the companies. Gilbert and TRS’s approach thus aim to circumvent such an imbalance between the company and the worker.

I do think that their approach can be further refined though. When I first saw the emails to the companies at hand, from an outsider reading the emails, I did find the emails threatening, partially because of the anger that have built up, which have found their way into the communication. I do think that if Gilbert and TRS could take a tone that is less confrontational but one which is affirmative and serious, it will allow them to gain further credibility and become an informal movement towards which they would be able to “regulate” the companies – a role which the government or unions should rightfully do, but have been ineffective in doing so.

Moving Towards A Coordinated Movement

At this point, the various approaches towards managing unethical hiring practices have developed because of the ineffectiveness of the PAP government in dealing with this issue. As such, it is understandable that when Singaporeans weren’t able to rally to the government to take up the issue, they have decided to develop their own ways of handling this matter.

It is also understandable why people adopting the different approaches might be uncomfortable with the alternatives to theirs. They each have different motivations and different understandings of where the different approaches can lead to, and thus have their own fears, which are real.

Moving forward, we need to move away fearing the different approaches being adopted and prejudicing the de facto leaders of the approaches and the overall movement. If we could get everyone together, we would be able to tap on one another’s strengths to strengthen our approaches, and as I’ve explained, there are strengths on both sides.

I think Gilbert and TRS might very soon be maturing in their approach, as they realise a niche area that they can develop in – on acting as an informal enforcement against wayward companies. If we were to move away from looking at the personalities involved, to looking at the tools we have developed, and if guidance or assistance can be given to Gilbert and TRS, we might be able to effectively and responsibly manage this new tool that is starting to show promise – on taking unethical companies to task.

At is point, I see merit in all approaches, and I also understand the viewpoints on all sides. But we need to set aside our egos and our different perspectives, to find common ground, so that we can coordinate among the different approaches. Gilbert has signalled that he would like to continue maintaining the relationship with the others involved, and I hope that he could use the opportunity and shared experiences to help him build more momentum and strengthen his current standing.


  1. Harvey

    I fully agree with you, Roy.. It is important that someone has a helicopter view and keep the overall goal in mind. The goal – removal of PAP. But Roy, there is a need to convince naysayers that Singapore would collapse without PAP. Many people have already been brainwashed and think that there is no suitable leader outside PAP or that opposition is too weak to make it. Can this spell be broken? How do you convince the masses that we need to get rid of PAP?

  2. Harvey

    I think an important issue with trust in the government is the opaqueness of GIC and Temasek and their handling of our reserves and CPF. So far, many including you only manage to scratch it superficially. Only Christopher Baldings has probed deeper. Can Leong Sze Han or Tan Jee Say go further? I believe this is key to breaking the trust on PAP.

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