I was interviewed by Dr Kieran James, a Professor in Accounting at University of Fiji Saweni, for the blog Joo Chiat Road Online. Below is an excerpt of the interview.
Question: What do you think of the tone and content of the anti-foreigner discourses going on in Singapore at the moment among opposition supporters?
It is unfortunate that the tone of the debate have shifted to one that has become increasingly unfriendly. By and large, Singaporeans are a friendly and caring populace.
However, the collision of the social effects of several policies have led to the immense built-up of the anger among Singaporeans, which have spilled over into the larger social discourse.
First, the inability of Singaporeans to effectively participate in devising solutions for national policies has created a populace that feels increasingly disempowered. The discourse has thus degenerated towards one of mud-slinging and has created a “complaining” culture where in the lack of opportunity to effectively voice out solutions, we have allowed ourselves to enmesh our solutions into disempowered complaining. The adverse effects of a “complaining” culture are such that it has created a lot of pent up frustration. How much longer can you keep the lid on, when the anger is boiling within?
Second, a continuous stream of policies which had not been well-thought through and implemented have led to crippling effects in society, and have further fuelled the anger. The consistency in the PAP’s policies has been to the effect of increasing the profit margins, such that fewer housing was being built, so that the lack of supply could be justified to push prices up. Also, in an attempt to save on cost, the amount of investment to maintain the MRT tracks and drainage system dwindled, which resulted in poorer infrastructure quality. At the same time, there was a lack of financial investment to prepare for the sudden inflow of people into the country, which also means that the health system couldn’t catch up and had to undergo several rounds of restructuring, without any immediate impact, as long as the financial investment necessary to boost capacity isn’t there. Finally, the focus towards a low-cost economy has created a huge service sector, which also means that the education system has churned out workers which did not meet the needs of the current economic model. Singaporeans thus became disadvantaged by the system because the service industry would not yet restructure to pay higher wages to Singaporeans, and the segment of the worker population which had to compete with global talents for PMET jobs mean that this segment of Singaporeans were losing out as well.
However, statistically, all continue to look well in the books. However, the frustrations that Singaporeans are truly feeling from the ground are not something that the fudging of statistics can cover up with. As such, the current anti-foreigner sentiment that has arisen is a response to the lack of jobs, and well-paying jobs that Singaporeans are facing. Faced with a loss of jobs, the immediate attention that Singaporeans would focus on would be on foreigners, as the loss of their job to a foreigner would be the most visual impact of that loss. Also, around the world, it is as yet still “politically-correct” for people to be anti-foreigner since governments have yet to respond in an effective way to mediate these negative sentiments.
However, if one were to understand the sociopolitical background of Singapore, it would be easy to understand that the real unhappiness has arisen due to low wages and wages which had been depressed, and the lack of effective anti-discriminatory policies to protect workers from being unfairly replaced. The lack of an ability to adequately voice out for policy change, and the poor structural quality and capacity has only further compounded the issue. Finally, the underlying knowledge that the people feel of being lied to, when their realities are not in-sync with what the politicians claim, has only further spurred the anger within them of injustice that has been done to them. As such, the people have turned their anger onto the most obvious artifacts of the PAP government’s poor policy-making – the foreigners – and this anger have gone left, right, and centre.
In order to ameliorate the current divisive sentiment, a responsible government would need to immediately phase in the increase of wages, enact anti-discrimination laws and increase their financial investment towards improving the structural capacity of the lived environment. However, these have all not been done to the extent needed to mediate things. The government might have introduced the Wage Credit Scheme, to co-fund 40% of a worker’s wage increase. However, without the presence of a minimum wage and a policy measure to ensure that only low-income workers would benefit from this scheme, this scheme would not benefit the low-income workers, but instead benefit the higher-wage earners. Also, the government might have introduced the Fair Consideration Framework. However, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has not introduced any rules with which companies need to abide by and the hiring practices of companies would not be scrutinised, as the MOM had said that, “MOM does not review the merits of a firm’s hiring decision”. As such, this “framework” wouldn’t prevent unfair hiring practices as well.
The negative sentiments that exist, in the face of a PAP government which is unlikely to introduce policies which are necessary to tackle the root problems of the issue, can thus only be effectively resolved by an enlightened population which would be able to see beneath the complexities of their immediate feelings, and to be able to engage in a conversation that would help them redirect their focus onto policy discussions and advocacy. There is a strong role for civil society to play and to coordinate among themselves, towards helping Singaporeans re-imagine the kind of society that we want, and work towards it.
Only with effective, coordinated and collaborative advocacy towards the government to implement fairer and equal policies will we be able to bring Singapore back to social stability and peace.
Question: Without naming names, have you got any non-citizen friends presently who are opposition supporters?
Lol. Yes, I do. In fact, I am pretty sure that for many new citizens who have taken up citizenship and who have to live the lives that Singaporeans have to, they would then come to an understanding of the fears and insecurities that Singaporeans have, that have led them to increasingly leave the PAP to support another party.
When you become inducted into the Singaporean livelihood, you would begin to realise the inadequate support that the government gives to your healthcare and housing. Coupled with the relatively low wages in a high-income country, it causes any Singaporean living here to live day-by-day in constant insecurity. If you are to fall sick one day and would require an operation, the Medisave and MediShield wouldn’t adequately cover your bills. This would mean huge medical bills, which if you aren’t able to pay off, would mean having to sell your home, as some low-income Singaporeans have resorted to do.
In fact, because 40% of Singaporeans have not bought additional health insurance, this would mean that having to go to a hospital would be a highly fearful journey, which also explains why we know of people who have chosen not to go to a hospital until they are very sickly, which by then, would create a further burden on the health system, and on their own lives. These are things that a responsible government can prevent and look into, for the health and security of its people.
As such, are new citizens likely to also turn away from the PAP in time to come? Once they have adequately lived through the policies of the PAP in the shoes as a Singaporean, this is a very high possibility.
(Note: To my foreigner friends, I apologise that you have to bear the brunt of our government’s flawed policy-making. This should not be acceptable but please have the patience and understanding to know that as our people learn to handle our new-found ability to advocate for our rights, it would take time for a once-powerless populace to find their ground and develop a more effective approach of redirecting our displeasure.
I am tempted to say – please leave as a sign of protest so that the PAP government would not be led to believe that they can marginalise us, simply because they believe the world is too big for anyone to care about how the 3.3 million Singaporeans who live here would feel. But I cannot say that, as the truth is that we do need the injection of new ideas for a global pool of knowledge workers. But when you come, please help us to run our country better. Please help to create a more responsible work culture, so that our government cannot continue to believe that they could work with international businesses to marginalise the rights of Singaporeans.
Singaporeans are being outwitted by the delineated policy-making by our government. Help us create a society where we could achieve the equality and balance that your country has been able to.)
You can read the rest of the interview here.