Earlier this month, something shattered Singapore’s calm that had been building for years, if not decades, and the wonder was that the streets had not exploded sooner.
Like the two EDSA People Power revolutions, the freedom-loving masses toppling the Berlin Wall, the swelling marches for gay rights, the Facebook-sparked Arab Spring protests, and myriad other public eruptions, it seemed like everyone said to themselves: Yeah, that’s been a-coming awhile.
It did on Sunday, December 8, on the more than usually bustling streets of the Lion City’s hotchpotch Little India district. It was not just a racial riot, not just disadvantaged expatriate South Asians venting their despair.
No, it was the first sign that Singapore’s demographic pressure cooker was beginning to blow its lid.
Those who know the unsavory conditions under which more than a quarter of the city state’s population live and work were less shocked that the riot occurred than that it did not spread and cause greater carnage.
For he who rides a tiger cannot just dismount. And in contracting more than a million South Asians to do its dirty work—all the harsh, gritty jobs that soft-palmed Singaporeans will not do—the island republic mounted a very fearful, unpredictable tiger.
And the Lion City cannot get off its cat without committing economic suicide. Just as Europe has its Turks, Slavs and North Africans; America its Latinos; and the Middle East its South and Southeast Asians; Singapore has its neighbors building and cleaning its homes, offices and shops.
As local academic Mukul Asher once told me: “Singapore has been able to use these foreign workers and their low wages and conditions to maintain its competitiveness and high growth rates.”
Plainly, every rich, industrialized economy got its boost from young, low-paid, sweatshop labor. And to keep growling like tigers, they have to bring in more of the hungry, fierce cats like the hardy, scrimping, overworked and underpaid hands who built the success stories in the first place.
The trashed stores, overturned police cars and torched buses in its Little India district, however, exposed the danger of this exploitative policy.
Instead of dwelling on forensic analysis, however, let’s personalize the plight of those who, wrongly, but understandably, ran amok this month.
After I interviewed Asher about Singapore’s poor, a colleague from The Straits Times newspaper pointed me to the unmanicured districts where the down and out live.
The digs were a real eye-opener and would not have been out of place in the seedier parts of Pathein or Phnom Penh. Walking around, I met Bangladeshi workers who had come out to shop and meet friends. It was a Sunday, their one day off each week, as it is for tens of thousands of Filipino and other foreign domestic helpers.
We chatted, then went to Serangoon Road to eat. No one drank any booze; in fact, I don’t recall seeing anyone drinking, let alone getting drunk—the spurious official reason for the December 8 riot.
When it grew dark, they took me to Kaki Bukit in the east of the metropolis, where vast sheds house hundreds of thousands of foreign workers.
One of them loaned me his key card to go through the turnstile and we climbed the bare stairs to the third floor where we entered a long, narrow dormitory with rows of bunks stacked to the ceiling.
My first thought was of a concentration camp. My second was of the doss house in George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier” with its stifling dank air and suffocating stench of boiled cabbage and sweaty socks.
The workers crowded round and recounted stories about the irregular water supply, the endemic bedbugs, the sweltering unairconditioned rooms, and many other gripes. Some 3,200 of them bunked in this Kaki Bukit site, most from Bangladesh, India and Myanmar.
They get up at half past five in the early morning, go to work at seven, and normally do two hours overtime, heading home at 7:30 in the evening and finally laying their heads and backs to rest on their bunks not long before nine. They slave like this six days a week and get about US$20 a day for it—about one-tenth of Singapore’s per-capita gross domestic product.
A year ago, 200 of their colleagues, mostly construction workers and bus drivers, including many mainland Chinese, staged Singapore’s first strike in three decades to protest poor pay and unhygienic dorms.
Calling the December 2012 stoppage “a threat to public order,” the government sent in riot police, and dozens of workers were variously jailed, fined and deported.
Implicitly acknowledging the inhuman conditions and employment abuses fueling unrest, employers of expatriate workers agreed to fumigate the insect-infested dorms and investigate unpaid back wages and other grievances.
Reporting this, I concluded: “The message is clear. The workers are not all right, Jack. Quite the opposite, they are angry and ready to rumble.”
This month they did. And riot police won’t end the agitation, unless real reforms bring humane and just treatment to the hardworking hordes sustaining Singapore’s growth and affluence.
As for banishing Bangladeshis and other low-cost labor, don’t even think about it. Certainly not if you care for the city-state’s economic future.
Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.