An issue of justice 
    and conscience

The academic community and high-profile figures have begun to speak up and make their disenchantment known about the way Singapore is being run.
  Star, Malaysia
November 10, 2012

INSIGHT: BY SEAH CHIANG NEE

NOT often known for speaking up against bad government policies, Singapore’s academic community has begun to shrug off a bit of its reticence.

A number of academics and research economists, including establishment figures, have recently criticised the People’s Action Party (PAP), mostly in modest language but sometimes rather strongly.

This is another sign that Singa­pore’s politics has moved from authoritarian rule towards a more open leadership, particularly after the general election in May last year.

A trickle of high-profile figures, including a TV actor once speculated as a potential PAP election candidate and a former Malay government backbencher, have made their disenchantment known about the way
Singapore is being run.

This had rarely happened during the rule of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

The reason appears to run deeper than a sudden new-found courage or a propensity to tell off the PAP on policy directions.

Their main criticism is the continuing mass intake of “cheap” foreign workers and the adverse impact it has on Singaporeans.

Although the government has pro­mised to control the inflow, and in fact has reduced it recently, there are increasing signs that it may be preparing to raise the numbers again.

Another area they seek to speak up on is the public accusation of unequal job treatment in favour of the newcomers.

Some of these academics may feel compelled to take a stand now for fear that the problem will become even more serious.

For many years until recently, the authorities had ignored public appeals to reverse the immigration inflow.

None of the academics has, however, announced any intention of joining politics or the opposition. Nor has anyone fallen into trouble as a result of their outspokenness.

To put it into perspective, it was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who had himself invited “all Singapo­re­ans” to feel free to express diverse views.

“It’s a signal! Speak, speak your voice, be heard, take responsibility for your views and opinions,” Lee said after taking office with an approach that was markedly different from his father’s.

The message was repeated last year, when he exempted indoor meetings from licensing requirements.

“We have opened up over the years. I think we can go further.”

Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh is the latest to add his voice to speak up for the little guys, the poor and the needy.

He joined the small chorus that condemned the widening gap between the rich and poor, calling it “socially unconscionable”.

The prominent, soft-spoken diplomat said Singapore’s low-wage workers had long been underpaid.

For the sake of comparison, he said, the republic had a per capita income similar to Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, yet cleaners in these countries were paid some seven times more than those in Singa­pore.

He disagreed with officials who said the unequal growth was caused by globalisation or technological change.

The reason, he said, was the importation of low-paid foreign workers in the past 10 years.

He wasn’t the first to do so.

Several months ago, the former state economic adviser, Prof Lim Chong Yah, had a dramatic proposal to narrow the economic gap.

For decades, the top economist had worked with the government on wage strategies.

Lim called for the salaries of low-level workers to be raised by 50% over the course of three years and salaries of those at the top-end to be frozen for a similar period.

Next, Prof Tan Khee Giap of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy hit out at the state’s foreign recruitment policies and called for better protection of locals.

Singapore employers, he said, should only be allowed to recruit aliens if they were unable to find qualified citizens to fill the vacancies.

Most of these viewpoints have either been rejected by the government or run counter to government positions.

Another surprising critic was Yeoh Lam Keong, former chief economist at the Government Investment Corporation (GIC) headed by Lee Kuan Yew.

In an interview with Yahoo Sing­apore, Yeoh appealed for the immigration policy to be reversed.

“What we need to do is be much more stringent on admitting such unskilled labour.

“We’ve really got no excuse to be so relaxed about this kind of immigration.”

On its overall policy, Yeoh called for the government to return to its roots to meet and serve the needs of ordinary citizens over public housing, education, healthcare and other services.

The bottom 10% of breadwinners were being entrenched in poverty even while holding down full-time jobs.

Prominent commentator Chua Chin Leng praised these elites for speaking up.

Financially secure, they could have chosen to remain in the comfort of their cocoons “shielded from all the noises, all the inequalities,” he said.

Yet, they have chosen to brave the storm. Why?

Chua said: “It must be a matter of conscience, of a sense of justice.”

Summarising the current transformation in Singapore (and Malay­sia), writer Sudhir Thomas Vada­-keth, said one thing seemed certain in these countries.

“Authoritarianism here has finally run its course.

“Ordinary citizens now have a much bigger say in who they want to be and where they want their countries to go.”

o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com
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