|Singapore’s reliance on China workers has put the government in a bind because it cannot be too soft or too tough.|
December 1, 2012
INSIGHT: BY SEAH CHIANG NEE
SINGAPORE’S first strike in a generation staged by large numbers of Chinese workers has highlighted a potential security risk posed by the presence of foreign workers.
Happily lasting only two days, some 177 bus drivers from China staged a wildcat strike on Monday against pay disparity (compared with Malaysians) and poor living conditions.
On the second day, many returned to work but 88 carried on the strike despite being warned by the state-owned transport firm SMRT that it was illegal and they could be arrested.
This was the first strike in Singapore since 1986. That took place a year after its tough former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew retired from active politics.
It immediately raised questions as to whether the government would act against the Chinese strikers. If they had been Singaporeans, punishment would have been swift.
With China’s power on the ascendancy “it is unlikely Beijing would tolerate too strict a punishment,” a blogger said.
Despite the speculation, many Singaporeans were surprised that diplomats from the Chinese embassy were allowed to take part in the negotiations between the company and workers.
In fact, embassy officials called on the Manpower Ministry to safeguard the rights and interests of Chinese workers according to local laws.
The China News Service also said the embassy was monitoring the situation closely.
This “mediation” by foreign diplomats in what is purely an internal Singaporean industrial dispute has shown the city’s vulnerability caused by the large presence of overseas workers – including from China, India and the Philippines.
Many foreigners are working in essential services like health care, public transport, computer, food supply, port, airport, etc.
A large number of workers are accepted here as “cheap labour” that could become a constant source of industrial conflicts like the one this week.
Any large scale strike by unhappy foreigners could bring life to a standstill and render this city of 5.2 million people helpless.
This was something that the first-generation leaders were keenly aware of and had worked hard to avoid.
I remember in my earlier reporting days, the late former Deputy Prime Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee warned against the danger to security posed by too many foreigners working in important services here.
He was concerned about foreign governments turning their workers into tools to extract advantages from Singapore in a way that missiles and jetfighters could not fight against.
At best, they could threaten to pull back their workers and the Singapore Government would act to ensure that the proportion of locals far exceeded the outsiders, he feared.
In those days, most of the foreigners were Malaysians and he took special care to avoid over-dependence on them.
Unlike today, the relationship between Singapore and Malaysia was not very cordial.
The Chinese had not arrived en masse yet.
During the two days of negotiations, riot police backed by riot vehicles were present.
The Chinese began organising action in July after pay increments of S$75 (RM187) a month (pushing monthly pay up to S$1075 (RM2680), but Malaysians received S$150 (RM373) increment (boosting their pay to S$1775 (RM4425))
SMRT explained that the Chinese were given dormitory lodging, whe-reas Malaysians lived on their own.
Public transport remains a troubled area, over-crowded and lacking local workers.
The frequent breakdowns of MRT trains have been largely resolved.
The Transport Ministry is pumping S$1.1bil (RM2.74bil) towards increasing the number of buses – but is unable to get enough local drivers and needs to rely on foreigners.
Transport companies have been turning to Malaysians and Chinese mainlanders (the latter now making up 22% of bus drivers).
Just before the walkout last week, the Government acted to compel taxi drivers to ply harder for fare especially during peak hours.
From next year onwards, companies must have 70% of their fleet clock 250km a day – 70% in the morning and evening peak hours.
During these busy hours, drivers often become scarce, with many of them putting their vehicles off service and raising public wrath.
The strike has stirred intense online coverage across China, with Netizens attacking Singapore for “discriminating against the Chinese people.”
Singapore is a tramp country, one said.
“Many foreigners are being exploited for cheap labour by Singapore employers,” declared a Netizen.
Despite Chinese pressure, it appears the Singapore Government plans to take punitive action against some strikers.
The authorities said 20 workers were being questioned.
If they are found guilty, it could mean arrests and dismissals.
“The Government has no choice but to act to avoid being accused of double standards or being soft on outsiders.”
Many people, including locals and foreign workers, are watching how the Singapore authorities will be handling this case.
A wrong move could send the wrong signal to a small army of workers, especially Indians and Filipinos who also feel they are being underpaid.
“If the Chinese get away with organising an illegal strike the others may feel that they, too, could have a go at it,” said a Chinese reporter.
“The Government is in a bind,” he said.
“It can’t be too soft or too tough.”
Singaporeans, who are accused of being xenophobic against foreigners, have reacted to the Chinese strike with mixed feelings.
Many have expressed sympathy for their plight.
“I think if they are doing the same work, they should be given the same pay,” said one.
He felt many mainlanders were being exploited by employers in Singapore.
“When I saw a picture of their dormitory, with eight people packed into one room, I really felt bad for our society.”
Many, however, condemned the strikers for resorting to illegal means.
o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information