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23 January 1996

Who has a stake in Singapore's 'stakeholder economy'?

Labour Party leader Tony Blair, unveiled his big idea of a 'stakeholder economy' in a speech in Singapore - an example of a society which is both successful and equitable, he said. Below Para Teare, of GenderWatch, who grew up in South-East Asia, asks whether Singapore is a plausible model of the good society.

Singapore has been called many a name before - Pearl of the Orient, one of Asia's four tigers, but I have to say that I have never known it to be called a stakeholder society, until, that is, Tony Blair delivered his speech on 8 January 1996.

Tony Blair's enchantment with Singapore's compulsory savings fund, introduced in 1968, his excitement about the economic prosperity of Singapore and the existence of a different kind of 'welfare' system may all be sweet music to millions of voters in Britain but as an Asian worker, who has relatives and friends living in Singapore, I see things a little differently.

What is the truth? Let's look at all the things that Blair likes so much about Singapore one by one.

What's yours is ours

First of all, let's view the Central Provident Fund (CPF) to which employees and employers have to contribute 40% of their earnings. The money can be withdrawn when the employee reaches 55, or if some disability strikes you. It is meant to be the employee's safeguard against all the problems of old age. You can also use the money to buy a flat but there are conditions:

You are not allowed to take the savings out of the island nor can you, even if this was your heart's desire, buy a second home or even a bigger home than the one you live in now. You have to prove to the government that you need a bigger home. If you were a non-citizen - as my brother was for a few years, and as many workers from elsewhere in South-East Asia are - you are not allowed to participate in the CPF. Not a particularly inclusive society, you might say. Also, there are no welfare benefits for anyone - you are on your own mate.

Worse still if you are a Muslim employee, you not only have to pay your CPF contributions, but you also have to pay a compulsory 50 cents each month to the Mosque Building Fund. If you refuse, you are fined - as much as $500.

A smothering embrace

Tony Blair also makes much of the tripartite agreement between labour, government and employers. The cooperation that workers in Singapore give the country and their employees is much envied. But do tell me, how can you, a worker, be anything but cooperative when you are constantly told that the aim of all work is to increase output, raise productivity, and the two most slogans preached slogans are discipline and hard work. Just to prevent a 'free for all' in wage demands, the Employment Act was amended in 1975 to freeze bonus and annual wage increases. Not only were employers prohibited from paying out any ex gratia payment, ang pows, signature bonuses, but trade unions were also banned from asking for such payments. Any extra money has to have the written consent of the Finance Minister.

Rationing goods

Tony Blair may well think that the stakeholder society has done the job for people in Singapore, but have you got the freedom to buy whatever luxury you desire? Surely yes, with all this economic prosperity. I fear not. Owning a car and a good one is of extreme importance to Singaporeans but alas the government decides when you can have a car. If you want one, you have to purchase an `entitlement certificate'. These are sold monthly at an auction and are valid for 10 years. Last year the government only authorised 2500 certificates for all types of cars - end result - lots of disappointed people, all excluded from owning an automobile.

But even if you were one of the lucky ones to buy a new car, you cannot travel freely in the city. A monthly licence of $60 or a $53 daily pass has to be purchased to enter the busiest districts. The government is at present looking into how it can restrict even more vehicles entering these areas. The idea is to install some electronics in your car which will automatically deduct a fee when you enter the busy districts. And then there is the heavy taxes on fuel - Singaporeans pay twice the price of fuel that neighbouring Malaysians pay.

Regulation, from the cradle onwards

But this is not all. Tony Blair argues that the creation of a similar economic society here will instil trust and a sense of purpose from which all benefit. Can all benefit though when instructions are meted out from the top? Singaporeans are given advice on everything, even when they can and cannot have babies.

In the early eighties, then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, an admirer of Maggie Thatcher, expressed concern about less educated women having more babies than the university graduates. He believes the intelligence of children is inherited - which is why the mother's educational status is very important. How can the state induce educated women to have more children? An incentive for specially qualified women was built into the enhanced child relief. Also a $10 000 cash grant was provided to discourage the wrong women from having more children. A poor mother, with no GCE qualifications, will be given this money if she is under 30 years and sterilized after her first or second child. Of course if she happens to have another child, the money must be returned. Worse still, the money is not even given to her directly - it is paid into her CPF.


Singapore might be hailed as a success story but anyone who knows it well recognises there is very intensive surveillance of all your movements. The freedom to chew gum or eat peanuts in public is denied. Censorship is commonplace - in 1993 'Wired' magazine was refused circulation because it was deemed offensive. You only have to write something about the problems of Singaporean society and you receive the attention of the prime minister himself.

Catherine Lim , a Singaporean novelist found this out to her bitter cost when she wrote something in the Straits Times. Prime minister Goh Chok Tong said in response to her article that she should enter politics, if she wanted to comment on politics.

And if you have the cheek to challenge the ruling party, the PAP, you might find yourself unemployed. Dr Chee Soon Juan who teaches neuro-psychology at the university had the audacity to run against the PM in a recent by-election. He was sacked from his job for 'dishonourable conduct'. His only crime apart from standing in the elections was to carry out an exchange of letters in the press on whether the government was taking care of the poor.

So much for the stakeholder society: you do have a stake all right - as long as you do what you're told and abide by the rules. Disobey and you are in for a tough time. Economic success is a good thing - but not if it is won by dictatorial methods. For me the price of having all my movements monitored, the denial of real reproductive choice and the inability to spend my money as freely as possible makes me yearn for a society which is not simply economically viable, but is also open and free.

When Tony Blair says Singapore is his model society, he is claiming a controlling stake in how you run your life.

Para Teare can be contacted at genderwatch@easynet.co.uk

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