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 The money can be withdrawn when the employee reaches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.
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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