Stricken from the record

This journal is part of a series on living and working in Singapore.

A few weeks ago, around 100 Chinese bus drivers employed by one of the two public transport operators did not show up for work. The incident has quickly become a heated national story, one that reveals many of Singapore’s social and political idiosyncracies.

Bus strike

Being a bus driver is a low-paid profession. Like many jobs the locals don’t particularly want to do, the majority of the workforce is comprised of foreign labour. The group of Chinese drivers were protesting what they felt were unfair wages and conditions in comparison to their Malaysian and Singaporean colleagues, who had just received a payrise while the Chinese workers had not. 102 drivers based in a depot in the country’s north did not show up for work on November 26 – as a result, services were disrupted. The transport operator (SMRT) organized temporary workers to be brought in the following day in case the protest continued, which it did.

The police took in several dozen of the drivers for questioning and after a couple of days announced that 29 of the drivers would be ‘repatriated’ (ie deported) back to China after the ‘illegal strike’. The rest would be warned but allowed to return to work, except for one ringleader who was given a six-week jail term. The government also publicly criticized SMRT for not better attending to its HR practices and for allowing such a situation to develop. Following these developments, Singapore’s consulate in Hong Kong was picketed and the Chinese government dispatched officials to Singapore to investigate the situation to make sure it was being handled ‘appropriately’.

So, what’s going on here?

Is there racial discrimination happening against the Chinese workers? Well, not exactly. The Singaporean workers commute to work from their homes, as do the Malaysians (the Woodlands depot is only about 30 minutes commute by road from a large Malaysian town). The Chinese workers meanwhile are provided with food and dormitory accommodation. The different groups negotiate separate contracts with different conditions. Though there’s an argument about fairness to be made, it is not easy to make direct comparisons. The pay is indeed low and the conditions lousy by local standards, but they compare favourably to the options these workers have in China.

What about this ‘illegal’ strike business then? Here, a bit of history helps.

While Singapore was still under British rule in the 1950s, the government passed one of those dubious ‘emergency powers’ laws called the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act in response to an ongoing problem with organized crime. The Act made it legal to detain people without trial if the Home Affairs minister believes there is good reason to detain them (Australians might recall the case of Mohamed Haneef here). The Act also made strikes and lockouts illegal for workers employed in ‘essential’ services, unless you have a permit. The list of essential services, sure enough, includes pretty much every area in which a strike might occur.

The Temporary Provisions were renewed when the country attained self-rule, and again later when Singapore became a fully-independent nation. They have been renewed several times since and remain on the books today. Keen to attract foreign investment, Singapore over the decades has presented itself as a politically stable, business-friendly hub in Asia. Industrial relations therefore have always taken place in the shadow of this large and looming fact.

There is a large union called the National Trades Union Congress which is closely aligned with the ruling People’s Action Party, which has been in power since independence. For instance, a former PAP cabinet minister (Ong Teng Cheong) became Secretary-General of the NTUC and later went on to become the country’s President. In one colourful moment, Ong (while at NTUC) sneakily gave approval for the country’s last strike in 1986 without consulting Cabinet, as he believed shipping bosses were taking advantage of the workers. Predictably, this caused considerable upset with the government and its foreign business allies, but Ong was steadfast in his decision.

Now we can begin to see why the first strike in over 25 years is something of a big deal. The government’s swift and hardline response has seemed to some commentators to be a slightly panicked attempt to suppress any potential copycat strikes in other sectors. This is complicated somewhat by Singapore’s relationship with China, a mighty power with a population over 200 times Singapore’s size that it can’t afford to upset too much. Singapore’s consulate was picketed in Hong Kong following the news of the drivers’ repatriation, and in the week following the strike two Chinese workers in one of Singapore’s shipping ports climbed onto cranes and refused to come down, protesting poor pay and conditions.

Protest 1

Protesters at the Singaporean consulate in Hong Kong.

Protest 2

A Chinese port worker protests in Singapore.

Much of the blame has subsequently fallen on the transport operator SMRT, which has already seen a fair amount of bad press in the last year for unprecedented rail service breakdowns, including an incident on the newly-opened Circle Line in which a subway car got stuck and trapped passengers for several hours. Since then, SMRT has installed a new CEO and has been going through a program of management changes. To complicate things still further, SMRT is a publicly-listed company owned by the Singapore government’s investment arm, Temasek Holdings. So it is all a bit circular.

Public opinion on the strike seems quite divided. Some support the workers outright, while some empathise with their concerns but disagree with their methods. Many support the government’s stance, worrying about destabilizing elements and saying foreigners need to respect local laws. There does seem to be wide agreement however that the drivers need to be paid more. The question now seems to have turned, as Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew says, to where the money is going to come from.

If the government subsidises the cost, it could send a message to the transport operators that they do not need to improve their internal practices. If the costs are simply absorbed by the transport operator, it could affect business sustainability. If the cost is passed onto commuters in the form of fare increases, there could be cost-of-living pressures and public resentment. There all strong arguments to be made on all sides – and these questions go straight to the heart of what kind of society Singapore wants to be. Whatever happens next, clearly there is change in the air. ◾

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