Make Impossible Demands

 Weekly column written for the Singapore Unbound newsletter. Sign up here.

After last year's hullabaloo about the rising COVID infection rate among Singapore's low-wage migrant workers, what has now become of them? These workers come mainly from South Asia to work in the dangerous industries of construction and shipping. They number more than 300,000, and almost half of them contracted the virus because they live in crowded dormitories. Though most of those infected displayed mild or no symptoms, several continue to experience the long-term effects of the sickness, such as debilitating pain and fatigue, months after testing positive.

The authorities responded by ordering the private dormitory operators to control and restrict the workers' movement. The workers were not allowed to use communal facilities or gather in the hallways; they had to keep to their bunk rooms, which accommodated as many as ten of them. When the COVID situation in Singapore stabilized, nothing was more telling of the exploitative treatment of these workers than the fact that they were released to go to work six months before they were allowed to leave their dormitories for a monthly visit to a purpose-built "recreational center." Work is good for their mental health, you see. The authorities have also responded by rolling out seven Quick Build Dormitories. They have more spacious rooms, with en-suite bathrooms. In other words, more comfortable jails.

Activists working for migrant workers' rights have continuously called attention to these abuses. Their proposed solutions—allowing workers to live among the general population and to change employers—aim to give the same rights to migrant workers as those of native-born ones. The aim is laudable but insufficient. Because what is the condition of the Singaporean worker? For those who have received some material benefits from the current economic system, they are well-fed but overworked asses. One telling clue: the birthrate remains stubbornly low despite all kinds of official incentives. Another clue: 1 in 5 young Singaporeans want to emigrate. Then there are those who have been crushed by the system. At the last budget debate, the government still refuses to legislate a minimum wage. If you stop being productive because work in a capitalist system is alienating, and take up drugs, you are treated inhumanly in the prison named Drug Rehabilitation Center.

The solution must be more radical because the problem is deeper. And the problem lies in the present economic arrangements that oppress native-born and migrant workers alike. When the aim of the system is to maximize profit, you can tell the private dormitory operators what you like, they will still find ways to cut corners and costs. When local households are squeezed to be ever more productive, you can put in any safeguards for domestic helpers that you wish, the Singaporean householder will still make the helper do everything, including dangerous chores, that they themselves have no time for. A sensible, a human, system cannot be built on the profit motive. It must be built, instead, on some idea of the common good. It must put the fruits of the workers' labor into their own hands and abolish the distinction between workers and bosses.

Impossible? Listen to what Robert LaMonte, who worked as an editor for the International Socialist Review in the 1910's, had to say: "Old age pensions and insurance against sickness, accident and unemployment are cheaper, are better business than jails, poor houses, asylums, hospitals." These progressive reforms serve the purpose of capital in relieving class tensions and redirecting radical energies. Present-day progressives work for such reforms, but Socialists must make only what LaMonte called "impossible demands," demands that show up the limits of reforming the system.

Jee Leong Koh
April 8, 2021

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