On Exploitation and Xenophobia in Singapore and the Persistence of Colonialism

By Gopal

Singapore’s economic growth in the last few decades has been, in no small part, the result of the PAP government’s exploitation of low-wage migrant labour. Employed principally as construction workers, these individuals, often from Bangladesh and India, have been poorly paid, ill-treated, housed in unhygienic conditions, and largely ignored by the government and the population at large. Their plight will forever be a stain on the fabric of Singaporean society.

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For decades, they have been overworked, risking their health and lives to build Singapore. We have all seen them toil on construction sites. We have seen them crowded in trucks, shuttled from dormitory to worksite. We see them, but we have been trained to ignore them. We have been trained to see them as less human, as less deserving of dignity.

The PAP knows they are dependent on this exploitation of labour. They could not exploit voting citizens to this extent. If Singaporeans were on these construction sites, working in those conditions for a paltry few hundred a month, we would demand better pay and conditions or vote them out.

This exploitation exists because we have thoroughly bought into the notion that Singaporean labour is superior to migrant labour. Worse, we have thoroughly bought into the deceit that Singaporeans are superior. The solution is not to call for “Singaporeans first,” as some reactionaries have, but to eradicate exploitation.

This is difficult, because, though the British colonizers have long departed our shores, our minds are colonised. We have demonised migrant workers. Their dark skin is all we see. We see them as dangerous and dirty. We house them far away from the rest of society. We tell children, if you’re naughty, the “ah neh” will catch you. We have so deeply ingested colonial logic that we see no irony in this situation.

When we say workers of the world unite, we have to start at home. We must demand a national minimum wage, across the board. We must demand strict adherence to safety and health standards. We must demand far better dormitory conditions. We must demand a reduced work day. It is not enough to allow politicians to pay lip service to us in the lead-up to elections. No, we must make our voices heard consistently and vociferously beyond elections. Remind our leaders that they sit in parliament because we allow them. However undemocratic and unfair elections are in this country, they know very well that real power lies in the hands of the people. Remind them of this fact.

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Most importantly, we must eradicate this false distinction between “us” and “them” that our politicians have been so happy to indoctrinate us with. Every single one of us who is not Malay is a descendant of migrants or indentured labourers. Our ancestors subjugated by the British would be ashamed of how we, supposedly postcolonial Singaporeans, treat others today. How different is the dehumanization and subjugation of our ancestors by the British from our own shameless behaviour towards indentured labourers in Singapore?

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