A Nation Cheated – Book Review

9 Jan

In a sense, ‘A Nation Cheated’ is a book long-awaited. Concise and appealing to the average man on the street, it sought to explain how Singapore become the financial powerhouse status today. Beneath that veneer of dazzling economic achievements however, lurks the untold stories of the poor, the lowly paid working class and exploited migrant workers.

It is vital that Dr Chee starts his account with Lim Chin Siong because it represented a pivotal point in the country’s history which has led to the current state of affairs. A respected leader of the masses, Lim, who spoke the language of the people, was able to gain popularity as he was fighting for the rights of Singaporeans and their desire for independence. Yet, by taking on the white masters head on, the British were threatened. This allowed his power- hungry comrade in arms, Lee Kuan Yew, staged a behind- the- scenes betrayal, paving the way for the former’s sacrificial to the altar of nationhood. As writer T S George wrote, and which was reproduced in the book,  Lee Kuan Yew was ‘Britain’s chosen man for Singapore’.

With Lim out of the way and an Opposition being marginalised, Dr Chee went on to document how an independent press and active trade union movement was subsequently beaten into dutiful submission. Singapore was therefore consigned and moulded by a one party PAP government into its prevailing state since.

In a way, Singapore’s trajectory is similar to those being colonised. White masters are overthrown, only to be succeeded by an equally if not, more repressive ruling local elite, often with the aid of the former.

With the British out of the picture, Singapore has continued to be governed as if it is a colonial outpost. Today, like the days of yore, it remains a favourable business and trading route destinations for airlines, shipping companies and multinational corporations.

This is perhaps my point of departure with ‘A Nation Cheated’. Unlike Dr Chee, who thinks that Singapore is neither ‘free’ nor ‘market-oriented’, I believe the reverse is true.

It is no coincidence that major pro- business think tanks and organisations such as the Political and Economic Risks Consultancy and World Economic Forum consider Singapore an economic success. These neoliberal organisations hold the city state as an exemplary experiment of ‘free market’ ideal for the PAP government continues to side with the MNCs.

As it is, there is nothing free about ‘free trade’, a term which has been hijacked and misused by the economic right. To them, the trickle down theory works because improving the economic status of the upper or middle class will ultimately improve the lot of the whole. Never mind if it creates an inequality gulf which affects societal cohesion, health and living standards of those left behind. Ultimately, free trade becomes an idealistic process whereby national governments  either deregulate or imposed beneficial laws for big business. The freedom to trade, unlike the other freedoms such as the freedom of speech, is a right that belongs to a small sub class: those with the economic means, and not those without the clout or on the merciless receiving end.

‘A Nation Cheated’ comes close to explaining why Singapore has become the country it is. A city where wealth inequality is glaring, live in domestic assistants are subject to exploitation and an increasingly aging population is discriminated and left to fend for themselves. Dr Chee pinpoints and argues that this phenomenon is the result of Lee’s eugenicist vision and autocratic rule but fails to recognise that the asymmetrical effects of globalisation and market fundamentalism dogma, abetted by an aggressive conglomerate of MNCS, GLCs, GICs is also responsible for creating this abusive and uncaring dog eat dog system.

Therefore, recommendations to improving the labour conditions in Singapore are a step in the right direction, though, not enough. Having decent minimum wages, strong unions and protecting those retrenched are laudable efforts but they cannot adequately protect an ideology that has the means to erode them.

In the event that the currently suddenly enlightened or a new government decide to implement these pro-labour policies in Singapore, MNCs will very likely desist these efforts and choose to either vote with their feet (i.e. move to other countries) or lobby the US/ EU to ‘blacklist’ the country as an ‘authoritarian’ and ‘socialist’ black hole.

Singapore’s success has been claimed by the PAP and the pro- big business community as a result of its receptivity towards the forces of economic globalisation. The majority of its citizens have also, over the years, been brainwashed by a compliant media into internalising these beliefs.

To use an ugly metaphor, unbridled capitalism has almost become an unquestioning binding religion across different races and religion. Its high priests are the ruling and economic elites ranging from the over-paid bureaucrats to governmental ministers and CEOS in the private sectors. Their weapon of mass delusion are the immortal monster entities: corporations and conglomerates which play an important role in perpetuating this inequality.

Overcoming PAP’s authoritarian rule is akin to removing a puppet dictator. It would be a tragic irony if one loses sight of the invisible brains and hands who are controlling the strings behind the repressive regime.

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