Working Paper – Neoliberalism and its human rights impact on Singapore (Part II)

13 Jan


Since independence, the benefits of free trade and open markets have been promoted by the PAP and unquestioningly accepted amongst scholars and within the general population as a necessity given the city-state’s lack of natural resources and its small physical size. It is argued that free trade and a favourable climate for business in Singapore supports the local economy while safeguarding its national security. Some scholars have claimed that free trade promotes democracy in various ways such as increasing the level of education and wealth of its population who would then go on to demand an increasing voice and role in political participation and more accountability from their government. Nevertheless, the economic success narrative of Singapore which sees an increasing and more literate middle class appears to contradict this oft-held belief that free trade opens up political space. Instead, Singapore’s civil society continues to be dominated by the ruling party. Contrast to the commonly held-assumptions, this paper proposes that free market ideology and neoliberalism is a significant factor in the suppression of the promotion of democracy and human rights in Singapore.

Access Part I

Free market reforms in Singapore

While Klein considered the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende by the dictator, Augusto Pinochet in Chile to be the first historical instance of the shock doctrine, there are eerie parallel overtones in PAP’s coming to power narrative with their Latin American counterparts. The first obvious similarities were the targets of the attack – those who threatened the governments’ economic programs – mainly students, intellectuals and trade unionists:

‘In Chile and Argentina, the military governments used the initial chaos of the coup to launch vicious attacks on the trade union movement. These operations were clearly planned well in advance, as the systematic raids began on the day itself… In 1976, 80 percent of Chile’s political prisoners were workers and peasants’ (Klein 2007, p. 106- 7 ).

In Singapore, the British had been arresting student activists and unionists but the high point of the attacks against them was Operation Coldstore in 1963. 115 dissidents were arrested in one single day. More than 50 of them were trade unionists. This ‘had the effect of wiping out all democratically organised opposition to the PAP’ (Chee 2008 b, p. 46).

Second, these arrests were attempts not simply to stop the momentum of the movements but to spiritually break down the detainees using psychological and physical torture. In Latin America,

‘Many torturers adopted the posture of a doctor or surgeon…. these interrogators imagined that their electroshocks and other torments were therapeutic – that they were administering a kind of medicine to their prisoners… They would heal them of their sickness that was socialism, of the impulse toward collective action’ (Klein 2007, p. 112).

In Singapore, these arrests were made under the guise of legislation, specifically, the Internal Security Act (ISA) which is basically a form of detention without trial. Trade unionist, Ho Piao, who was arrested during Operation Coldstore related his harrowing experience of being tortured:

‘Their torture made my body feel like a corpse. I could not move. They pulled me up from the floor and tied me to the chair. Another group came to torture me. I would not recognize them. They use the same method. They poured water over me 64 times. This torture went on for four days'(Chee 2008 b, p. 46)1.

Even after Operation Coldstore, the PAP government continued to arrest and torture political detainees using the ISA. Like their Latin American torturers, the ISA officers and interrogators’ aim was to obtain a recant:

‘The Singapore security police, the Special Branch, have combined a number of the above techniques – physical and psychological torture, solitary confinement and threats to families – to obtain ‘confessions’ and ‘recantations’ from prisoners in recent years’ (Amnesty International 1980 cited in Singapore Rebel 2007).

More importantly, the aims of crushing dissent was not just about gaining political power but to impose free market reforms that were strongly opposed by activists. While the PAP government adopted an economic program that subsequently achieved economic growth and stability (unlike the disastrous results in Chile), both governments believed in the repression of human rights, including workers’ rights; and backing their political and economic power with foreign investments:

‘When the hype and salesmanship behind the miracle are stripped away, Chile under Pinochet and the Chicago Boys was not a capitalist state featuring a liberated market but a corporatist one. Corporatism, or “corporativisim, “ originally referred to Mussolini’s model of a police state run as an alliance of the three major power sources in society – government, businesses and trade unions, all collaborating to guarantee order in the name of nationalism’ (Klein 2007, p. 86).

Similarly, in Singapore, trade unionism and workers’ rights have been suppressed with legislation such as the Trade Unions (Amendment Act) making strikes and industrial actions illegal (Chee 2008 b, p. 50). Furthermore, the formation of the National Wages Council in 1972 pandered to MNC interests:

‘In this tripartite arrangement of government, management and labour, foreign multinational corporations (MNCs) representatives took up positions to decide on the quantum of salary increase for our workers. There are also representatives from the American, German and Japanese chambers of commerce on the Council. Together they determine how much a Singapore worker should be paid’ (Chee 2008 b, p. 53- 4).

PAP’s grip on civil society was commented by an academic in the mid 90s who noted that its governance style is ‘corporatist’ in nature:

‘This extended co-optation involves modifications to the political system to incorporate sectional interests, the establishment of new relations with business and ethnic communities and other institutional initiatives and rhetorical appeals. New corporatist forms of political organisation are being introduced to ‘manage’ emerging social forces. The chief objective is to reconcile a de facto one-party state to a new social reality’ (Rodan 1996, p. 78).

Even though similarities abound in both context, it would be premature and hasty to suggest that Singapore was subjected to the same kind of shock doctrine. Certainly, the scale and extent of human rights violations perpetuated by the military junta in Chile were more serious and widespread than in Singapore. Moreover, it was very clear that the dictators in Latin America were directly influenced by the free market teachings of Milton Friedman. No available evidence links PAP to any of the free market mavericks. Lastly, the Latin American states that were coerced into economic shock therapy saw their economy collapse. This was in contrast to the Singapore’s economic success narrative.

Nevertheless, by comparing both narratives, it is possible to concur that free market ideology and neoliberalism bears a symbiotic relationship to human rights violations. In addition, this alternative reading of Singapore’s history and PAP helps us understand the role that free market ideology plays in the suppression of human rights.

Wealth gap and neoliberalism in Singapore

One of the most pronounced effects of neoliberalism is to create wealth inequality within national borders and between states. Within a decade of adopting free market policies, the class divide in the US and UK became significant. Prior to Thatcherism, approximately one in ten people was considered as poor in the UK. This figure increased to one quarter by the mid 90s. In 1977, the top 1 percent of Americans had average incomes 65 times of the bottom 10 percent. Ten years later, the top 1 percent was 115 times more well off than the same bottom percentile (Susan 1999). Even in Chile where the dictatorship has been overthrown, it remains one of the most unequal societies in the world: ranked at number 8 in 2007 (Klein 2007, p. 86).

How did wealth inequalities occur? According to George (1999), states basically have a natural monopoly on public services as these sectors require a certain size to achieve economies of scale (best possible service at lowest possible cost to consumers). Since they also involve heavy initial investments, they are not suited to competitive practices. Yet, when governments privatise these public goods, the corporations who took over had to impose higher prices since their bottom line is to maximise shareholders’ profits. In the UK, privatisation was also an excuse to destroy collective unionisation efforts:

‘In any event, Margaret Thatcher set out to change all that. As an added bonus, she could also use privatisation to break the power of the trade unions. By destroying the public sector where unions were strongest, she was able to weaken them drastically. Thus between 1979 and 1994, the number of jobs in the public sector in Britain was reduced from over 7 million to 5 million, a drop of 29 percent. Virtually all the jobs eliminated were unionised jobs. Since private sector employment was stagnant during those fifteen years, the overall reduction in the number of British jobs came to 1.7 million, a drop of 7% compared to 1979. To neo-liberals, fewer workers is always better than more because workers impinge on shareholder value’ (George 1999)

Therefore, privatisation widens the wealth gap in two ways. First, by basically encouraging the maximisation of company profits. This meant raising the prices of public goods which were previously subsidised by the state. Since the poor and working class were most dependent on such subsidies and services, they were also the most intimately affected. Second, privatisation destroys jobs, specifically those that were previously heavily unionised. This gap is exacerbated by shifting the wealth upwards to the managers without any union pressure or governmental interference. Again, in the UK, the ‘managers of the newly privatised enterprises, often exactly the same people as before, doubled or tripled their own salaries’ (George 1999).

On a cursory glance, wealth disparities appear to have a strictly economic impact on society. However, as earlier argued, they also cause poverty which is a form of human rights violation especially if it deprives people of their means of livelihood and their well-being. According to Equality Trust (a, n.d.), eleven related health and social issues are linked to economic inequalities: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage births, and child well-being. On physical health, more than 170 studies shows ‘life expectancy, infant mortality, low birth weight and self-rated health have repeatedly been shown to be worse in more unequal societies’ (Equality Trust b, n.d.). Furthermore, the ‘most consistent interpretation of all the evidence is that the main route hinges on the way inequality makes life more stressful. Chronic stress is known to affect the cardiovascular and immune systems and to lead to more rapid aging. Inequality makes social relations more stressful … by increasing status differences and status competition’ (Equality Trust b, n.d.). On imprisonment, ‘strong links [are found] between imprisonment and income inequality – both internationally and among the 50 US states’ (Equality Trust c, n.d.). On social mobility, ‘Greater inequalities of outcome seem to make it easier for rich parents to pass on their advantages. While income differences have widened in Britain and the USA, social mobility has slowed. Bigger income differences may make it harder to achieve equality of opportunity because they increase social class differentiation and perhaps prejudice’ (Equality Trust d, n.d.). On violence, ‘The most important reason why violence is more common in more unequal societies is that it is often triggered by people feeling looked down, disrespected and loss of face’ (Equality Trust e, n.d.). Given such socio-economic impacts, it can be argued convincingly that neoliberalism has a significant impact on human rights as it widens the wealth gap.

Given that the Singapore government has always been averse to state welfarism, the adopting of neoliberal policies have further accentuated the state’s wealth gap. According to a recent study, it was ranked at number 2 for having the greatest gap between the rich and the poor (Einhorn 2009)2. Between 1998 and 2003, the average household monthly income for the lowest 20 percent strata of the population decreased by about 15 percent as the richest quintile increased by 11.7 percent. In the same period, the average wage fell for the poorest 40 percent of families as expenditures exceed their income (Singapore Democrats 2009). Stories of the disadvantaged such as the poor, aged and unemployed have also been increasingly reported in Singapore while its government prides itself as a prosperous, globalised and open economy. The effects of income disparity have led to stressful lifestyles, even amongst the middle class (Chee 2008 b, chapter 9). Consider this profile of a typical working class family which shows that poverty affects not just adults but the health, opportunity in society and potential of children:

‘In fact these families are so poor that “they are scraping the bottom of the barrel to get one meal a day”. Mohammad Hirwan is one such child. His father earns S$600 a month as a security guard and his mother S$400 as a cleaner. Unable to afford school uniforms, shoes, books, and school fees, the boy’s parents had to take him out of school when he was nine. His siblings did not fare any better. All of them dropped out of school because of poverty’ (Chee 2008 b, p. 78).

The government’s reluctance to deal with the problem of homelessness has also been commented upon. According to a Singaporean news portal editorial,

‘… despite official pronouncements that “there are no homeless, destitute or starving people” in the country. The reality is that there were homeless people even during the boom years, but official rectitude has made it difficult to estimate the numbers or to properly assess the cause of their homelessness.

The government’s stance on the issue is clear: a brief parliamentary debate in 2007 on the plight of several homeless families elicited the government’s response that they were “homeless by choice”. …

The problem is that official attitudes could hinder a measured response to the problem. Anecdotal accounts suggest that the number of homeless in Singapore could be on the rise in recent months, with social workers relating a sharp uptick in the number of those trying to get admission into shelters’ (The Online Citizen 2009).

Despite authorities’ claims that there were few instances of homelessness or that they were personal choices, many of those who had to sleep rough were so poor that they could not even afford renting governmental housing. Many were also sent to institutions.

‘The reason why the poor in Singapore are not visible is that the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) conduct frequent raids through its Destitute Persons Service, looking for and picking up vagrants. These individuals who tend to be “elderly men who have held odd jobs for most of their lives,” are sent to one of Singapore’s six welfare homes, where they remain out of sight, out of mind, and troublingly out of our consciences’ (Chee 2008 b, p. 82).

The Housing Development Board (HDB) which manages public housing has also evicted people out of their homes when they were unable to pay their rent.

‘Mdm Leong Yoke Ling, a divorcee and mother of two, was less fortunate. She was evicted from her HDB apartment after her husband left her and she was unable to pay the monthly instalments. During the next few years, she roamed the streets and slept along public corridors with her children. In between she found odd jobs, and in 1990, she had managed to save enough to rent another apartment. The HDB immediately asked her for the arrears owed from the previous flat. She was unable to pay it, upon which she was made a bankrupt’ (Chee 2008 b, p. 83).

These statistics and stories make up a small fragment and are indicative of the poverty and the wealth gap that is fast becoming an urgent socio-economic issue with serious political ramifications. However, the ruling party has evaded the issue by stressing that such outcomes are inevitable; and that the benefits of capitalist globalisation and free market reforms far outweigh the negative consequences. It is therefore unlikely that the PAP would change its economic policies anytime soon. If that is the case, the wealth gap would seriously set back the economic gains it had initially made. It has been argued that Singapore is merely following the examples of other prosperous Asian societies such as Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan who are witnessing the form of a ‘M-shaped society’. This basically meant that even when the economy was booming, the middle class would start to thin out as the wealth gap widens. Increasingly, a small percentage of the middle class would move up while the majority suffers a decreasing standard of living due to higher costs of living (Seah 2009).


1You can also read a more comprehensive account of Ho Piaos’ interrogation in the Singapore Rebel blog at <;.

2I also blogged about the spill-over effects of income inequality in Singapore (such as highest per capita imprisonment rate) at <>.

– to be continued (Part III)


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