Singapore's Useful Peasants

Article excerpt

SINGAPORE - This city's most famous expatriate writer, W. Somerset Maugham, once wrote of Southeast Asia's peasant workers:

These patient, industrious folk carry on the same yokes, the same burdens as their ancestors carried so many generations back. The centuries have passed leaving no trace upon them. ... [I] ? these countries of the East the most impressive, the most aweinspiring monument of antiquity is neither temple, nor citadel, nor great wall, but man. The peasant with his immemorial usages belongs to an age far more ancient than Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, or the Pyramids of Egypt.

In many ways, those words are just as true today as they were in 1930.

This crossroads of Chinese, Malay, Indian and western cultures was recently ranked the most competitive economy in the world. Fueling that economy are the descendants of those "patient, industrious folk." Nearly two out of every five residents in this city of 5 million is foreign-born. More than a half-million migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and China do the backbreaking work that helped Singapore emerge from its worst recession in history with 15.5 percent growth in the first quarter of this year.

One of the Pacific Rim's economic "tigers," Singapore is a citadel of neoliberalism. Corporate taxes are low, and unemployment is 2.3 percent. Yet sales taxes are high, and blue-collar wages are abysmal. There's no minimum wage, and the government offers scant protections against abuse and a limited social safety net. In the past 10 years, immigration has nearly doubled. And many of the migrants who clean the rooms and build the skyscrapers live in crowded, rat-infested dormitories with little relief from the sweltering tropical heat.

"[The government! has made some reforms, shown a real commitment to countering the worst abuses of workers, but this still leaves a long way to go," says John Gee, president of the Singapore-based Transient Workers Count Too organization. …