Free trade, jobs and democracy—a look at Singapore

Given the evaporation of 533,000 American jobs last November, the largest downturn in thirty-four years and the prospects for even greater losses, it is vital that we have a public discourse on the cost of free trade and its twin – runaway corporations. In a free trade advocate’s view, the global marketplace is an idyllic universe of decision makers where everyone is free to buy and sell. In actuality, the exchange between the great masses of humanity and a transnational corporation is neither free nor fair. Does free trade mean that companies can do what they want, no matter the circumstances?

Take the city-state of Singapore. It has been hailed by business executives as one of free trade’s success stories.

The whole truth, however, is quite different. As an employee of Hamilton Sundstrand, I learned about the down side of such a success story as I watched machinery and good jobs being uprooted in Rockford, Illinois -- destined for Singapore.

Some folks may still be asking, “Why are companies with long histories in our community, such as Sundstrand, so attracted to Singapore?” Here are a couple of reasons:

#1 In 2003, the governments of the United States and Singapore signed the U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement. The agreement gave the green light to corporations seeking to benefit from great disparities between the two nations, such as living and environmental standards, as well as human rights.

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Corporations setting up shop in Singapore may hire from a pool of immigrants who come from poverty-stricken south Asia. Approximately 600 thousand foreign workers are employed, representing thirty percent of the nation’s total workforce. For these workers, employment in Singapore symbolizes an opportunity to send money back home to their families.

In a letter sent to Congress, the Citizen’s Trade Campaign warned that the proposed trade deals between U.S.-Singapore and U.S.-Chile would undermine labor and environmental protections:

“…the remedies provided for the only enforceable labor and environmental provision in the agreement are fines capped at levels insufficient to serve as deterrents. Additionally, any fines assessed for labor violations are paid by the violating country back to itself, rather than to the complainant, amounting to nothing more than a budgetary transfer.

“Further, the only enforceable labor and environmental provision in either pact is that countries enforce their own existing standards - meaning that Singapore and Chile are free to maintain labor laws that do not meet the core ILO [International Labor Organization] standards, or can eliminate or weaken existing domestic labor and environmental laws in order to attract investment or trade with no threat of fines or sanctions.”

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#2 Singapore is a one-party corporate state. The People’s Action Party has been in power since 1959. That’s no accident. I call it a corporate state because government and business are joined at the hip. And that’s no democracy…

'I’m often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yet, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today.' Lee Kuan Yew Former Prime Minister, Singapore

In a November 26 ’08 press release, Reporters Without Borders, a free speech advocacy group, denounced the recent Singapore court ruling against Wall Street Journal Asia which will cost it 25 thousand Singapore dollars: “…for publishing two editorials and a letter by an opposition leader questioning the country's judicial system… Even if the fine is not colossal, the ruling very clearly shows that Singapore's judges have no intention of letting the foreign media express themselves freely…”

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), a staunch free trade advocate, has been critical of the Singapore government’s use of a “contempt of court” citation against the publisher of the WSJ Asian edition. The Journal has editorialized that the Singapore judicial system “is not independent” and “is biased and lacks integrity.”

According to the WSJ, “Singapore leaders have won damages in the past from foreign media groups when they report on local politics, including the Economist, the International Herald Tribune and Bloomberg News.”

However, not many individuals or organizations have the necessary resources (such as the WSJ) to mount a strong defense of their rights. Foreign journalists may feel stifled by a meddling regime, but at least they can purchase a ticket home.

So what happens to the citizens of Singapore when they speak out against the government? The following are abridged responses from a Q&A session with Chairman Gandhi Ambalam of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).

Q How would you compare the extent of civil liberties in Singapore to the USA?

A For civil liberties to exist, first there has to a functioning democracy. What we have in Singapore is not a democratic government, but an authoritarian regime that does not believe in letting the citizens have their basic rights. Rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are enshrined in Singapore’s written constitution. But they remain only on paper. In reality, these universal rights are curtailed by “laws” introduced by the one-party controlled legislature to “safeguard national security and public order”.

[Police] move in to arrest protesters for staging simple acts of peaceful demonstration to register their displeasure over increased cost of living. Public rallies and protests are not allowed for fear of it turning into “racial and religious” riots that the city state had seen in the 1950s/60s.

Q How does the ruling party use “libel,” “slander,” or “defamation” law suits to regulate or punish opposition groups such as the SDP?

A The ruling party leaders, in particular the octogenarian Lee Kuan Yew use the libel laws liberally to silence the political opposition, especially during election time. Dr. Chee Soon Juan, the secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has been sued repeatedly for “defamation” and is made a bankrupt twice over, unable to contest elections and prevented from leaving the country. The SDP’s future itself remains in doubt following a recent awarding of hefty damages by the court to Mr. Lee and his prime minister son Lee Hsien Loong over an article in its newspaper, published during the run-up to the 2006 general elections. If the party is unable to pay the damages, its fate could be sealed through winding up proceedings by its creditors, Mr. Lee Sr. and the prime minister.

Q What’s it like to be a member of an opposition political party in Singapore?

A It’s like living in former dictator Suharto’s Indonesia. Our leading members are aware that they are under constant surveillance by the secret police. Their telephones are tapped and overseas visits tagged by the immigration authorities. To avoid any scandal, opposition political party members have to maintain constant vigilance and make sure that there are no “skeletons” in their cupboard.

Q What would happen if you wanted to put a political program on TV or the internet?

A Both the print and electronic media are totally controlled by the ruling party. The state-owned and controlled TV is yet to interview any of our SDP leaders, let alone “put on a political program”! The Internet, even though the authoritarian regime is grappling with the idea of controlling it, still remains outside its grip. But how long this will last is anybody’s guess.

Q What would happen if you wanted to publish political literature in the newspapers?

A [All of] the 14 “newspapers” in the four official languages are controlled and headed by a former deputy prime minister. A number of known former secret service operatives work as reporters and journalists.

Q What is the relationship between foreign capital and your government?

A Singapore is a haven for foreign capital. Big businesses, especially the ones from the US, Germany and Japan are given red carpet welcome with generous tax incentives and other perks. Western companies love to locate their regional operations here and the expatriates’ first choice in Southeast Asia is, not surprisingly, Singapore.

Q It’s my opinion that Big Business is too “cozy” with your government and mine. How would you respond to that comment?

A I don’t know much about the “coziness” that exists in your country between big business and your government. But in Singapore, the government has turned the place into a “playground” for the rich.

Q Are workers in Singapore aware of the trend that U.S. companies are moving operations to south Asia?

A Our workers are too busy slogging for a living to know about US companies moving to south Asia. But what they know is since the time Singapore became independent in 1965, US companies, especially the labour-intensive ones looking for cheap labour, have been migrating to this island state and lately relocating to other parts of the region, including south Asia, in search of still lower-wage workers. This phenomenon is not something new to the workers here who are constantly reminded that without foreign capital and [multinational corporations] their jobs are in peril. The workers are conditioned to always lower their expectations in this globalized world where competition is intense.

Q What can the trade unions (or other organizations) in the United States and Singapore do to prevent global corporations from pitting workers against each other for jobs?

A The SDP tried in the past to help some workers wanting to form independent trade unions, but to no avail. The archaic Trade Unions Act, the Employment Act and the Industrial Relations Act, all of which were introduced in the late 1960s and are still in force, make it impossible for workers to organize themselves away from the [Singapore’s] government-controlled National Trade Union Congress. Under this environment, there’s hardly any awareness about “pitting workers against each other for jobs”. The awareness has to come from the US and we in the SDP would continue with our struggle to free our workers from the clutches of the authoritarian regime in Singapore. Since corporations have gone global, workers too need to go global.

Although the free traders insist that there is no better way to keep afloat the ship, we do have an alternative. If democracy is to survive this century, it is imperative that we stand up for a fair global economy -– a system based upon freedom and social justice for workers of all nations. We can draw up this new plan and make it a reality if we have the resolve to do so.