An article for sharing: Civil society and the politics of fear (Update)

This is an article posted on the FB page of The Online Citizen. It is written by Jolovan Wham, a social worker with the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), a NGO that looks into the rights and welfare of migrant workers in Singapore. He contributed this article in his personal capacity yesterday (23 Sept). With TOC’s kind permission, I am reposting in my blog because I want to share this well-written article with a wider audience. Words in italics are mine.

Civil society and the politics of fear

For decades, the state controlled alternative sources of policy deliberation and inhibited positive social action through laws that restrict speech, public assembly and the formation of civil society organisations. It co-opted trade unions through restrictive laws, maintained close oversight of varsity and research institutions, and controlled the discourse on politics and society by curbing press and publication freedom.

Through its power and influence, it exercised strict control over decision-making and dismantled alternative interest sites in the name of ‘nation building’. Prof Chan Heng Chee has called this a petitionary political culture. Underlying this petitionary framework, it dealt very severely with domestic critics in such a way that widespread fear was instilled in the population with enduring ramifications across the decades. The detention without trial of a number of civil society activists in 1987 is a key example.

In today’s political climate, the heavy handed tactics which has come to characterise PAP (People’s Action Party, which has been in power since the country’s independence) rule has been replaced by insidious and subtler forms of intimidation, which are no less effective in hindering the progress of civil society. The current saga# involving the Catholic Church, Function 8 and the Ministry of Home Affairs is an example of this. After Archbishop Nicholas Chia was summoned by government officers and the Home Affairs Minister himself to a private meeting, a letter of support he wrote to the Function 8 members, who were the organisers of this year’s ISA rally, was quickly withdrawn. (The rally called for the abolition of the Internal Security Act, a law that allows the government to detain any person without trial, and also to lend support to those detainees, mainly Catholic social workers, who were detained under the pretext of Marxist conspiracy in 1987.) The government has no doubt been successful in arm twisting and instilling fear in the Archbishop.

Social interest groups such as NGOs and Voluntary Welfare Organisations, also experience the same types of intimidation and pressure. In the past month, I have been assisting over a hundred migrant Chinese factory workers in a Panasonic plant located in Bedok. (For more details, this is the link Panasonic Singapore exploited us: foreign workers) They complained of overly low wages (S$500 or US$408 of basic pay per month), and having paid excessive recruitment fees of up to S$7000 (US$5,706). Panasonic held the passports from the workers and they had signed contracts in English which the workers did not understand. Despite attempts to discuss their concerns with the management, their grievances were still not addressed. The workers decided to pen an open letter to Panasonic and I helped them to publicise it.

Within a few days, the Ministry of Manpower sent a high ranking senior civil servant to meet with us to discuss their ‘concerns’ about my organisation’s working relationship with them. They were unhappy that we had assisted the workers to publicise the contents of the letter, and that this no longer made us a ‘credible’ partner to work with. We were told that the government had considered giving us funding for their anti-trafficking programme but we had ruined our chances of obtaining those funds because of our ‘bad’ behaviour. Instead of acknowledging and addressing the workers’ complaints, the Ministry of Manpower has decided to blame and castigate the NGO which highlighted the workers’ concerns.

Two days ago, another senior civil servant from the Ministry of Manpower heard that the workers were considering strike action and warned us that if they did, I would be held personally responsible for it. I was also asked to disclose the names of the leaders of the disaffected workers. On the same day that we received this phone call, I was informed by the workers that the MOM had gone down to the factory to interview them to find out their concerns. It has been more than a month since the workers had publicised their problems, but I had not heard of MOM conducting such interviews to hear them out until two days ago. This must have been done out of fear that the workers may go on strike and escalate the current diplomatic row between China and Japan, rather than a real interest in addressing their concerns.

If the government wants genuine engagement with civil society, it needs to respect our civil liberties to advocate, lobby and shape the society that we want. It should respond to our concerns and the people that we serve not because it is politically expedient but because there are urgent and genuine problems that need to be addressed. What is the point of a ‘national conversation’* if we have no say in how that conversation will be conducted, and if we are only allowed to behave in a way that is acceptable to them? The government needs to start treating its citizens and civil society as equal partners in development. Resorting to threats, warnings, and funding cuts undermines their credibility and makes a mockery of this engagement process.

# For more details of the saga between the Archbishop, government, Function 8 and Maruah (human rights group), you can read Alex Au’s post in his blog Lunch Menu a four-point letter.

* The government has recently started holding a series of ‘national conversations’ with the people, attended by the Prime Minister, to discuss national issues and concerns of the people. Personally I don’t give a rat ass after watching the first one which wasn’t even telecast live, but was an edited version. Many participants in the studio are linked to the ruling party, including the presenter herself. The discussion was simply, in my opinion, a waste of time.

(Update on 6 Oct)
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) responded to Jolovan with a Facebook note on 28 Sept. Basically the Ministry stated that they had been working on this case since August. They found out that the Chinese workers paid their recruitment fee to the local employment agents in China, and hence it is beyond the jurisdiction of MOM. At their advice, Panasonic had provided the employment contract in Chinese to the workers. And Panasonic also assured MOM that it had abide with the overtime limits stipulated in the law, and there might be past breaches which are undergoing investigation. MOM also denied warning Jolovan that he would be held responsible if the workers went on strike. They had merely spoken to the President of HOME to know more of the situation. MOM then went on to state that they worked together with various NGOs and would even consider funding on a project basis. They did not receive any fund application from HOME.

On 3 Oct, President and Founder of HOME, Bridget Tan, published a reply to MOM in the Today Paper. She wrote that the NGO was glad there was no official warning issued by MOM even though the Ministry had expressed displeasure to them on three separate occasions. She also stated that they were not aware of the availability of the funding and only knew about it when it was brought to her attention by a MOM director. HOME was never invited to apply for any funding. She also explained that the Chinese workers paid S$7,000 per person for recruitment fee to their employment agent, and the Singapore agent then collected S$3,000 from their Chinese counterparts. When questioned by MOM, the Singapore agent claimed part of the fee included a refundable portion to the Chinese agent upon the worker completed the probationary period, and MOM accepted the explanation. She urged MOM to check for records from the Singapore agent.

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