Singapore strike a symptom of deeper woes

When Chinese bus drivers stopped work over a pay dispute, problems with immigration and a heavy-handed government rose to the surface

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2012, 4:26am

Singapore's first strike in more than 25 years has highlighted the strains on the nation as it copes with an influx of foreign workers and growing discontent.

Scores of Chinese immigrant bus drivers returned to work yesterday after the government clamped down, launching strident criticism of the workers and stationing riot police near their hostel.

Nearly all of the 171 striking drivers were back on the job after a government minister warned them they had "crossed the line". They went on strike on Monday in protest at being paid nearly a quarter less than Malaysian drivers who work for the same company.

SMRT, the nation's biggest underground railway operator, is also one of the two main bus service providers on the island.

Strikes are almost unheard of in Singapore, where the ruling party has been in power since 1959 and maintains strict control over political dissent. The last strike was in 1986 by shipyard workers.

The action may "stir up more unhappiness among the foreign workers," said Leong Chan Hoong, a research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies in Singapore who has studied cross-cultural psychology. "This incident may actually encourage them to step forward and say, 'Hey, they've done it, the SMRT drivers have done it, maybe we can give it a try'."

The island of 5.2 million people relies on hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers from countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and China who work as maids, construction workers and other occupations deemed unappealing by Singaporeans.

The influx has strained public services and sparked a backlash, particularly among low-income Singaporeans, by keeping wages down. Meanwhile, growing numbers of expatriate professionals working for global companies have pushed up housing and other costs.

The government is "losing the ability to feel the pulse of the public and react accordingly", said commentator and former newspaper editor P.N. Balji who characterised the strike as a "huge embarrassment" for Singapore. "This inability, if not tackled quickly, can only damage the country's jealously guarded reputation in the long run."

On Monday, the Chinese drivers who are paid S$1,075 (HK$6,817) a month compared with S$1,400 for a Malaysian driver, refused to board a shuttle bus to take them to work. Riot police and four police special operations vehicles were stationed near their dormitory while management of SMRT tried to convince the drivers to return to work. About half continued the strike on Tuesday.

"They should reflect on our behaviour and investigate why we have reacted in such a way," state TV quoted a driver as saying.

Government reaction was swift. Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan Jin announced that the strike was illegal because it disrupted an essential public service. He said the government had "zero tolerance" for unlawful behaviour and police were investigating the workers.

Strikes by workers in "essential services" are illegal in Singapore without 14 days' notice.

"By taking matters into their own hands the drivers have clearly crossed the line. These workers have disrupted public transport services and Singapore's industrial harmony," Tan said.

SMRT said the strike affected about 5 per cent of its bus services. The firm said the Malaysian drivers were paid more because they were permanent employees.

Singapore's ruling People's Action Party won 60 per cent of the vote in May elections, its lowest share of the vote since 1965, as rising living costs and the influx of foreigners caused support to ebb to the fragmented opposition.

The government says it has been restricting growth in the number of immigrants through measures such as increasing its foreign worker levies. A government report released in June showed the number of foreign residents rose to 1.49 million from 1.39 million the year before.

Associated Press, Bloomberg