RE: Rioting, Inequality And The State

This article is concurrently published on The Kent Ridge Common
Source credt: SCMP

Rioting, Inequality And The State, an article published last Thursday by fellow contributor Bryan Cheang, examines the Little India Riot. It offers food-for-thought by suggesting that the tinder for this unexpected incident is not the exploitation of low-wage migrant workers by profits-driven corporations; the true problem and enemy is the State, “its inherent tendency for self-aggrandisement” and “constant mischief”.

I agree with Bryan that there is a need to be wary of the State, especially after this highly controversial and potentially fractious unrest. The State may politicise this shocking incident to further its influence and curtail civil liberties. However, I find it difficult to believe that the corporate system is free from blame.

Demerits of The Capitalist System

According to the articles that Bryan has written, there are merits to the capitalist system. It is a moral system; it encourages economic freedom that is instrumental to economic development; it is the ideal option when examined against alternative systems.

However, there are significant drawbacks to the capitalist system, ones that have not been as thoroughly discussed.

Capitalism concentrates wealth and power in the hands of corporations and an elite minority. This leads to a widening wealth and income rift between the elite and the majority of the population. Also, there is a deep and structural erosion of basic civil liberties and human rights as power is not evenly distributed between people with means and people without.

Companies can become so titanic that they exert their gravitational strengths and obtain legal and political powers, beyond the economic influence that they already hold. The existence of numerous corporate-sponsored lobby groups and significant political donations in America are obvious attempts by companies to sway legislation in their favour and expand their spheres of power.

Like the State, companies are more than well-positioned to be exploitive. They are ultimately profit-driven and may not be hindered by something as inconvenient as morals. Considerations for the cohesion of the society, the welfare of workers and the health of our natural environments may not even be considered at all.

The Little India Riot: Exploiting Workers? Yes, It’s Exploitation

In an ideal world, companies will not exploit workers. They will fulfill their contractual obligations, pay their workers on time and not suppress their freedoms of expression. Such a utopia, however and most regrettably, does not exist.

Articles on the Little India Riots have contained much anecdotal evidence that there is genuine exploitation of low-wage migrant workers in Singapore. According to Transient Workers Count Too, a group that defends the rights of these workers, employers get away with paying extremely low wages, at times paying even less through all sorts of illegal deductions. Since some employers make money out of the placement fees that workers pay upfront for their jobs, they have no interest in retaining workers and illegally cause labour churn. Injured workers may be denied medical attention and repatriated before they can seek compensation.

It is undeniable that the power structures are overwhelmingly stacked against low-wage foreign labour. Their voices are suppressed by influential companies that are not hesitant to flex their muscles, whether illegally or legally.

Speaking up for these exploited workers, asking the State to defend their rights does not equate “unknowingly inviting the State to slap on their wrists the handcuffs of slavery”.

The State and The Corporate System Are Both Dangerous

I wholeheartedly agree with Bryan that it is important to be wary of the State and to temper its influence such that civil freedoms are not forfeited. Sakthivel Kumaravelu, the low-wage migrant worker whose accident sparked the Little India Riot, has passed away and hence, can no longer speak. His death is a conveniently blank canvas for the government to paint all sorts of narratives and justify measures to curtail civil liberties.

There is an equal need to be wary of the corporate system as well. There are countless examples where the interests of the society and its people do not align with the interests of the corporations. In such cases, the role of the State is vital. It defends us against exploitation by companies solely focused on making bottom-line profits.

Mechanisms to check and balance the authority of both the State and Corporations must exist. And in this case, what citizens want is equitable treatment by corporations, while holding on to their freedoms of speech. These are different freedoms; they are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to have them both at the same time.

In the aftermath of this Little India Riot, I worry about the cosy relationships between the State and various corporations established here. In this highly globalised and connected world, companies are not beholden to any particular country. They go where the money is. As such, governments may be compelled to make concessions in order to lure them into establishing their presence here. The fault lines exposed by this riot, and the circumstances that low-wage migrant workers face, the government is probably aware of these factors but has chosen to ignore them for various reasons.

So yes, there is a need to be wary of both the State and the corporate system. After all, ceding civil liberties to corporations invested with political, legal and financial powers is as dangerous as ceding them to a power-hungry State.