Dear friends, ladies and gentleman,
I want to thank the Yale Council on Southeast Asia Studies and Yale International Relations Association for organising this forum and for so graciously inviting us to participate in it.
Many of you here today probably know very little about Singapore, at least not before the Yale-NUS controversy erupted. What you probably heard is that Singapore is this rich, clean island renowned for its disciplined workforce and no nonsense government.
This assessment is not entirely wrong. Singapore is very rich. We have the most number of millionaires per capita in the world. In fact, Singapore is one of those places that some would sight as an unmitigated success story. In 2011, US Ambassador to Singapore Mr David Adelman said: "The agreement with Singapore is perhaps our most successful FTA globally.”
The US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2004 by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and US President George W Bush.
At that time, I had raised serious questions about how such an agreement would affect workers in Singapore. I visited the US Congress and AFL-CIO to urge caution about the FTA because the lack of democratic freedoms, in general, and workers' rights, in particular, would mean that workers would be exploited instead of helped.
That was in 2004. Now some 8 years after the FTA was implemented, the results are in. And they look very pretty, I must admit – at least for a few.
As I mentioned earlier, Singapore is the richest country in the world in terms of GDP per capita – US$57,000, the United States is around US$46,000. This is, in large part, due to the influx of a staggering number of millionaires emigrating to the city-state. Between 2010 and 2014, it is projected Singapore will see a 67% increase in centa-millionaires – that's folks with over US$100 million in disposable wealth. We have the highest percentage of millionaire households in the world.
It is perhaps inevitable that such wealth will have a significant impact on the economy. This year, the Economist Intelligence Unit listed Singapore as the 9th most expensive city in the world – more expensive than London, New York and Frankfurt. And not just by a whisker – Singapore is 42 percent more expensive than New York City.
But the FTA doesn't do as much for the rest of the population. In fact, it keeps the poor firmly anchored at the bottom. About 5 percent of Singapore's workforce draw an annual income of less than US$5,000 – that's less than US$100 a week – in a city that is 42 percent more expensive than New York City. Ten years ago they made the same amount. For a decade they saw no wage increase.
How is this possible, a city that is one of the most expensive in the world with wages that are one of the lowest? Because there is no minimum wage legislation. And why is there no minimum wage legislation? Because there is no opposition to fight for it.
The ranks of opposition parties have been decimated with years of persecution, there are no independent trade unions because labour leaders have all been imprisoned or run out of the country.
There is no free media – all Singaporean TV stations, radio channels and newspapers are owned and run by the government.
You have just come through a presidential election where income disparity was a major issue.
A couple years ago, you had the Occupy Wall Street campaign which brought to the fore, amongst other issues, the yawning gap between the rich and the poor here in the United States.
I hear that the richest 1 percent of the population in this country owns 50 percent of the wealth. The statistic is indeed alarming. And yet, the income disparity is wider in Singapore.
Middle-income workers in Singapore don't have it better. According to a survey of conducted by the International Labor Organisation (ILO), Singaporean workers work the longest number of hours.
And yet, the study reported that their real incomes have diminished. A UBS study done in 2011 used New York as the benchmark upon which workers' wages of 73 cities were compared. New York was given the score of 100. Zurich came out at the top at 144. Singapore? 35.8 – below that of Sao Paolo, Johannesburg and Moscow.
These are not just numbers. They have a huge impact on the quality of life of Singaporeans. We are one of the most, if not the most, stressful places to live in Asia and one of the unhappiest peoples in the world. In a survey of 14 economies, Singaporean workers were found to enjoy going to work the least, are the least loyal to their employers and have the least supportive workplaces. Only 19 percent of those polled in Singapore look forward to their work each day, the global average is 30 percent.
It's not like we can vote out the ruling party. Former prime minister and strongman Mr Lee Kuan Yew, whom many still consider to wield ultimate power in Singapore said: "Please do not assume that you can change governments. Young people don’t understand this.”
So what can Singaporeans do to make things easier for themselves? They leave the country – for good. More than half of Singaporeans say that given the chance they would emigrate.
And an astounding number do. According to the World Bank, 10.1 percent of Singaporeans pack up and leave the island. Another survey found that more than a third of younger Singaporeans say that feel no loyalty to their country.
And it isn't that the Singapore government is doing all this by itself. It has ample support from the West especially the neoliberals here in America.
In 2003, prior to the signing of the US-Singapore FTA, the AFL-CIO wrote to the House of Representatives bringing its attention to the pitfalls of the agreement which, if enacted, would mean that Singapore's workers "are likely to face widening income inequality."
The AFL-CIO letter continued: "Singapore's government has wide powers to limit citizens' rights and to handicap political opposition...The Government continued to significantly restrict freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as well as to limit other civil and political rights."
So it wasn't that the US Government did not know of the problems the agreement would present. As it was, there was hardly a debate in Congress and the US Government promptly signed the FTA – the first in the world.
To be sure, the love affair between the Singapore government and the neoliberals started a long time ago. In 1986, when a minister (the late Ong Teng Cheong) sanctioned a strike in the shipping industry he incurred the wrath of some of his cabinet colleagues.
He said: "The minister for trade and industry was very angry, his officers were very upset. They had calls from America, asking what happened to Singapore? – we are non-strike. If I were to inform the cabinet or the government they would probably stop me from going ahead with the strike."
Since then there have been no strikes. Until four days ago when a group of bus drivers recruited from China struck because of low wages and poor living conditions. The Singapore government has said that it has zero tolerance for such action and four workers have been arrested.
So what has all this to do with Yale?
When it was first announced that Yale would be setting up a campus with NUS in Singapore, I had my reservations but kept my own counsel. My colleagues and I in the Singapore Democratic Party cautiously welcomed the set up.
We had hoped that given Yale's proud history that it would not allow the Singapore government – or any government – to dictate the kind of experience it provides for its students.
But my worst fears were confirmed when it was declared that Yale-NUS would not allow certain political activities, including students forming party-affiliated organisations.
It seems now that instead of Yale opening up the minds of Singaporeans through academic inquiry and scholarship, it is the Singaporean Government that will close the minds of the people running the College.
I also understand that degrees will be awarded by NUS, and not Yale. If this is the case, then I have to question why this is so. Is Yale not proud of the students if produces in Singapore?
I fear – and I sincerely hope that I will be proven wrong on this – that the Yale leadership does not, like American multinational corporations that have come before it, cynically looking to make that quick and easy dollar from Singaporeans while completely disregarding what such actions would do to our society.
My experience with foreign academic institutions lead me to be very skeptical of their claims to want to provide Singaporeans with the best that academia can muster.
Will I be unwelcome again at an academic institution in my own country? What kind of message will Yale be sending to Singaporeans when you call security to stop me when I visit the campus to talk to students about their rights and civil liberties.
I don't presume to lecture the US, and even Yale administration, on how to conduct its business but I will say this: Where you come to make your profits is where I bring up my children. Like you, I want them to grow up enjoying the quality of life that you want for your own children. Where you come to advance your interests is where my fellow Singaporeans and I live in the hope of freeing our country and knowing what it's like to be free. Like you, we want a say in how our country is run and be able to elect our own government.
Don't get me wrong – I am not asking you to change our country, Singaporeans are more than capable of doing that ourselves. What I am asking is for the US and its institutions like Yale not to be complicit in helping the ruling Peoples' Action Party to oppress and exploit Singaporeans.
But when an institution, despite knowing the repression that goes on in a country chooses to take advantage of the lack of freedom to install extractive and exploitative economic policies for its own benefit, when you seek to advance your interests at the expense of ours, then I question if you are friends at all.
If all America is interested in is to make money regardless of the damage that profit-making venture is, then we are all going to be poorer for it. If we continue to choose the beggar-thy-neighbour approach to globalisation, the global community will fail.
I fear, despite all the assurances, and because of what I have seen of what corporate America together with the Singapore state has done to my country, that making money is the be-all and end-all of all that is collaborated. I hope you can see why the Yale-NUS venture leaves me suspicious of Yale's motives – whether you are there to educate or simply to line your own pockets. I have never yearned so much to be proven wrong.
Asian values under the guise of Confucianism, have been used by the Singapore government to steer the people away from democracy which, it argues, will hamper economic progress. I argue the opposite – and data that I have presented bear me out – that openness and accountability, in other words democracy, is essential for the economic advancement of a people.
But that's not the point.
Others argue that democracy is a Western concept not suited to an Eastern culture like Singapore. The irony is that it was the West which subjugated and oppressed Singapore, together with much of Asia, for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Freedom from colonialism was not given but won; the rebellion was instinctual. In short, the longing for freedom is not Asian or Western – it is primordial.
But that's not the point either.
Humankind must not live in a world where the poor and the elderly live off the crumbs that fall off the rich man's table; where Westerners, with the help of autocratic governments, exploit the locals in the countries that they invest in. Instead, we must work out a way to live in peace and on the premise that human equals human.
That's the point.
If you come to Singapore to visit, you will see a conspicuous display of opulence. But hidden away in the unseen corners are pitiful figures of poverty.
I don't care if this bent and gnarled figure is an American or Singaporean and neither, I suspect, do you (see photo below, right).
For a struggling American worker is not different from a struggling Singaporean worker. We're first and foremost human beings: when oppressed, we long to be free; when exploited, we seek to break that yoke.
And if you care enough that education at this revered institution will prepare you for a life that not just enables you to get ahead but to also improve the lot of those around you, of humanity, then you will also care that Yale University not yield on the principles of higher education on which it is founded.
You will want this proud arena of intellection to care that it upholds its reputation of imparting not just knowledge but wisdom, the wisdom that invites an individual to enter the door of his conscience.
Such wisdom cannot be found in textbooks, you can't score a correct answer on it in your multiple-choice test. It can only be approximated when you have the freedom to challenge authority, to question the status quo and push the limits of convention, a freedom that Yale so boldly and nobly embodies, a freedom that we have lost in Singapore.
Teachers and students, if you will not accept anything less for yourselves here in New Haven, why then do you acquiesce to a demand that will deny your counterparts at Yale-NUS that same, rich experience?
I can only hope that as we progress into the future, as the global community becomes more intertwined and our interests become increasingly linked, that our values – the values that people come before profit, rights before riches and wisdom before wealth – will also become inextricably bound.
I have been censored and censured, ridiculed and mocked, I have been sued and made bankrupt, and I have been jailed over and over. But that only makes me more determined to speak truth to power and to you, my friends, here at Yale.