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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 12/16/13

Expressing solidarity with the workers who rioted in Singapore's "Little India"

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Message Prakash Kona

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Two nations I would neither like to live in nor be born into: one is Dubai and another is Singapore. Dubai is just an uglier, less sophisticated and meaner-looking version of Singapore and Singapore is a "nicer" and more "civilized" version of Dubai. The emirate of Dubai and the city-state of Singapore are an extension of the oriental fantasy -- these are economic "harems" of the west made possible by neocolonial interests in a vast third world ocean of nameless humanity. The innocent blood of migrant workers (mostly men who live outside their families for months and years) especially from South Asia has made these cities a reality and the same migrant workers will one day lead a pitiless revolt that will put an end to the oppressive despotisms in these places.

Most of the workers who go to these places are terribly exploited people who wish to go abroad to escape the grinding poverty of South Asia. They are the normal family types who would like to stay home and manage their households if only they could move a little above the bare survival limits. When they go abroad to places like Dubai or Singapore to find work their bosses keep reminding them that they are there because their life back home is just one living hell on earth. It just means that they have to submit to the wage-slavery without asking too many questions as far as their rights are concerned.

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Two things I don't understand: one is that you are taking the other person's labor with impunity while paying them peanuts for the work that the local population will not do and the second is, you want the other person to actually be thankful that you are abusing his or her human rights because you pay them a little more than what is being done in their home countries. You don't want him or her to have the same rights as workers do in your country merely to preserve some sense of order and make sure the workers never unite across borders.

More importantly, there is a conscious blindness to the larger background of western imperialism which ensures that the majority of the third world persists in a state of dependence. The argument that immigrants from poorer nations experience is more or less the same everywhere: they are supposed to feel grateful for offering themselves voluntarily as cheap labor at the altar of corporate dominance. They are also expected to constantly be in a state of guilt or self-blame for not being good enough as "citizens" to fit into mainstream society.

The transport minister Lui Tuck Yew dared to say that "alcohol could have been a contributory factor" for the riot in "Little India" where a worker was killed by a private bus. I am not sure if he has a view of the simmering discontent at being low-paid, isolated (being away from their families) and ruthlessly taken advantage of, for the pittance offered to the workers as wages for soul-killing work. When the riots broke out obviously the men had had enough of being treated like dogs. They had to fight it out on the streets to assert their sense of human dignity. What choice were they left with apart from striking back to express their discontent through whatever available means at their disposal! 

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My sympathies are completely with the workers and hardly anything for the "Singaporeans" who have been told by their hypocritical Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that "the vast majority of foreign workers here obey our laws. We must not let this bad incident tarnish our views of workers here. Nor should we condone hateful or xenophobic comments, especially online." I personally couldn't care less for what the so-called Singaporeans thought about "foreign workers" whose labors they are appropriating night and day or the stupid laws of their country designed to create this sanitized glass house where people are controlled to the extent that they are willing to give away their basic right to question the system for a comfortable life. What the Prime Minister ought to have said was: We the Singaporeans are a lazy and greedy showpiece of a nation living by the labors of those we shamelessly exploit and therefore we better accept the fact realistically that once in a way the poor workers will revolt. It doesn't mean however that we let them get away with it. We send them to jails and we cane them as well to let the others know how "civilized" we are."

My sympathies with the rioters are about them being exploited workers who took the opportunity to fight it out on the streets. They were forcibly repressed which is an expected response but they made an important point which is bound to benefit how the other workers will be treated in future. Small gains are acquired through incidents such as these riots whose spontaneous character actually shows that the men had no intention of being riotous until the moment they saw their fellow worker trapped under the private vehicle.

The exploitation of cheap labor has to be globally challenged. It is time that right-thinking people took a stand against nations that thrive on cheap labor and unforgivable exploitation. The arrested workers in Singapore have to be freed unconditionally and their bitter concerns have to be taken seriously if the government has any shred of human decency left in it. What is the difference between a man who will rape a woman because he has the power to do so and someone who will rob another person's labor thereby reducing the latter's humanity because he sees their condition as a completely helpless one! None, whatsoever.   


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Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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