It is now an article of faith that domestic wages were depressed for years in Singapore because of the too-easy access to a rapid influx of low-wage foreign workers.
So workers in low-wage sectors like cleaning and security have seen wages rise, as the Government tightened the tap on growth in foreign worker numbers after 2011.
On the front page of The Straits Times on Friday, in an article on productivity growth lagging behind wage growth, a bank economist was quoted as saying that wages have been playing catch-up only recently, after having been “generally depressed by an influx of foreign workers” for years.
Comments along these lines go unchallenged, and are hardly remarked upon.
It was not always so. I recall parliamentary debates when MPs who suggested this were rebutted.
One Parliament news report from March 5, 2010 described Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam rebutting opposition MP Low Thia Khiang’s claim that the Government had depressed wages of lower-income citizens by letting in more foreign workers.
Said Mr Tharman: “By allowing the economy to grow rapidly in the second half of the (last) decade, we were able to bring unemployment down and grow the incomes of Singaporeans.”
To be sure, growing the foreign worker population helped drive the economy which raised wages across the board. But did it also extract a high cost on low-wage earners?
More pertinent, did that easy access to cheap foreign workers become a crutch for employers, so that they didn’t invest enough in technology or more productive ways to do business?
It is now orthodoxy to say that the rapid influx of foreign workers from the mid-2000s depressed local wages at the bottom.
That got me thinking about other radical theories challenged by the establishment one day, which become orthodoxies years later.
One of these rebel-turned-establishment ideas is that of risk-pooling in health insurance. For years, the Government held fast to its principle that each individual and family should be responsible for their own medical bills.
So the Central Provident Fund and its medical savings component, Medisave, were designed as individual accounts.
Whatever you put in remains yours, and isn’t pooled. Never mind if you have $35,000 untouched in your Medisave, and someone else checks himself out of hospital because his Medisave has run out and he can’t afford treatment.
After much soul-searching and hard arguments, the arm in Government that argued for solidarity and risk-pooling won. Thus was born MediShield, which lets people pay premiums into a common pool and draw from it for medical expenses.
Today, there is also the CPF Life annuity scheme. It pools money from people’s retirement accounts and spreads it out in an annuity payable for life. Even if you use up “your” portion of the money by, say, age 90, you can draw on the pool, funded by other people’s savings.
It would all make some of our pioneer ministers turn in their graves. But today, such risk-pooling is universally applauded for giving individuals peace of mind.
In the economic and even social arena, once-radical ideas may become accepted. But what of ideas in the political arena? What ideas being discussed today might be before their time, but may one day become accepted?
Or to put it another way: What ideas that are so well-defended today might crumble tomorrow and be discarded?
One such idea is that there is one right view of Singapore’s history and that it is the duty and right of the establishment to defend it and use every resource at its disposal to propagate it.
The thing is, facts are indisputable. That Singapore is an island that lies one degree north of the Equator is a fact.
Existential realities, too, are of paramount importance and are hard to gainsay. Singapore is a tiny sovereign city-state in a volatile region, right smack in the middle of a maritime and air theatre in which big power play will unfold in the coming decades.
Military skirmishes escalating into conflict are a certainty; full- fledged war not totally unlikely.
If we want to remain sovereign, there are certain things we have to accept and defend, certain behaviours demanded of us. These are cold, hard realities.
But what of historical events that brought us here – what is the role of the different players in those events? What motivated them? Some of that is contestable, and is being contested.
The best counter to such contestation of historical narratives is facts, not suppression.
If one scholar comes up with an interpretation based on one document, then let another scholar demand access to even more archives and records to come out with a different view.
While this contestation is going on, state authorities should resist the temptation to use their power to enforce one version of history over another. To be sure, the Education Ministry has to agree to a national education and history curriculum. It, therefore, has to “take a stand” and propagate the establishment view of history. Our school textbooks and our schools will tell that story to our students.
But other state bodies should act according to their mandate. For example, the National Library should not start removing from its shelves books that articulate an alternative view of Singapore’s political history. It should remain true to its mission of housing a wide variety of books for the population’s edification and enjoyment.
Nor should the National Arts Council (NAC) start to use taxpayer funds to sponsor and support only works of art consistent with the national mainstream narrative of history. It should instead use artistic merit as its primary criterion.
Similarly, the Media Development Authority (MDA) should stick to its mandate of promoting media development and not filter out films with a point of view that runs contrary to that of the current government.
This is not to say these bodies should permit works that are seditious or run contrary to the national security interest. So some sanction remains necessary.
But these bodies should be ideologically neutral. They should permit works of art, films and books that espouse a diversity of views, some of which will necessarily run counter to prevailing mainstream views. It is not their role to censor such views – neither is it their role to actively endorse and promote them. But as bodies that act as facilitators and custodians of the cultural creations in our society, they should at least permit a free play of such ideas.
If these suggestions sound out of the box today, just reflect on the fact that the notion of risk-pooling healthcare funds was once deemed heretical. One day, the idea that agencies like NAC, MDA and the National Library should do their jobs to promote art, and films, and reading, and not be used to defend and enforce the establishment’s version of history, will become mainstream.