Monday, 9 December 2013

From Sonapur To Singapore, Elysium Stands Exposed

Riots in Singapore! The news is shocking not just for its violent fury (vehicles burnt, police cars overturned) but also for the fact that they could happen at all in such a country - orderly, disciplined Singapore. As I followed more of the news, initial incredulity gave way to a sardonic and depressing recognition as the location of the riots and the identity of the rioters became apparent. The rioters were reported to be migrant workers from India and Bangladesh. Such unseemly events are unfortunately common in India, and if they had to happen in Singapore, it could only be in Little India.

The initial provocation seems to have been the fatal running over of a migrant South Asian worker by a private bus, but the reaction of his fellows was extreme and of surprising scale (400 persons were said to have rioted, trashing property and taking on even the police). There surely must have been some deeper, long-standing grievances that burst through the surface with this incident.

Infographic from The Straits Times analysing the riot

Cyberspace was quick as always to pick up on the race angle, and it was open season for the commentariat's stereotyping and name-calling. Officialdom, equally quick to underplay or deny the race angle, chose to emphasise an aseptic "law and order" concern instead. However, both these narratives are only partially correct. This is partly about race, and partly about law and order. But in truth, it is about economics, it is about global capitalism, it is about rising but frustrated expectations, and it is ultimately about revolution. (Historians tell us that revolutions occur during times of rising expectations, and we happen to live in one of those times.)

I'm no Marxist, but I have eyes and I can see. I believe I can see better than our political leaders and captains of industry that we cannot build a consumerist paradise on the back of underpaid migrant labour and expect eternal tranquillity. Our globalised capitalist system cannot see beyond its nose or this quarter's profit figures. Relentless in driving down the costs of its inputs and raising the prices of its outputs to whatever levels the market will bear, the system has created a social tinderbox. The recent Science Fiction film "Elysium" starring Matt Damon is a commentary on exactly what we are seeing on earth today with its bubbles of serene prosperity such as Singapore. As Wikipedia says, Elysium "explores political and sociological themes such as immigration, overpopulation, transhumanism, health care, exploitation and class issues". This is exactly the ugly can of worms that Singapore's riots have rudely laid bare.

Elysium - the world of the privileged elite

Earth - where the rest of humanity lives

As the saying goes, we don't live in an economy. We live in a society. The most powerful argument against treating human beings as "resources" is that resources are not expected to nurse grievances about exploitation and injustice. Human beings can and do.

I have personal experience of exploitation by that other Elysium - Dubai. In 1994-95, even after completing my second masters degree, I was working in India earning a pathetic salary of 8000 rupees a month. Highly educated yet poorly paid, I was living a life of genteel poverty in high-cost Mumbai, and it could not last. Marriage accentuated the unviability of my condition, so my wife and I moved into my parents' house for a modest improvement in living standards. That too could not last. It was then that I received a job offer from an employer in Dubai, and it seemed too good to be true. I was offered the equivalent of 60,000 rupees a month, and I immediately accepted, overjoyed at my good fortune. But reality hit as soon as I landed in Dubai, for two reasons. One, the amount I was paid, while generous by Indian standards, only allowed me a modest living in Dubai. Two, I quickly learned that expats from more developed countries, the UK in particular, were earning many multiples of what I did. Among my class, i.e., the educated white-collar Indian expats of Dubai, there was constant jealous muttering and grumbling about the Brits. The grapevine carried tales of new hires from the UK to senior management positions with hefty salaries and perks like villas, BMWs and four-wheel drives. One of these people, it was said, used to be a petrol station attendant back in the UK. Now he lived in a villa and drove a fancy car to work, while we Indians, with far better education, lived in modest apartment blocks and walked to work, often in the blazing Middle East sun.

Neverthless, I had it relatively easy. I have since read about the plight of migrant labour in Dubai, also from the Indian subcontinent but from more impoverished backgrounds than mine. They are paid a pittance (yet more than what they could earn in India), housed in overcrowded tenements, bused out to construction sites early in the morning and bused back in the evening. The Dubai township where many of them are housed is called, with deep irony, Sonapur (Hindi for "city of gold"). Sonapur is the Earth to Dubai's Elysium. It is Sonapur's migrant labour that builds Dubai's gleaming skyscrapers, its unaffordably priced hotels with the taps of gold, its luxurious shopping malls, indoor ski slopes and ice rinks and other symbols of hedonistic excess. It is a world that Sonapur's worker class can see, but can never hope to touch. I confess that for a few years after my Dubai experience, I harboured a deep sense of resentment towards UK nationals, whom I viewed as undeservingly entitled and privileged. Having experienced class jealousy and a sense of injustice first hand, I can imagine what the developed world's underclass must feel.

Dubai - The Elysium of the Middle East

Sonapur - Dubai's migrant workers' quarter

My own story turned out quite well. The second masters degree that I referred to earlier was in preparation for migration to Australia, another fortress-like Elysium with a moat and drawbridge to keep out unwanted boat people. As a skilled migrant, I was welcomed into this rarefied world. Education was my ticket to Elysium, and although I had to undergo some sacrifice to attain it, it was within my reach. For the uneducated migrant workers of Dubai, Singapore and elsewhere, Elysium is hopelessly and permanently beyond reach.

What can be done? The official response to the latest riots is typically and laughably Singaporean - ban alcohol. In the nineties, faced with an epidemic of passive-aggressive citizen protest in the form of chewing gum stuck to the buttons of elevators and the door sensors on the MRT, the Singaporean government responded in the way it knew best. It banned chewing gum. There was no attempt to understand the social frustrations that lay beneath that layer of chewing gum, and I don't expect any such attempt now. There will be no ban on migrant labour itself, nor a raise in their wages. Such moves would threaten the financial foundations on which the prosperity of Elysium rests, so sheer economic rationalism would forestall such moves. However, the roots of riots like this are not alcohol but frustration. Asking people to work for a pittance to build a world of luxury in which they cannot share is a recipe for social unrest. We can ban alcohol, but we cannot ban frustration.

Viewing this as a purely law-and-order situation is also limiting. Yes, lawbreaking cannot be condoned, so arrests, prosecutions and convictions must occur. But while we may sip our lattes and debate whether we live in a melting pot or a salad bowl, the reality for many is that they live in a pressure cooker. Cracking down only tightens the lid on that pressure cooker. It doesn't reduce the pressure, and any long-term solution has to address that. The differences in our society are not so much charming diversity as stark disparity. It is a situation that demands urgent policy attention.

I'm not a socialist, and I don't advocate socialistic solutions. I know that we cannot legislate an artificial economic equality. But I am egalitarian, and I believe that all human beings have a right to be treated with equal dignity. For an egalitarian society to be even viable, the quality of human capital has to be raised to a certain minimum level across the world. Capitalism is our best hope, but it needs to evolve into a wiser system that sees human beings not as resources to be exploited but as productive free agents as well as well-off consumers, so it must aim to put more money and time into people's hands. This is not for altruistic reasons but out of enlightened self-interest. The returns for all are much higher when societies are uniformly well-off.

So this is not really Singapore's problem, or Dubai's, or the developed world's. It is a problem for the governments of poorer countries to solve, and urgently. If Indian nationals can expect higher living standards at home, the laws of capitalism will of course ensure that fewer of them will find employment in foreign countries, but those that do will be offered wages that are closer to what nationals of those countries receive, reducing disparity and consequent social unrest. India must grow at a minimum of 10% for the next 15 to 20 years to prevent these pressure cookers around the world from exploding. [India also has an additional problem of 30 million "extra males" resulting from years of gender selective reproduction, and the frustrations of a generation of unfulfilled Indian men will create problems both for the country and for the world, but that is a separate issue.]

If there is one man who can be indirectly blamed for Singapore's riots, it is India's economist prime minister Manmohan Singh. In the last five years of his current term, he has done nothing to unshackle the Indian economy and facilitate the growth rate that can save us all a world of pain. He is sure to exit office after the May 2014 elections. I fervently hope India's future leaders have what it takes to raise the country's living standards, or else, given the global importance of subcontinental labour, all the world's Elysiums could come crashing down.
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