Politics: When capitalists represent workers

“Majulah NTUC, Majulah PAP, Majulah Singapura!” yelled a coterie of red-shirted acolytes at this year’s government-sponsored May Day Rally. This conflation of the interests of the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), and Singapore is wrong, in our view. NTUC is an umbrella group that, instead of acting as a separate power centre as is the case elsewhere in the world, has long worked in lockstep with the ruling party’s pro-business agenda. Yet it should recognise that the PAP’s support among ordinary citizens has been dwindling. NTUC was founded in 1961, and achieved representation of a majority of workers by 1965, the year of Singapore’s independence. Following the decimation of Barisan Sosialis, the main opposition force, the PAP won over 86 percent of the vote at the 1968 general election (GE) to form a one-party Parliament. However, by GE2020, the PAP’s share was down to only over 61 percent of the vote, and there are now more opposition members of Parliament (MPs) than at any point since the 1960s. If NTUC politicises its messaging, it risks losing the support of roughly two out of every five voters. How can it then claim to represent workers in Singapore’s framework of labour tripartism, where workers, government and businesses build consensus?

Ng Chee Meng, NTUC’s secretary-general, is a likely PAP candidate at the next GE, which must be called by November 2025, though which could be as early as this August. Ng was a PAP MP for one term before famously losing in GE2020 to a Workers’ Party team that included Jamus Lim, an economist. Lim’s views on education and labour, some articulated in a recent “Yah Lah BUT” episode, have the support of many. Despite Ng failing to win an electoral mandate, NTUC controversially kept him on as secretary-general, a role that since 1980 had been filled by cabinet ministers. Ng is not in the PAP’s new Sengkang team, but may try his luck in another district.

More broadly, Singapore’s tripartite model is showing signs of strain. Despite Singapore’s consistently low unemployment rate, people are increasingly questioning the nature of that work, and the drastic income inequality that sees office cleaners earning under S$20,000 a year. This explains the emergence of an alternative, grassroots-driven Labour Day Rally, organised by Workers Make Possible (WMP) at Hong Lim Park, which enjoyed its second iteration on Wednesday. Almost 600 people were there, said WMP, double last year. This includes 14 organisations as varied as SG Bus Drivers, and Sick and Tired, which represents doctors, nurses, and other medical workers. Tripartism clearly isn’t working for them. Alternative “Majulahs” are on the way.

Society: Baby, you can drive my car

Private driving instructors take home a five-figure paycheck every month. But if you’re thinking of abandoning your desk job and joining the profession, tough luck. The Singapore police stopped issuing new instructor licences in 1987 when the first driving schools were set up. “The job is very dangerous. You teach a fella who does not know how to drive, from the beginning to the end when they pass [their driving test],” Alan Lee, a 74-year-old private instructor, told CNA. There are currently only 305 private driving instructors, a number that will continue to dwindle as instructors reach the age limit of 75. The demand for them remains persistent. This is mostly due to the flexibility private instruction offers, both in timing as well as in lesson plan. By tailoring classes according to the learning speed and skill of the individual, talented students can complete the syllabus in fewer classes. In comparison, Singapore’s three driving schools require students to attend a minimum number of classes with set lesson plans before they can sit for the driving test. Skilled students may thus end up paying less overall via the private route despite its higher per hour charge. 

Without new private instructors, the Singapore Driving Instructor Association expressed concern that future driving students will have fewer options. However, some Singaporeans are glad they’re being phased out. According to one Redditor, the lack of “fresh blood providing competition” has lowered the overall standard of private driving instructors, making driving schools the better and obvious choice. Horror stories of private instructors who are impatient (“I already teach [you] 100 times before, why you don’t know [?]”), unprofessional (“...he spent much of the time talking loudly on the phone with his lawyer about his divorce), and even unsafe (“Sometimes, he will be watching some Taiwanese shows on his tablet with max volume”) have led many to attend driving schools instead. Others point to the lack of regulation as a reason for the inconsistent experience with private instructors: “It’s an iron rice bowl for them and they answer to no one.” As the sun sets on the private driving instruction industry, the times of both “godly” instructors with high passing rates and nightmarish uncles from hell will soon be over. 

Society: Roti canai chefs from across the Causeway in hot demand

People are flipping out over a job advertisement offering to pay a Malaysian roti canai, or prata, maker RM5,000 (S$1,420) to work in Singapore. Some think it’s a lot of money—apparently comparable to some white-collar jobs across the Causeway. While others say it’s really not very much given the high cost of living here. The ad, placed in the New Straits Times (NST) last month, also indicated that the employee will receive lodging, meals and access to a prayer room. “The offered salary may sound substantial in ringgit terms, but when converted to Singapore dollars and considering the cost of living on the island, it might not provide the desired quality of life,” Jeremy Lim, vice president of the Restaurant and Bistro Owners Association in Malaysia, told NST.

Malaysia’s median monthly wages for formal employees rose 5.5 percent year-on-year to RM2,600 (S$737) at the end of the third quarter last year. Despite this, however, Malaysians are taking their prata-making skills across the strait: “Roti canai makers flock to Singapore”, read a headline in The Star last October. So much so that since the borders between the two countries re-opened in 2022, mamak restaurants have been “facing difficulties” hiring roti canai cooks, said Hussein Ibrahim, secretary-general of the Johor Indian Muslim Entrepreneurs Association. The daily wage of RM80-90 (S$23-26) wasn’t enough to entice locals to take up the job, especially when they could be earning S$50 a day at a hawker centre, or S$70-100 at a restaurant here. “Majority of roti canai makers working in Singapore are Malaysians as Singaporeans, like their Malaysian counterparts, are not interested in the job,” claimed Hussein. Some 1.13m Malaysians who’ve migrated overseas have chosen to move to Singapore. Another 300,000 odd commute daily for work in the city-state. A 2022 study by the Malaysian government cited reasons such as good job prospects, favourable working conditions, attractive salaries and an advantageous exchange rate, leading to concerns about a “brain drain”. But the prospects of greener pastures across the way appear to flow in both directions. More Singaporeans are setting up home in Johor, either commuting or working remotely, hoping to stretch their hard-earned dollars. With the building of the rail link, this mutual “love affair” is likely to deepen. Malaysia boleh? Or Prata Made Possible?

History weekly by Faris Joraimi

The Singapore HeritageFest (SHF) is back for its 21st edition, running from May 1st-26th with “our nation’s built heritage” as its theme. Boat rides to the 168-year-old Raffles Lighthouse and the kelongs off our north-eastern coast, a kampung tour at Pulau Ubin, and “hop-on-hop-off” bus tours of Little India, Bras Basah and Bugis are some of the over 120 programs planned for this National Heritage Board-organised bonanza. My cup runneth over! If it feels like a bit too much to choose from, here are the events that I’m curious about. There will be the first-ever public tours of 37 Emerald Hill, three buildings which formerly housed the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School (SCGS). It was founded by Chinese Peranakan elites who believed the lack of educated women in their community was responsible for China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War. In histories of Singapore’s built forms, this campus enjoys a rare happy ending; alumnae campaigned in 2018 to “Keep 37 Emerald Hill” as the site was zoned for residential use, and the URA announced the buildings’ official conservation in 2020.

Precious physical spaces from the last century that didn’t survive—both prestigious and otherwise—have lived on in other media, including films. Cinema scholar Ben Slater presents the fourth edition of “Cinema Reclaimed”, a fixture of the SHF since 2021, featuring four films accompanied by talks. One of them is my personal favourite “Saint Jack” (1979), a seedy romp through the physical urban fabric of a Singapore that once was. Finally, there is history that refuses to stay history, animated by ghosts that haunt the present. “Dark Changi: The Walking Tour” has two experiences of abandoned buildings and lonely trails: a twilight walk that’s less scary and suitable for families with kids, and an “80% spooky” night walk accompanied by supernatural lore “from a local custom and tradition point of view.” From solid conserved structures to spectral presences, these events open different doors into spatial history, and conjure multiple forms in which history takes up space. Details and registration for all SHF events are found here.

Some further reading: “To Singapura, in time”, Faris’s first essay for Jom, uses “Saint Jack” as a launching pad to imagine the concept of Singapura beyond the nation.

Arts: Passion made portable

A plate of nasi lemak that fits on a fingernail, a cup of kopi smaller than a corn kernel—the downsizing of familiar Singaporean favourites has made our twee brand of nostalgia even more squee. A growing group of hobbyists here has been painstakingly sculpting everything from teeny egg tart earrings to intricate dioramas of MRT stations. These ardent amateurs have turned digital rabbitholes and pandemic obsessions into a sought-after craft. But what is it that draws us to the diminutive? “We live in a huge and doomy universe, and controlling just a tiny scaled-down part of it restores our sense of order and worth,” concluded Simon Garfield in his book on the thrall of the smol. Whether as children or adults, whether it’s Warhammer, Lego or Polly Pocket, these tiny worlds can offer us a sense of power in the most powerless periods of our lives. 

But these small-scale objects can also act as large-scale tools for the subtle dissemination of social norms and values, argues art historian Stephanie M. Langin-Hooper. She cites the heteronormativity of mini bride-and-groom cake toppers, or stately Victorian dollhouses espousing aspirations around socioeconomic class: “They allow low-stakes experimentation with traditional values, offering the possibility of change—and the option of literally crushing that change, should it offend. What might be threatening to think about in the real-scale world can be more manageable and more conceivable in miniature.” Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth recently commissioned a series of miniatures from several artists, including a convivial scene in a basketball court and a potluck party in an HDB void deck. And why fear the drama of political wayang when you can stage a static, portable one? The manufacture of the miniature fits in perfectly with the manicured model of our little red dot. 

Business: Gojek and ComfortDelGro grab each other’s unclaimed rides

Amidst the ever competitive ride-hailing landscape, Gojek Singapore and ComfortDelGro Taxi have established a strategic partnership by integrating their services to allow drivers from one platform to accept unclaimed rides from the other. Both companies aim to enhance operational efficiency, reduce customer wait times, and improve service reliability. This mutually beneficial arrangement demonstrates a pragmatic approach to competition, focusing on maximising available resources to better serve their customer base. This collaboration, which prioritises driver access to a broader pool of ride requests, suggests potential for increased earnings and job satisfaction for drivers, addressing critical aspects of the gig economy such as job security and income stability. Importantly, the partnership has been structured to maintain current ride prices, mitigating potential customer concerns over increased costs due to the collaboration. Furthermore, the exploration of joint initiatives in electric vehicles, new revenue streams, and support services such as insurance, driver training, and vehicle maintenance underscores a commitment to innovation and sustainability. This would significantly enhance the competitiveness of both Gojek and ComfortDelGro (with the largest taxi fleet) against rivals, notably the collaboration between Grab and Trans-cab. 

Tech: Move Razer fast but don’t break regulations

In start-up land, “move fast and break things” is the oft-repeated mantra. Yet, Razer’s aggressive advertising of its Zephyr masks as N95-grade, without the requisite testing and certifications from critical US regulatory bodies, has led to a costly order to refund over US$1.1m (S$1.5m) to US customers, alongside a US$100,000 (S$136,000) penalty by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Razer has rejected FTC’s claims, but decided to settle to avoid litigation distractions. This incident reveals the potential reputational risks and legal ramifications facing companies that fail to adhere strictly to advertising standards, especially regarding health-related products during a global pandemic. The order comes despite Razer having attempted to rectify the misinformation, by informing customers of the Zephyr mask’s actual grade, discontinuing sales, and providing refunds two years prior. Additionally, Razer’s ventures during the Covid-19 pandemic, including setting up vending machines for surgical masks in Singapore and rebranding its fintech arm to Fiuu, reflect the company’s efforts to diversify its involvement in health and financial sectors amid global challenges. This situation serves as a cautionary tale for businesses about the critical need for compliance and transparency in product marketing and the long-term impact of such issues on brand integrity and consumer trust.

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