by Diana Rahim
When I started thinking about this letter, I was still processing the announcement by Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong that food prices are expected to rise due to a rise in energy prices, supply chain bottlenecks and labour shortages. There has also been an increase in bus and train fares in Singapore for the first time in two years, a rise in rental costs, and an increase in electricity and gas tariffs. Now, Singaporeans are also told of a planned increase in the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
Essentially, we have seen an increase in the price of food, rent, transportation, utilities at the same time there is a rise in retrenchment, a rise in the unemployment rate, a reported increase in food insecurity and demand for food aid and an overall greater experience of precarity amongst the low-income, who are hardest hit by the pandemic and its effects.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a phenomenon secluded to Singapore. There has also been a global rise in food prices and we also know that the ultra-rich has gotten even richer. About a year ago, it was reported that the wealth of billionaires rose by $10.2 trillion during the pandemic. An article about the billionaire boom last year stated that nearly 700 individuals were made billionaires. Most damning though was this:
As the virus spread, central banks injected US$9 trillion into economies worldwide, aiming to keep the world economy afloat. Much of that stimulus has gone into financial markets, and from there into the net worth of the ultra-rich. The total wealth of billionaires worldwide rose by US$5 trillion to US$13 trillion in 12 months, the most dramatic surge ever registered on the annual billionaire list compiled by Forbes magazine.
Reading this, I thought: let there never again be the claim that the poor are over-dependent on welfare when the rich are raking in money meant to keep countries afloat, money that they don’t even need. In truth, the world is run, bent, and being destroyed to feed the wallets and egos of the rich. The poor are often judged and stigmatised for needing financial help, when in actual fact, most are not being paid the true value of the work they do and it is the rich that game the system to their advantage, through exploitation and wage theft.
Even when the crisis hits individuals from every stratum, it is undoubtedly the poor who suffer the most profound losses and difficulties. Their incomes cuts are far higher, especially if they work in customer-facing industries, where there is no option to “work from home”. A report by Beyond Social Services found that the median household income of families they assisted dropped by 69% from $1,600 before the Covid-19 pandemic to $500 after.
While we can share numbers and data to prove the existence of income inequality, it should not be forgotten that it is something that is materially, emotionally and psychologically felt. It means immense psychological stress day after day that keeps one’s mental state perpetually distressed. It means a lack of nutritious and adequate food that leads to health issues and a difficult relationship with food. It means that one’s self-esteem takes a battering, in the struggle to provide for one’s children the quality of life all parents wish for their children. It means a vulnerability to an array of negative coping mechanisms in order to bear the the pain and indignities of life.
In the submissions of this series, we see infuriating and frustrating examples of how people must suffer dehumanising treatment and waste precious time and energy just to access the help that they so badly need. Financially vulnerable and exploited communities, what we call the ‘low-income’ community, are people who have been sacrificed in a system that requires a population to be underpaid and overexploited. They are then put through gruelling experiences and means-testing to access the funds they need to live a decent life. Financial and material struggle in Singapore is by no means rare, especially when we consider the fact that (as of 2020) around 52,000 Singaporeans earn less than S$1,300 a month.
Workers go through a strange kind of affirmation in Singapore, and I suppose this is true for many other countries. They are offered gestures of support in the form of claps and cheers at sundown. They are publicly admired for their grit, endurance, and determination to make a living and support their families. But the moment they speak about their exploitation, or organise against employment abuses, this support seems to wither. Economically exploited workers seem to only be admired if they quietly endure their exploitation.
To me, true concern and resistance against economic injustice means supporting workers when they advocate for their labour rights and resist against what keeps them exploited. I think of the bus uncles who bravely decided to file a lawsuit against their company for alleged unfair work practices such as long working hours and unpaid overtime. I think of the delivery riders who filled up a Meet-The-people session to express their frustration and anger when an e-scooter ban impacted their work overnight. I think of migrant workers who speak about the shameful conditions of their dormitories, unfair work practices and the dehumanisation they face in Singapore. I think of nurses sharing about the unforgiving conditions they are enduring as hospitals strain in the pandemic. I think of the people who contributed their experiences in this series, shedding light in the difficult navigation around bureaucracy and judgement as they simply want to access a more dignified life. Instead of talking about how these efforts are signs of ungratefulness, disobedience or excessive, maybe we should listen and support them. After all, the ones who knows best about the failures of a system are the ones who have been failed by it. In expressing their experiences, difficulties, and resisting against their exploitation, they stand for not just themselves but for all of us.
As our country and many others around the globe are striving towards normalcy, the crisis of economic inequality that COVID-19 has revealed and deepened has remained. If you are able and willing to consider contributing to the following mutual aid efforts and organisations working to keep people fed and afloat:
Migrant Mutual Aid
East Side Mutual Aid
Beyond Social Services
Food From the Heart
Illustration by Elisa Tanaka