Last week, I was greeted with the unpleasant news regarding the riots at Little India. Like most, I was quite shocked that something like this will happen in Singapore, which has been relatively peaceful and experiencing civil harmony. What apparently happened? From my knowledge of the incident, I understand that the riots began as a localised incident involving a bus accident. It however spiralled out of control as more individuals got involved in it. It then culminated in a full-blown riot as emotions ran high and others joined in. From what I know, it was not a pre-meditated and organised incident, but rather, something that just happened in that moment.
Many Singaporeans have gone to the Internet to express quite contrasting views about the entire incident.
Quite a few of them have castigated these foreigners and made xenophobic remarks against them. Some of these knee jerk responses call for these ‘foreign talents to go home’, since they cause and stir trouble here. This sentiment, I perceive, is in part an outgrowth of the long running unhappiness amongst Singaporeans about the foreign talent policy of the PAP government.
There are also those who portray the rioters as expressing frustration at their ‘state of exploitation’. This view perceives the rioters as ‘fighting for their freedom’, and that while violence was not justified, their latent motivations for doing so are understandable. These people mention that the migrant workers in Singapore are under a state of exploitation; being paid very low wages and having to live in unpleasant conditions, they also don’t have their ‘labour rights’ protected and are ‘manipulated’ by their employers.
The real focus
I would like to argue that both of these views are incomplete because both fail to realise that the real problem here, the true enemy, is the State. On one hand, I do not think that these violent acts of the rioters were in any way justified. However, I reject the second view above because that misunderstands the entire notion of rights and entitlements.
I too believe in ‘fighting for freedom’. I am interested in that, I study that, I’m passionate about that. Yet, the true fight for freedom is one launched against the State, with the aim of limiting its reach and power on every level.
For me, I do believe in duty of civil disobedience when laws are unjust. As Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine famously said before, “An unjust law is no law at all”. According to them, human laws written by government ought to comport with natural law. If laws do not do so, and are clearly unjust, then it may not command our obligation.
Years later, Henry David Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience”. He urged just men to break unjust laws since they went against the dictates of inner conscience. He refused to pay his taxes because they were used to fund an unjust imperialist war and the slave system in the antebellum South in the US.
Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are two famous practitioners of civil disobedience. They believed that we have a duty to disobey unjust laws, but in a peaceful manner. Such individuals should be prepared to face the legal consequences of their disobedience. Martin Luther King himself was arrested countless of times and suffered at the hands of racists and the state enforcers of unjust laws. Through his leadership, the civil rights movement led to much progress for African Americans.
Thus, from the above, I generally believe that in certain cases we have a duty to not obey laws if they are clearly unjust.
How about the use of violence then? While I think that civil disobedience ought to be done peacefully, I do believe that in some very limited and restricted cases, the use of violence is necessary. Besides in self-defence against violence, which is self-evident, I think that resistance against a clearly tyrannical government is justified.
The United States was itself born out of revolution and resistance to the British Crown, which was seen as perpetuating a “long train of abuses” against the colonists. They tapped on the language of John Locke, who wrote “Second Treatise of Government”. According to him, governments rest on the consent of the people and exists merely to protect the natural rights of life, liberty and property. Should the government clearly fail to do so and overstep the boundaries, revolution is justifiable.
According to this perspective therefore, if the people on the streets are marching and targeting a clearly totalitarian and tyrannical State, then their actions will be called for. But last week, there were no Hitler or Stalin being targeted. There was no secret police apparatus being resisted. In fact, the riots weren’t even organised. It was a clear case of violent aggression and public disorder. I was glad that the police swiftly and adeptly put down that fracas that occurred; it is also regrettable that there were some deaths and injuries.
Yet, there are some who sympathise with the supposed ‘plight’ of the foreign migrant workers, even though they concede that violence was not justified. According to this view, migrant workers in Singapore are apparently under a state of exploitation due to their poor working conditions, meagre salaries and lack of ‘labour rights’. I argue vehemently against this view because it reveals a serious lack of understanding about what rights are and the merits of the capitalist system.
Just because workers are poor or are working under less than ideal conditions do not constitute a state of ‘exploitation’, whatever that means. Such a belief has fuelled calls for ‘social justice’ on socialist lines. Socialists of all stripes throughout history have always looked at the poor worker in the factory or sweatshop and decry “exploitation”! They call for more ‘protection’ for these marginalised workers via more government action and regulation in the economy. They are socialists, plain and simple.
It is important that we understand the rights that we have as individuals and the merits of the capitalist system. I believe we have rights to our own persons and property, nothing more or less. Practically, that means that no one may initiate physical violence against us, defraud us, renege on contracts and violate our property rights. Governments should exist to protect these rights. Nothing more I say! A government big enough to give you what you want is also one big enough to take it all away.
Thus, we should be free to engage in any other peaceful and voluntary acts, including business transactions that are not coerced. Thus, employers have the freedom to employ someone for 50cents an hour so long as both parties agreed. Workers have a right to have their contracts enforced fairly and consistently, but beyond that there is no just basis for a guaranteed minimum salary, or guaranteed levels of working conditions. So long as the agreement is not reneged upon and their salaries are not withheld (which constitutes fraud), there’s nothing ‘exploitative’ or ‘unjust’ about the state of affairs that migrant workers are in.
The anti-capitalistic mentality opposes sweatshops (which many migrant workers may be working in today) for being exploitative, and call for regulation and even the minimum wage. These are misguided policies that do more harm than good, despite their good intentions. I have written much about the merits of capitalism and show why such interventionism is pernicious. I have explained why it is a moral system, and not immoral or even amoral. I have also explained why economic freedom is instrumental to economic development; and that global capitalism, free trade and sweatshops should not be denigrated for perpetuating poverty, inequality and injustice. They are actually instrumental in aiding the poor and enabling them to escape their poverty. I also showed why some Singaporean politicians are mistaken to adopt an anti-capitalistic mentality.
Real exploitation exists in the relationship between the State and its subjects. That is where the real inequality is found. If only more people see the true nature of the State. The State exists fundamentally as a parasitical agent foisted upon the individual person. It exists on a continual aggression against the rights of individuals and should be severely limited to some very essential functions only. “Historically, by far the overwhelming portion of all enslavement and murder in the history of the world has come from the hands of government.”
It is funny to me, truly, that people castigate big businesses, multinational corporations and rich CEOs for being exploitative and call for the government to regulate them for the ‘common good’. Only the state has the monopoly of legal violence within the territory. How can Walmart be compared to the totalitarian Stasi East German police, or the Nazi Gestapo? Those who employ migrant workers with low salaries and poor working conditions are not ‘exploitative’ in that sense. I have explained that such calls of “corporate tyranny” are often misguided.
Real exploitation comes from the hand of the State because it rests upon continuous aggression on the just rights of individuals. Having the monopoly on force and law-making, it often excuses itself from actions that are apparently prohibited for everyone else in society.
Murray Rothbard explains it so beautifully…
“The libertarian [someone who strongly believes in individual freedom], in short, insists on applying the general moral law to everyone, and makes no special exemptions for any person or group. But if we look at the State naked, as it were, we see that it is universally allowed, and even encouraged, to commit all the acts which even non-libertarians concede are reprehensible crimes. The State habitually commits mass murder, which it calls “war,” or sometimes “suppression of subversion”; the State engages in enslavement into its military forces, which it calls “conscription”; and it lives and has its being in the practice of forcible theft, which it calls “taxation.”
The libertarian insists that whether or not such practices are supported by the majority of the population is not germane to their nature: that, regardless of popular sanction, War is Mass Murder, Conscription is Slavery, and Taxation is Robbery. The libertarian, in short, is almost completely the child in the fable, pointing out insistently that the emperor has no clothes.”
With this in mind, I see two potential dangers arising from these riots that transpired. Both involve the State and its inherent tendency for self-aggrandisement.
First, I am worried, and rightly so, that the State will further use the pretext of racial/religious/civil harmony to curb civil liberties: “Oh, too much free speech is bad because people will say nasty things about minorities and spark riots! Thus we need to restrict and censor ‘sensitive’, ‘hate’ speech!”. (See this article for my reply).
This is something that has been done throughout the ages. It is clearly seen in post-9/11 America, which has seen a serious degeneration of civil liberties; the NSA has been engaged in widespread secret spying, for instance. Secret wiretapping, indefinite detentions, police checkpoints, invasive searches and so on. Liberty ought to be sacrificed to keep the people safe? That is to me ridiculous, because far from the threat of any terrorist or rioter, the State is far more dangerous. Even as I write this, I am receiving news that the Little India area has been placed under the Public Order Preservation Act, which gives the police broader powers to take arbitrary actions.
This is something that Robert Higgs explains in depth in “Political Economy of Fear” and his book “Crisis and the Leviathan”. He explains that the State thrives on fear and in “crisis situations”. Masquerading as a protector of the general welfare, it calls the fearful and confused public in such public emergencies to cede more civil liberties away to the State. The pliant members of the public know no better. That’s why a siege mentality is always inimical to freedom because people look to a strong government in such a climate of vulnerability.
Singapore has always mentioned that free speech can’t be truly free because people might disrupt the peace by spreading bigoted remarks. A siege mentality is fostered; it is said that if such freedom is allowed, we will supposedly re-create riotous outbreaks of the past. Chaos will ensue. Will it? I say, free speech is not really free speech if the State gets to decide what to allow and what to censor. The media industry in Singapore is one of the most heavily regulated in the world. The internet is even under threat of being heavily censored by the MDA. Do we want to live in such a dystopian nightmare? Really?
Second, I am worried also that some people, out of good intentions, will call for more ‘government help’ (which is a contradiction in terms to me), to alleviate the ‘exploitation of migrant workers’ and other disadvantaged groups. These individuals, thinking that they’re calling for more freedom, are unknowingly inviting the State to slap on their wrists the handcuffs of slavery. Economic interventionism is fuelled often by good intentions, but poor economics.
Make no mistake, I am not a defender of the PAP, nor do I take pleasure at suffering and poverty. I’m only saying that the best way to understand real exploitation, and to ensure justice and the general welfare, is to be wary of the State and its constant mischief. The main point of this article was not to discuss the merits of the foreign talent policy, it was to argue that it is erroneous to say that poor migrant workers are being exploited and consequently call for more statism.
If anyone wants to see true exploitation, one ought to look no further than the situation in Hunger Games. There, the totalitarian state clearly displays the characteristics outlined above.
And no, the ‘exploitation of migrant workers’ is not at all analogous to the exploitation in Panem. In Panem, it is the omnipotent state (and its cronies) that maintains its distinct, parasitical, elite interests at the expense of everyone else. Lets be clear on that.