Tory dreams of Singapore-on-Thames are workers’ nightmare

Tory wet dream: right-wingers are keen on removing many of the rights and protections won by trades unions to mimic Singapore

ANDY FORD examines some of the implications for workers of the government’s policy to turn Britain into a kind of off-shore free port

The idea of Britain as a kind of Singapore just off the coast of Europe, with light regulation and high growth, has been a recurring theme of the Tory right for more than a decade.

Liz Truss (remember her?) was perhaps the leader most openly committed to the idea, but it remains influential still, for instance in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s hobby horse of freeports dotted around the country.

In his version, once the “burden of red tape” is removed, the freeports will grow mightily and drag Britain into some sort of high-growth future.

But what is the real situation for people in Singapore?

Their work terms and conditions are governed by the Employment Act which applies to all workers earning less than $4,500 a month – £2,786 at this week’s exchange rates – except for seafarers, domestic servants and government employees. The Act gives workers only 14 days holiday per year and requires them to work a six-day week. Workers in Singapore don’t even get to choose when they can take their day off each week – their employer has that privilege.

There is no minimum wage and employees can more or less be dismissed at will – provided only that notice is given. There is no redundancy or statutory severance payment unless set out in the employment contract.

Tax threshold: PM Rishi Sunak and Akshata Murthy, who lives in Downing Street but is a non-dom for tax avoidance purposes

Anyone who has been to Singapore will tell you that the workforce is structured between citizens and foreign workers, with Malaysians making up most of the lower-status workforce. They will queue for hours to cross over from the mainland for a day’s work. If foreign workers break any of Singapore’s many laws, even just littering or jaywalking, they will instantly lose their work permit and face deportation.

They can be required to produce this work permit by any public official at any time. If they marry, get pregnant or bear a child, the work permit can be cancelled.

Even for Singaporeans, terms of work are considerably worse than for most workers in Britain. But there is also a secondary workforce of immigrant labour who, although they have rights, can have those rights withdrawn for many reasons.

Of course, none of this is visible to the Tory ideologues such as Rees-Mogg and Redwood, or the Think Tank creeps who hang on their coattails and feed them their ideas. All they see is the gleaming skyscrapers, the high-growth rates, zero Capital Gains Tax, and agreeable stays in top-notch hotels where an army of invisible (to them) minions look after their every need.

In reality, Singapore isn’t even the monument to the free market and lack of regulation which the Tory right-wingers would have us believe.

Income Tax is very graduated in Singapore, from 2per cent to 22per cent in 10 incremental steps. It is capped at 22per cent, even for the wealthy. But every employee in Singapore also has to save 20per cent of their income with the government’s Central Provident Fund. That is an effective tax rate of 42per cent for the highest earners.

And employer contributions are another 17per cent.

Strict controls: migrant workers in Singapore have few employment rights

Nearly one-fifth of the economy is state-owned – including airlines, transport and electricity, but also media and manufacturing enterprises. So not so Thatcherite after all. More like Britain before Thatcher.

The state-owned port at Keppel has been ranked as the world’s No1 port for nearly 20 years. Again, decades of state-led investment have ensured that it can handle the biggest ships with the most advanced technology, to the point where Singapore handles one-third of world container traffic every year.

The port is owned by the state investment fund, Temasek, which has assets worth US$500billion across the world and also operates a fleet of 80 merchant vessels.

The secondary port at Jurong is also state-owned, through the Jurong Town Corporation, which has a mandate to focus on sustainable development.

Nearly all housing in Singapore is publicly built and publicly owned. It is possible to buy a house or an apartment, but most are held on leases and are still government-owned.

In the city of Singapore, after decades of government investment, there are superb road, rail and airport facilities, far superior to the ramshackle privatised systems we see in Britain. Sunak’s government would have to invest billions of pounds a year to reach Singapore standards.

Idealogue: Tory MP John Redwood

The internet in Singapore has 99per cent connectivity and is verified as the fastest broadband in the world. This also has been government-directed, through the “Intelligent Nation” programme. Again, very different from Britain. Such excellent infrastructure attracts capitalist investors from across the world.

Another problem for the Think Tank dream of Singapore-on-Thames is that Britain is still dependent on trade with Europe, and the EU has stated that any attempt to deregulate and undercut its members would meet with tariff barriers to goods and services coming from Britain.

Far from a free market, Singapore has been run on a system of state control and ownership – to ensure investment. And before running away with the idea of Singapore as some sort of well-run capitalist paradise, it is important to remember that this is one of the most unequal countries in the world, out-ranked only by about a dozen countries like Colombia, Panama, Zimbabwe and Central African Republic.

The aim of all Singapore’s investment and infrastructure is to provide a protective cocoon to capitalist development. GDP on average per person may be high, but the wealth produced is shared out very, very unequally.

Perhaps that is what really appeals to the Redwoods, Rees-Moggs and Sunaks.

  • Andy Ford is a Unite union regional rep


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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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2 Responses to Tory dreams of Singapore-on-Thames are workers’ nightmare

  1. Sarah Gills says:

    This is a very interesting and illuminating article. I’ve read the dross of a book written by Liz Truss et al and you quickly realise that there is no depth to their thinking. So when they talk about Singapore on Sea – they literally haven’t done hard graft and researched what it is like for others.

    They shouldn’t be anywhere near government.

  2. Lewis White says:

    Thanks for this worry-expanding but helpful article.
    The idea of free ports is such a crass idea. So–let’s build a freeport miles from anywhere, requiring a new motorway to get there….or would massive lorries thunder down country lanes and through villages , causing noise, filth, making life hell for the people whose front doors face the street? Probably, both. More air pollution as the ports are…miles from anywhere.

    Meanwhile, what happens to the existing ports. There are only so many Chinese container ships bringing Chinese made goods to the UK to go round. So– an existing port like Felixstowe or Goole suffers as a result of some new port built with special Government cash.

    And– is it likely that free ports will actually be the revamping of existing but run down ports? I kind of doubt it. Probably a new place built on green field sites and wildlife rich marshes where it is easy to lay lots of concrete quickly.

    The worry is that a certain breed of gambler/ developer / asset stripper capitalists who can sniff out nice grants for building the ports factories, will enjoy keep them open for a few years, then sell them on having invested the profits off shore. Nice work for some. Except those workers laid off. And those Construction workers who suffer accidents or death due to the cutting of “red tape,” such as enforcement of safe working practices.

    So, someone has had a brilliant idea– British ports could attract the ships away from Europort, Antwerp, Hamburg and the like, then, the ships will be unloaded, the goods loaded on to other transport (ships? by rail ? on ferries by lorry?) and taken to Europe. Europe, that place we have cut ties with. I think it was called Brexit. Oh well, back to the drawing board

    Why not take the money and invest it in places where it is still needed, in areas like the where heavy industry employment has gone or is still going, where we need growth, such as making insulation and electric turbine and car manufacture, and retention and improvement of manufacturing such as furniture and footwear. Decent local transport networks for every area of the UK, and manufacturing of buses and trams and trains here. An improved freight rail network. A fishing industry backed up by easy rail transport of fresh fish to London and major centres.

    A new sewage treatment system to stop pollution of sea and rivers , and technology to re-use water in an overheating world. All the kit needed to bring this about should be made here.

    Perhaps it is our political 5 year term that stops us looking forward, but maybe it is just a national psyche that holds us back. The poverty of vision is perhaps associated with the removal of key things from public control, such as water, gas, electricity, the diminution of council services like parks and diminution of road repairs.

    We , in the land of ambulances filled with trolleys and waiting emergency patients, and pot holes stitched together with temporary tarmac reinstatements that fall to bits after a few weeks, are accepting low standards that would not have been tolerated a few decades ago.

    The French get angry and bring Paris to a halt. We accept.

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