What does the coup in Myanmar have to do with Singapore?

Also: inequality in Singapore during COVID-19, a new Green Plan, and the fight for space for the arts

恭喜发财!Gong xi fa cai!

This week, I’m trying out a new format (of sorts) for the newsletter: I’ll pick out an issue or two for a deeper dive, then just provide shorter links to other stories. It’s not actually that different from the previous format, just a little bit more organised… if you have any feedback, feel free to reply to this email and let me know!


Who’s doing business with the Tatmadaw?

As you might have seen from the special issue I sent out, the military in Myanmar — also known as the Tatmadaw — staged a coup on 1 February. The Tatmadaw are claiming widespread electoral fraud, thus framing their coup as defending Myanmar’s democracy. Yet there’s no evidence of any such fraud, and the people of Myanmar are not taking this BS sitting down. There have been ongoing protests of all sorts, from princesses to hunks, which is incredibly brave given the risk of the military resorting to a brutal crackdown.

What does this have to do with Singapore?
The Singapore government has expressed “grave concern” about the situation in Myanmar, and has urged restraint. Members of the Myanmar community in Singapore have also been active in supporting the civil disobedience movement back home, although — true to form — the Singapore police have warned against staging solidarity demonstrations here, saying that Myanmar nationals who engage in such activity could risk being kicked out.

But that’s not all. Singapore has plenty of business interests in Myanmar; in fact, we’re reported to be the largest foreign investor in Myanmar. The two countries also signed the Singapore-Myanmar Bilateral Investment Treaty, which came into force in October last year.

Venture capitalists based in Singapore are keeping a close eye on the situation (paywalled, but jump to the bottom of the newsletter for a way to read this article). Some Singaporean businesses have already pulled out: RMH Singapore has said that they’ll be giving up their shares in Virginia Tobacco Company, which is co-owned by the Tatmadaw.

But there’s even more problematic stuff. As you can see from the tweet below, there are more Singaporean businesses involved with the Tatmadaw or Myanmar’s police.

Swe Sin Tha has also done invaluable research into companies in Singapore with links to the Myanmar military. Two Singapore-based companies, Excellence Metal Casting and STE Global Trading Pte Ltd, are linked to the director of Myanmar’s Directorate for Defence Industries, which has been noted at the United Nations for having a “sophisticated global procurement network”, including getting weapons from North Korea, which is very not okay and breaks UN sanctions on North Korea.

What can I do?
As Swe Sin Tha says in her Facebook post, you can report these businesses to the police, as she has.

You can also write to your Members of Parliament — they aren’t just there for municipal issues and domestic affairs! MPs can ask questions in Parliament relating to Singapore’s links to and relationship with the Tatmadaw, and push the Singapore government to do more to ensure that Singaporean companies and businesses are not complicit in oppression and state violence in Myanmar.

Singaporeans can put pressure on their MPs to put pressure on the government to put pressure (via diplomacy) on authoritarian and oppressive regimes, so don’t assume you have no power!


COVID-19 and its impact on low-income families

Beyond Social Services published the report, Mind The Chasm: COVID-19 & Deepening Inequalities in Singapore, this past week. It documents the impact that the pandemic has had on low-income families. Here’s the opening paragraph from the executive summary:

2020 was a harrowing year for many families. It was especially difficult for those already on the margins. Not only did many households see their incomes vanish entirely or drastically reduce, everyday life was disrupted in unforeseen ways: during the circuit breaker, schools and childcare centres closed, digital access became a necessity, grocery shopping was unpredictable and stressful, and families were forced to spend most of their time at home, often in overcrowded conditions. Staying safe comfortably, eating regularly and healthily, working from home (and getting paid): these are marks of privilege, and out of reach for many lower-income families.

Some key findings
The majority of applicants to Beyond’s COVID-19 Family Assistance Fund were already in precarious, low-wage jobs, many of which were severely affected by lockdown and closures. Beyond found that, during the pandemic, the median household income from work among applicants fell by 69% from S$1,600 to S$500. The median per capita income (i.e. the total income from work, divided by the number of people in the household) dropped by a whopping 74% from S$425 to S$113. 35% of applicants to the assistance fund saw their household incomes go down to zero.

This is before even going into other issues, such as struggles with care work during the pandemic. School closures, for instance, left some families stuck when it came to childcare provisions, and some reported having to either take leave from work, or put off finding work, because they had to care for young ones. As schools moved to home-based learning, the issue of having to be devices and a steady internet connection at home also became an issue.

What can I do?
Beyond’s report makes some recommendations:

  • Strengthen employment rights and social protection: this would require recognising the limitations of the Progressive Wage Model, and engaging seriously with the debate over implementing a minimum wage.

  • Substantial, extended rent relief for public rental flat occupants, because the reductions in rent need to reflect the sharp drop in income caused by the pandemic.

  • Debt relief, because research has shown that “chronic indebtedness creates bandwidth taxes for the poor”, not just financially but also psychologically.

It’s important that these recommendations are taken on board. The Budget will be delivered on Tuesday, 16 February, and after that we’ll also have the Committee of Supply debates, so that’s worth paying attention to. Hopefully these recommendations will make an appearance.

If you’re an employer, you can think about the conditions of work and the amount of protections you have for your employees. But many of these issues are systemic and can’t be solved by individual employers alone, so Singaporeans should also be using our voices and networks to share valuable research, such as this Beyond report, and push the national conversation forward.


Got some more

The PAP government has introduced the Green Plan 2030 to lay out Singapore’s green targets over the next decade. The targets include planting a million more trees, requiring all newly registered cars to be cleaner-energy models by 2030, reducing waste sent to the landfill by 30% by 2030, greening 80% of all buildings in the next decade, and becoming a centre for Green Finance in Asia and globally. (I’m not going to say much more about this Green Plan for now because I’ve got plans for a closer look into this via a special issue!)

Friends in the arts community are upset (or raging) over the news that after the National Arts Council refurbishes the building that the Substation is currently in, it’s planning to turn it into a centre for arts groups. It’s possible for the Substation to return to that space, but it’ll just be one of a number of groups. While a new centre for arts groups might not sound like a terrible idea, the issue is that this is something that wasn’t done in consultation with artists, and overall there’s little confidence that top-down administration of the arts is going to be able to provide the same amount of space for creativity and experimentation, or maintain the original ethos of Substation, which is an artist-founded space for the arts. As a member of civil society who has attended socio-political events at the Substation, I’m not holding my breath that a new centre will be similarly welcoming to activists.

The High Court dismissed the case of Syed Suhail — a death row inmate whose case this newsletter previously covered — in which his lawyer, M Ravi, argued that death row inmates were not being treated equally when it came to the scheduling of executions. He still gets to challenge this decision at the Court of Appeal.


How to read paywalled newspaper articles

If you’re in Singapore and would like to read articles from Singapore Press Holdings newspapers, you should become a member of the National Library (more details about memberships here). With a membership, you can access SPH newspapers on your computer, or via the NLB app on your phone.