Generation 40s – 四十世代

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If Singapore can groom political talent for good governance, why can’t Hong Kong?

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-09-07
Gary Wong Chi-him says that if Carrie Lam wants more effective governance in Hong Kong, she should look to Singapore’s political cultivation process, not its civil service training

During her maiden official trip to Singapore, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor visited the country’s Civil Service College, admitting that it was her second attempt to learn from the vision of the local academy. In the face of new global challenges, professional training for public servants is important, but the Singapore government’s great foresight is not merely the result of a civil service training facility. Rather, its rigorous system in recruitment and development of political talent is key.

Lee Kuan Yew, founding prime minister of Singapore, once stated that the key to the country’s success was “the best and brightest doing the most outstanding jobs”, meaning political talent doing political work.

One must overcome many hurdles to represent the People’s Action Party in Singapore’s general elections. According to Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party, candidates must complete an IQ exam, psychological test with more than 1,000 questions and two face-to-face interviews for clinical assessment. Doctors examine childhood and family life, educational background, experience with national service, sex psychology history, marriage habits, social activities, health, work experience, finances, life philosophy and political motivation. However, past performance in grass-roots work is given higher priority than the psychological test. In the past, Lee Kwan Yew disapproved of some outstanding civil servants due to their lack of ability to work with grass-roots communities and labour unions.

Singapore strongly believes that dealing with low-income groups is the starting point of political training. Political newcomers must begin working in the grass-roots community and climb up step by step. After winning in the general elections and building a solid power base, they may finally enter the government to serve as cabinet ministers or in other high-level leadership positions.

In Singapore, members of Parliament, including the cabinet ministers, meet the residents of their constituencies every week – a programme known as a “meet-the-people session”. I have attended one such session, which began at 7pm and officially ended at midnight. Since there is no specific closing time, the MPs met all the residents who came for help.

Singapore highly values nurturing successors in political leadership. Early in the 1980s, Lee Kwan Yew began talent-hunting across the nation for people in their 30s and early 40s, with academic brilliance and distinguished careers, to join the political arena.

During each general election, the PAP requests a third of its MPs give up their seats for new candidates. Prime Minister Lee Hsien-loong believes this turnover rate allows each MP to serve an average of three terms, or about 15 years. In Singapore, if one begins a political career at 37, he or she would only be around 50 on completing 15 years of public service. Singapore emphasises recruiting talent from outside the establishment. Lee Kwan Yew did not want to see a situation where cabinet members hold similar views, leading to “ideological inbreeding”. Currently, the PAP actively recruits talent from think tanks, religious groups, business corporations, community organisations and other fields. Those with political talent are encouraged to have different ideologies, but must agree on core values, handle problems logically and share the goal of solving political problems.

Beyond providing training for civil servants, perhaps Hong Kong more urgently needs a structure for developing political talent. Hong Kong’s chief executive often faces difficulties in forging an effective cabinet, final appointees rarely share a common vision, and the poor organisation process leads to public criticism. Moreover, most appointed officials have no experience in grass-roots politics and elections.

Discussions of Singapore’s political talent system are not intended to encourage Hong Kong to replicate Singapore’s model, but to caution the government to deepen their examination into effective strategies that better discover, nurture and sustain talent in public service. After all, good governance cannot depend on capable public servants – it requires excellent political leaders.

Gary Wong Chi-him is governor of the Path of Democracy


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Would Asia’s army of migrant domestic workers stay home if they could?

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-08-07
Theophilus Kwek says governments and scholars portray domestic workers, mostly women, as voluntary migrants. But applauding choice must not distract us from tackling coercion

Domestic employment in Southeast Asia’s rich metropolitan centres is often presented as a lucrative, even strategic choice for thousands across the region pursuing better livelihoods, or an improvement in living standards.

In a recent address, a Singapore minister praised his country’s foreign domestic workers (colloquially referred to as “maids”) for choosing to “support their families back home” in this way. His language echoed that of reports in Singapore’s national broadsheet, typecasting domestic workers as “women from impoverished families seeking higher incomes abroad”. Unsurprisingly, state-supported charities like the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training have made it their aim to maximise returns on these women’s decisions to migrate: by “adding value to their work”, and hence “enhancing their future employability”.

Academics within and beyond the region are prone to entrenching this view. Southeast Asia’s domestic workers are mostly portrayed as voluntary migrants who, as one researcher put it, set out to “make money, save it up, and invest it strategically in a transnational manner”. This reading has also begun to shape policy discourse. A briefing released by the UK’s Department for International Development in early 2016, authored with a team at Singapore’s Asia Research Institute, framed labour migration as a “pro-poor livelihood strategy”, undertaken especially by women from “poor households” to support “productive investments” in education and other areas.

A narrative that characterises the decision to seek foreign domestic work as a free, informed, and laudable choice, however, conceals the fact that labour migration in Southeast Asia is chiefly produced by deep-seated drivers of displacement.

Taking a more nuanced perspective would not only allow us to account for the causes of forced migration within the region, but also to address them.

Sending states are a key piece of the puzzle. As early as 2001, Indonesia’s new minister of Manpower and Transmigration stated that his government would “facilitate labour export” as a solution to unemployment, given that “about 40 million people [were] jobless” at the time.

Professor Stephen Castles, a former director of the International Migration Institute, has pointed out that encouraging emigration to ease joblessness can bring “long-term costs to the economy and society”. Nevertheless, political leaders in the region who are unable or unwilling to create employment at home may well perceive exporting domestic labour to be an attractive, and no doubt affordable, policy solution.

But states rarely urge their citizens directly to take up poorly remunerated and ill-protected jobs overseas. Instead, conditions can be created (or left to occur) in which those in difficult positions view the sacrifices involved in doing so as the least bad option relative to other life choices.

A 2015 study by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics found that close to two-fifths of Indonesian, Filipino and Myanmese foreign domestic workers had migrated “to be able to send their children to school”, while 15 per cent reported either problems in the household or a lack of available jobs as reasons why they left.

Solutions to such problems should rightfully be demanded from national governments.

Still, pressures for displacement are not created by sending states alone. The umbrella of responsibility extends much further, to transnational employment agencies which charge extortionate rates and wilfully distort information about working conditions abroad, as well as intermediate authorities at home who willingly overlook stricter safeguards during the recruitment process.

Global and regional market dynamics are also to blame.

Skyrocketing inequality in Southeast Asia means that any gains in regional wealth are enjoyed by a thin, privileged elite, leaving few options for those struggling to make ends meet. This makes domestic work, often in unappealing conditions and far from home, still a desirable option.

To be clear, we cannot afford to overlook the agency of migrant workers in determining their futures: indeed, the willingness of so many to make the best of their circumstances speaks of great personal fortitude and hidden sacrifice.

Yet, applauding choice must not distract us from tackling coercion. A narrative which foregrounds only the voluntary aspects of migration tempts us to think that migrants bring upon themselves the trials they face abroad, and allows those responsible for deprivations endured elsewhere to get away with easy solutions.

We owe them, and ourselves, a better explanation.

Theophilus Kwek is a writer, editor and researcher based in Singapore. He has recently completed a master’s degree in refugee and forced migration studies at Oxford University


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Hong Kong shames itself again by its treatment of domestic workers

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-05-12

Yonden Lhatoo takes a look at the latest revelations about the plight of foreign domestic workers in the city to remind Hongkongers how it reflects on them

In his classic science fiction novel, The Time Machine, H. G. Wells presents an anti-utopian vision of a future in which humanity has evolved into two species, the Eloi and the Morlocks.

The beautiful but spoiled Eloi, descended from the idle rich, enjoy a life free of work on the pastoral surface. The downtrodden, beast-like Morlocks, evolved from the working poor, toil underground in the dark to keep the surface dwellers fed and clothed.

Let’s hope we’re not heading in that kind of direction, the way people in this part of the world treat their domestic helpers from less-fortunate nations. And what a shame that Hong Kong is yet again making headlines in this regard.

How about this for starters: 500 domestic helpers will be sleeping tonight, and every night, in toilets in their employers’ homes. That’s according to a concern group that has just released a survey of the living conditions of 3,000 Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers in the city.

At the same time, 14 per cent of them can’t access toilets when they need them for something other than to sleep in. And about 70 per cent share bedrooms with children, elderly people or co-workers, while 21 per cent sleep in the living room.

In one case, a helper’s bed was fitted into a kitchen cupboard above the fridge and microwave oven. A tiny rooftop room, only 1.2 metres from floor to ceiling, was accommodation for another helper. It makes me ashamed of complaining that I don’t have enough room for myself in my flat.

Yes, many Hong Kong families live in appallingly cramped conditions themselves, but we’re talking here about those who are affluent enough to afford hired help in the first place.

It doesn’t help that the government is an immovable object in the face of calls to ease the live-in requirement imposed on foreign domestic workers, and the opposite of an unstoppable force in making sure they are not treated like something to be folded and stored away for the night.

Now it’s taken a bunch of university students to show us, after their seven-month investigation, that more than 70 per cent of employment agencies here charge excessive fees to domestic helpers, withhold their passports as leverage to squeeze the money out of them, or stiff them in some other illegal way.

“If it’s that tough for them here, they’re welcome to go back home,” the unsympathetic often say. Why such disregard for people who prop this city up on more than one level?

We have about 350,000 domestic helpers serving 280,000 households in a city where families rely heavily on them to look after babies and grandparents while both husbands and wives go to work. They wouldn’t like their incomes halved now, would they?

That’s just the money part. Their other, often unappreciated contribution is the substitute for parenting they provide, and the companionship and care for elderly people who would otherwise be neglected. Like it or not, they are a glue holding the fabric of society together.

Going back to the future with the Eloi and Morlocks, the analogies are not limited to just helpers and employers. It’s about the age-old class divide, the class struggle, and what that could eventually mutate into in the centuries to come.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the best part of the story. The trade-off for the Morlocks’ life of drudgery is that they get to nip up to the surface at night to grab hapless little Eloi and drag them down into the depths to feast on their flesh.

To the Morlocks, the Eloi are actually livestock to be tended and fattened for food. Karma comes in many ways, I suppose.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post


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Asia’s migrants deserve to be welcomed fully into society

CommentInsight & Opinion
2016-12-16
Nenette Motus says everywhere in Asia, migrants’ work is so integral to our prosperity that it’s unconscionable to deny them their rights

We are almost at the end of the year, by the Western business calendar. For many, it’s the start of a journey – home to see the family, to be with friends.

Our journeys may be short, but they are long enough for us to reflect on the millions who have set out on less happy journeys. In Asia, where disparities between rich and poor are wide, millions are on the move every year, seeking work and comfort for their families.

December 18 is International Migrants Day, celebrated this year under the UN theme of togetherness. Our welcome for migrants must extend further than simply benefiting from their contributions. We must also accept them into our society and assure them of the rights that we take for granted.

The Asia-Pacific region hosts the largest migrant population in the world. According to UN data, between 2000 and 2015, Asia added more international migrants than any other area of the world – 26 million in total, or 1.7 million additional migrants per year.

Asia’s prosperity and growth is built on the contributions of migrants. Asia can lead the world in celebrating this narrative, in realising that extending the hand of welcome to migrants brings economic and social benefits.

Host societies do not benefit from neglecting the welfare of migrants. Poor health, ghettoisation and poverty among migrants affect all in society. Conversely, ensuring migrants have access to good health care, housing, nutrition and working conditions will increase their value and contribution.

Very often, we send our talented young people to other places to study, work and live. We expect their right to health care and education to be ensured under the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. We need to demand that these rights be protected for all migrants, not just the ones we are connected to.

Migrants’ lives are interwoven with our own. Our shopping is often totted up and bagged by migrants. Our meals at restaurants are served by migrants. We wear clothes that were made by migrants. Our office buildings are built by migrants. The elderly in our ageing societies are supported by migrants.

Why do we stigmatise a group we benefit from so much? Migrants are too often blamed for taking our jobs, raising the crime rate and bringing diseases to our communities. This prejudice cannot be reconciled with the valuable role they play.

Migration is a quest for sanctuary, work, a second chance, a new dawn. We can walk that path together.

Dr Nenette Motus is director of the International Organisation for Migration’s Regional Officer for Asia and the Pacific, in Bangkok, Thailand