When in Singapore… be sure not to strike
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When in Singapore… be sure not to strike

When in Singapore, do as the Singaporeans do. Which means do not go on a strike, because that may turn out to be very costly for your career, as proved by the story of 34 Chinese bus drivers who protested against what they saw as discrimination last month.

According Chinese official media, on November 26-27, 171 Chinese employees of Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) – a state owned company – refused to go to work because their wages were about one quarter lower than that of their Malaysian colleagues. Whether this can be considered a discrimination is not clear. SMRT’s chief Desmond Kuek has pointed out that lower payments were justified because the company took care of the Chinese workers’ expenses for transport, accommodation and utilities.

What is certain is that on the morning of the 26th the drivers decided to stay in their dorms and did not show up at work. They did so without previously informing their company, which is illegal under Singaporean law. The city’s regulation concerning strikes is strict: employees in essential services must give their employer at least 14 days’ advance notice of their intention to have a strike and the decision must be agreed upon by at least seven other workers involved in the strike. Those who fail to comply with relevant laws can be fined up to 2,000 Singapore dollars (US$1,636) or jailed for as long as a year, or both.

Tough rules are a deliberate effort to prevent any protest from happening and keep up the city’s image as a safe destination for foreign investment. In this sense, it certainly is not a case that last month’s strike was the first since 1986.

Of the 171 people involved in the strike, 29 have been deported to China. Four other drivers have been charged with inciting an illegal strike. On Thursday, three of them were allowed a bail of 10,000 Singapore dollars ($8,200) while the fourth driver, who has also been accused of making an online post in Mandarin, was given a bail of 20,000 Singaporean dollars ($16,400). A fifth, Bao Fengshan, has already sentenced to six weeks in prison after he pleaded guilty on Monday.

There has been caution on both sides. In Singapore, Eugene Tan, a Professor with the Singapore Management University and nominated member of the parliament, has spoken of a failure in industrial relations as the workers were not given enough space to voice their grievances. In China, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei mentioned the issue during a news briefing and stated that “China calls on the Singaporean side to take Chinese workers’ specific conditions and legitimate appeals into full consideration, discreetly and properly handle the case, and substantially protect the lawful rights of the arrested Chinese workers”.

Netizens have been way less diplomatic than their political representatives. Some users on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, have been defending their countrymen against what they perceive as an injustice and an act of bullying. Kentzhaoie, a Weibo user, calls for “people to hedge against Singapore”, while Liangran argues that “Singapore needs to be fixed sooner and later”. Another user, in an attempt to play a joke on his own government, wonders whether mainland Chinese should defend their compatriots abroad or whether they should praise the Singaporean government for maintaining “stability”, a concept often used by Chinese authorities to justify their policies. In Hong Kong, activists protested in front of the Singaporean consulate on Wednesday.