2009 Doom & Gloom Update: Protests in Singapore

Singapore is famous for its efficiency (thus the nickname Singapore, Inc) and infamous for its harsh penal codes for seemingly minor infractions like littering and spitting. Like any other country it has been shaped by the circumstances under which it was created, and the environment in which it has survived since then.

This “red dot in a sea of green” faced race riots in the 1960s that left several people dead. Neighbors turned on neighbors and most Singaporeans in their late 40s and older remember the time vividly. In the words of many, they would rather live in a controlled but safe country than have more freedom but face uncertainty. This mind-set drives the laws of the country where people are not allowed to congregate in groups larger than 3-4 people without explicit permission. Peaceful protestors like the Fallun Gong have been known to be arrested or removed.

With this backdrop it is shocking to hear that there were protests in Singapore by around 100 unemployed Bangladeshi migrant workers in front of the Ministry of Labor. An indication of the desperation of the workers in the recession plagued economy, Singapore is gearing up for an increase in what it calls “recession crimes“. Several other ASEAN countries like Thailand and Indonesia are also expecting an increase in violence as a result of economic malaise.

Saudi Arabia and Bangladeshi Workers

Bangladesh is one of the largest suppliers of manual laborers to Saudi Arabia. Some 300 new workers used to come in every month and become everything from construction workers to tea boys.

Very well networked, they are considered resourceful and hard working. They are also infamous for having their own “mafia” that is heavily engaged in prostitution, drugs and alcohol.

Since last year, for no openly declared reason, Saudi Arabia stopped issuing visas and extending iqamas for Bangladeshi workers. Saudi Gazette quoted the Bangladeshi embassy last December:

“Starting April 2008, no domestic helpers including house maids, drivers and agriculture labor were being recruited to work in Saudi Arabia, although no official notification was given by Labor Ministry to the Embassy in this regard,”

In line with this development, Saudi Arabian airlines has reduced its weekly flights to Bangladesh from 12 to 8.

There is a range of speculation about the reasons:

  • Reduction in crime
  • As Saudization continues and some jobs that were traditionally done by foreign labor are being moved over to Saudi’s, the need for foreign workers has gone down
  • As political alliances change, Saudi Arabia might be readying itself for increasing workers from some other country