On August 9th we celebrated national day. A time to be proud of the achievements of Singapore. In only 44 years, the young, tiny city-state has become one of the most developed countries in Asia. No one would contest that. But, how do we measure development?
We routinely divide the world between developed and developing nations; a more “politically correct” terminology than the outdated first and third world countries.
But who decides when one country stops being “developing” and becomes “developed”? Which criteria do we use to determine what development means? Do we look at the per capita GDP? At the political regime? At the competitiveness of the nation? Do we judge it by economic standards? Citizen’s contentment? The quality of its infrastructures? Government service? All of the above?
Little more than a month before Singapore celebrated its 44th birthday the church issue the latest papal encyclical “Love in Truth”. The topic? Development. It may come as a surprise to many that the Church worries not only about spiritual matters but about secular issues such as development.
In fact, in 1967, Paul VI wrote Populorum Progressio (the development of nations), precisely on the same issue. Benedict XVI wants that document to be a landmark for successive documents to constantly promote the true development of nations. A political agenda or undeniable duty of the church?
So what does the church say about development? And even more importantly, is Singapore considered developed by the church’s standard?
The church tirelessly teaches that persons, not systems, are the point of reference in all social issues, development included. In the words of Fr. Lebret O.P., quoted by Paul VI in Populorum Progressio n. 14: “what counts for us is man—each individual man, each human group, and humanity as a whole.”
One sentence summarizes the whole understanding of the church’s teaching on authentic development: Development “cannot be restricted to economic growth alone….; it must foster the development of each person and of the whole person.” (PP 14). In the latest encyclical, the Pope defines development as the progress “from less human conditions to those which are more human” (Caritas in veritate, 8 )
So, is Singapore developing properly? The first thought that comes to my mind is that in Singapore, some persons are more developed than others. If we need to look at the development of “each person”, each person counts, and that means, even the worst off.
I cannot help but thinking about the conditions of “foreign workers” in Singapore, which are even named differently from “expatriates”, who are, I thought, also foreigners, and also working. Many people seem to be concerned about the “in-humane” way in which they are transported to their working sites, and there have been some measures to fix this embarrassing problem.
However fixing the transport problem only avoids the serious issue. Do this workers live in humane conditions? Do they have proper housing, like a Singapore citizen is entitled to have? Do they earn enough to support themselves and their dependants? I am sure that if the last question was answered satisfactorily, there would not be transportation issues.
In other countries –developed, that is—foreign workers are entitled to a minimum wage that serves them to have normal housing, transportation, schooling and health care like any other citizen.
According to the understanding of the church, all workers deserve a “remuneration… to cultivate worthily his own material, social, cultural, and spiritual life and that of his dependants.” “The simple agreement between employee and employer with regard to the amount of pay to be received is not sufficient for the agreed-upon salary to qualify as a “just wage.” (Compendium… 302). Regarding migrants, the social doctrine of the church believes that “host countries must keep careful watch to prevent the spread of the temptation to exploit foreign labourers, denying them the same rights enjoyed by nationals… and the right of reuniting families should be respected and promoted.” (Compendium… 298)
The latest encyclical expresses the dignified work in the following terms: “work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labour; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one’s roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living. (CV 63)
So back to our question, is Singapore truly developed? Or in other terms, is Singapore developing each person and the whole person? In team racing, what decides which team is the winner, they clock the time of the last member of the team. So what matters is not that they have good runners, but that the worst runner of their team is better than the worst runner of other teams. In sports, that is considered a fair “measurement.” It marks the difference between individual and team competition.
Applying this to development means that a country is only so much develop as the least developed of its inhabitants. In a country with no basic salary, the remuneration for work is at the mercy of the labour market. Other developed countries respect those rights of the worker. To go “ahead” in the development race with different standards of dignity is simply cheating. And if the developing of Singapore needs to achieve the right standards, there is still some room for improvement.
Certainly, Singapore has gone beyond the economical achievement. Racial and religious harmony should be counted as one of the most impressive social development and due credit should be given.
In the end, the question should not be, Is Singapore already developed? As if Singapore, or any other nation for that matter, could afford to sit down and dwell in their successes. The proper question should be, Is Singapore developing properly in the right direction towards true development? Statements or labels do not answer that question. Rather, actions to improve the dignity of all in Singapore are the only appropriate response.