Singapore: The unseen migrant workers behind those skyscrapers

A migrant construction worker throws his boots to the side as he takes a break with fellow workers at the end of his shift in the central business district in Singapore
Photo: Reuters

By Sangeetha Thanapal.
This article will be published in Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on migrant and refugee rights. To subscribe, click here.

Many migrant workers come to Singapore in the hopes of making a better life for themselves and their families back home, only to leave disheartened at the exploitative practices and abuse they undergo in the country.

Migrant workers in Singapore make up about 1.4 million within Singapore’s larger population of 5.6 million people.[1] Desperate for cheap labour to build the state, Singapore has had an open door policy for low-wage workers for decades. These workers are usually from India, Bangladesh and China and it is their labour that has built the skyscrapers which tourists love so much about Singapore.

They also live under harsh and extremely restrictive measures, and are often mistreated, overworked and underpaid. Their employers (who are overwhelmingly rich, Chinese businessmen in a country with a 77% Chinese majority) often cajole them with promises of paying later, and then resort to threats and mistreatment.

The state pays lip service to fair work but its policies say otherwise. More often than not, itrarely prosecutes employers[2] who withhold the wages of their employee and does not step in to ensure safe working environments.[3] It also unwittingly supports employers in their mistreatment, as workers who complain or take their employers to task can have their work permits cancelled. Thus, there is serious disincentive for workers to even claim what is rightfully theirs, made worse by a system that condones their disenfranchisement.

An analysis of workers and their plight in Singapore also requires a gendered aspect. Foreign domestic workers in Singapore are women, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia. Their stories diverge from male construction workers but only a little. Stories of physical, mental and sexual abuse are rife.[4] Women are locked up, overworked and underfed.[5] Some have been offered up “for sale”6 and many others have resorted to suicide.[7]

It is clear that migrant work in Singapore is a form of modern day slavery.[8]

So why do neighbouring countries keep sending their workers to be treated in such abysmal ways? There seems to be a convergence of interest between rich states who desire cheap labour and poor ones who can’t afford to keep many unemployed workers at home. Furthermore, a weak civil society[9] within Singapore that is kept crippled by a strong state finds it hard to grapple with this problem. There is often the idea that Singaporeans themselves are economically exploited, and that needs to be the first priority amongst civil society. There are only two NGOs that work on behalf of migrant workers, TWC2[10] and HOME.[11] On a typical day, TWC2 can see up to 500 workers with different grievances. The kind of exploitation faced by these workers is too deeply endemic for two NGOs to deal with adequately, especially when faced with an apathetic government that sees these workers as dehumanised objects to be used and tossed aside.

As a state, Singapore practices a type of surveillance mechanism, where every aspect of people’s lives are watched and controlled. Foreign workers are often subject to containment measures, especially dark-skinned South Asian men whose mere physical presence alone causes panic. There is a spatial othering that occurs with these men, who are often confined to certain areas of the country. There was even an outcry at government plans to build a dormitory for these workers in a high density building estate.[12] Singaporeans want migrant workers to do their ‘dirty work’ for them, but do not want to lay eyes on them while they do it.

The women are subjected to a different kind of scrutiny, where their bodies are the site of medical surveillance. Work permit policies prohibit these women from becoming pregnant[13] on the threat of losing their jobs and being deported. These women come to look after Singaporean families but they cannot create any of their own. They also bear all the responsibility for not getting pregnant and given the strong possibility of abuse and rape as a domestic worker in Singapore, this is an undue and unjust burden that is placed on them.

Historically, the Singapore state has practiced a form of eugenics,14 where poor women’s children’s are deemed simply not good enough for the state. The policies aimed at controlling the bodies of domestic workers are an extension of that. Unwanted children from unwanted women is transgressive: the state only desires certain types of bodies to procreate, despite a concern for the falling birth rate.[15]

Workers in Singapore in general have little rights and migrant workers face a predominance of abusive work situations with little recourse or avenue for recompense. As the Singapore government refuses to see them as human beings who deserve a safe environment to work in, this state of affairs seems likely to continue in time to come.

1Migrant workers struggle to get paid, CNN: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/02/24/asia/singapore-migrant-workers-intl/index.html
2More errant workers should be prosecuted, Today: https://www.todayonline.com/voices/more-errant-employers-should-be-prosecuted-not-paying-salaries
3Migrant workers’ cases in Singapore more shocking than in Hong Kong, South China Morning Post: https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-crime/article/2076082/cases-involving-migrant-workers-more-shocking-singapore
46 out of 10 maids in Singapore are exploited, Channel NewsAsia: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/6-out-of-10-maids-in-singapore-are-exploited-survey-9454694
5Singapore couple jailed for starving Philipino maid, BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-39402698
6Singapore ads for Indonesian maids for sale ignites anger, Rappler: https://www.rappler.com/world/regions/asia-pacific/212335-anger-over-singapore-ads-offering-indonesian-maids-for-sale
7Maid commits suicide after being locked up for three days straight, The Independent: http://theindependent.sg/maid-commits-suicide-after-being-locked-up-for-three-months-straight/
8Migrant workers in Singapore “vulnerable to forced labour”, TWC: http://twc2.org.sg/2017/07/14/migrant-workers-in-singapore-vulnerable-to-forced-labor-including-debt-bondage-says-us-tip-2017-report/
9Singapore’s constrained civil society, BBE: http://www.b-b-e.de/fileadmin/inhalte/aktuelles/2016/02/enl-2-ortmann-gastbeitrag.pdf
10TWC2: http://twc2.org.sg/
11HOME: https://www.home.org.sg/
12Serangoon Gardens Dormitory Saga, Progress in GP: https://progressgp.wordpress.com/2009/07/19/serangoon-gardens-dormitory-saga/
13Maids fear losing jobs when they get pregnant, The Straits Times: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/maids-fear-losing-job-when-they-get-pregnant
14Population planning in Singapore, Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_planning_in_Singapore
15Singapore’s fertility rate at new seven-year low, Channel NewsAsia: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/singapore-total-fertility-rate-new-low-1-16-10002558

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New Zealand First and the global far-right

Winston Pepe

By Daphne Lawless.

This article will appear in Fightback’s upcoming issue on Migrant and Refugee Rights. To support our work, please consider subscribing to our e-publication ($NZ20 annually) or print magazine ($NZ60 annually). You can subscribe with PayPal or credit card here.

The New Zealand First (NZF) Party was founded in 1993 by Winston Peters, formerly a cabinet minister for the mainstream conservative National Party. Since then, under Peters’ continuous and unchallenged leadership, its share of the popular vote has ranged from 4 to 13% – large enough to be a significant player in all but one of New Zealand’s parliaments from them until now, and to have participated in coalition governments with both of New Zealand’s major parties, National and centre-left Labour. It is currently the junior partner in Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led coalition, also supported by the Green Party.

The words used to describe New Zealand First have usually been “nationalist”, “populist”, or – more critically – “anti-migrant” or even “racist”. Ask any New Zealanders what politics Peters is usually associated with, and they will doubtless reply anti-immigrant politics, especially opposition to Chinese immigration1. Given that, overseas observers might scratch their heads at seeing Winston Peters as deputy Prime Minister to Ardern, whose sunnily optimistic social-democratic approach has led to her being labelled “anti-Trump”2. How can a political force which is usually seen as part of the same global trend as Donald Trump, UKIP, and other nationalist reactionaries and fascists be supporting the centre-left?

Some historical background on Winston Peters is probably required to understand this. New Zealand was one of the most enthusiastic adopters of Thatcher/Reagan-style neoliberal economics in the 1980s. However – unlike most countries – neo-liberalism was not at first combined with authoritarianism and social conservativism. Rather, the Labour government of 1984-90 combined privatisation, deregulation and financialisation with an anti-nuclear foreign policy, the legalisation of homosexuality and steps towards reconciliation with the indigenous Māori people. In this way, they were the reverse of the previous 1975-84 National government of Robert Muldoon, which combined social conservatism and an authoritarian style with heavy Keynesian-style state intervention in the economy and trade protectionism.

During National’s period in opposition 1984-1990, leaders Jim McLay and later Jim Bolger did their best to ditch Muldoon’s legacy and to reform their party in the neoliberal image. In this period, Winston Peters (first elected as an MP in 1978) was seen as the leader of the remaining “Muldoonist” faction in the National Party – sceptical of neo-liberal economics, and appealing to the traditional Tory rural and suburban base. When National returned to power in 1990, and quickened the pace of the neoliberalization of the economy started by Labour, Peters was increasingly the main internal critic of this approach. After being sacked as a Cabinet Minister and told he would not be re-selected as a National candidate, he struck out on his own, promising a new party that would “put New Zealand first, second and third”.

The political basis of New Zealand First has always been anti-neoliberal and conservative traditionalist. In an era where both major parties were committed to neoliberal reforms, anti-neoliberalism united former Labour and National voters. NZF quickly pulled significant support away from the Alliance, a broad anti-neoliberal coalition whose major members were the Green Party and a social-democratic split from Labour. I have argued in a series of articles on what I call “conservative leftism” that the perspective of forming a broad anti-neoliberal bloc during the 1990s and 2000s led the activist Left not only into building coalitions with conservative anti-neoliberals such as NZF, but to some extent intellectually capitulating to their xenophobic politics – thus opening the door to the current far-right surge.3

Given all of this, what should the radical Left’s attitude to New Zealand First be? Certainly Winston Peters is no friend of progressive politics. His historical animus with the Green Party – the most progressive of New Zealand’s parliamentary parties – led to them being excluded from formal participation in the current coalition government.4 His party’s latest stunt is a “respecting New Zealand values” law, which “which would legally mandate new migrants to respect gender equality, “all legal sexual preferences,” religious rights, and the legality of alcohol.”5

It goes without saying that an Ardern-led coalition in which the Greens’ James Shaw or Marama Davidson were Deputy Prime Minister would surely be far preferable to the current situation – if the parliamentary numbers were to work out that way. But should we be treating New Zealand First the same way that we would other right-populist, “alt-right” or neo-fascist movements? Commentator Liam Hehir argues that a consistent Left would “no-platform” Winston Peters:

Is Peters really on quite the same level as Nigel Farage? Possibly not (shared interests in Brexit and cricket notwithstanding).

But the big difference between the two is that Farage has a lot less influence over New Zealand than Peters. If you want to ensure migrants and other vulnerable groups feel welcomed and safe, the views of the second most powerful man in the country weigh more heavily than do those of the member of the European Parliament for South East England. Or they should, at least…

For Green MPs, protesting Nigel Farage achieves little but costs nothing. Protesting Winston Peters, on the other hand, might achieve something – but only at the risk of losing political power. It doesn’t take Niccolò Machiavelli to work out who gets protested.6

There is of course no sharp dividing line between traditionalist conservatism and the resurgent far-right, as the career of the UK’s Enoch Powell should show. Peters is famous for a pugnacious, antagonistic relationship with the news media, similar to what we see from Donald Trump. His innate social conservatism led to opposition to the bill legalising same-sex marriage, in favour of a referendum on same-sex marriage – which would have no doubt led to the same extremely divisive consequences as in Australia.

However, Peters draws as much from what has been called in Britain “One Nation Conservatism” – “preservation of established institutions and traditional principles combined with political democracy, and a social and economic programme designed to benefit the common man”7 If you asked New Zealanders who votes for New Zealand First, those who did not immediately answer “racists” would immediately answer “old people”. Peters’ traditionalist-conservative politics have historically appealed older New Zealanders in particular. A significant social reform that he was responsible for in a previous Labour-led government was the “Super Gold Card” guaranteeing free public transport for all over 65s.

Perhaps the best international equivalent to New Zealand First would be the Independent Greeks (ANEL), the conservative-populist party who are SYRIZA’s junior coalition partner in Greece. Peters has not even been averse to using rhetoric which might be called “left-nationalist”. In his speech announcing his decision to join Ardern’s coalition government in 2017, he said:

Far too many New Zealanders have come to view today’s capitalism, not as their friend, but as their foe.

And they are not all wrong.

That is why we believe that capitalism must regain its responsible – its human face. That perception has influenced our negotiations.8

However, a “protean” (vague and shifting) populist appeal to both left and right at the same time is part of Peters’ political strategy, and also part of classical definitions of fascism9 – so Peters’ “anti-capitalist” rhetoric doesn’t let him off the hook there.

The New Zealand far-right have traditionally seen Winston Peters much like they see Donald Trump – if not precisely “one of them”, then at least as a possible ally. The explicitly Nazi National Front named NZF as their preferred mainstream political party in their electoral propaganda in 200510. More recently, during the 2017 election campaign, Peters came out in support of a “European Students Association” (a front for white-nationalist students) which had been closed down at the University of Auckland:

Winston Peters visited Victoria University in Wellington. During his speech to students he questioned the media’s role in causing the “European” group to shut down. He accused journalists of suppressing dissenting voices, and on his way out, unashamedly signed a cartoon of a frog named Pepe – the most popular symbol of the alt-right.

Peters’ actions set the New Zealand 4Chan boards alight.

“Guess who just got my vote!!” one user wrote. “Winston is based”. (Based, loosely, means good).

“Absolutely BASED,” said another. “Winnie has my undying respect.”

“Winston is /ourguy/, right?” another asked. “I want someone to get rid of the Indians and Chinese, those f****** are stealing our country right out from under us.”11

One obvious problem with assimilating New Zealand First to the global “alt-right”/white-nationalist phenomenon is that Winston Peters is himself Māori. The support of a bloc of conservative, rural Māori opinion has always been a vital part of the NZF coalition – as Ani White pointed out in an article for Fightback12, it is precisely rural and small-town voters who tend to be most prone to anti-migrant views. The very first NZF MP other than Peters was elected in one of the constituencies reserved for Māori electors13; and at the 1996 election, NZF made a clean sweep of all the Māori seats. However, as Ani White also points out, Peters trumpets a conservative, assimilationist policy, opposing “special rights for Māori”, and has recently shifted to supporting a referendum on abolishing the Māori seats altogether.

Others have argued that Peters cynically uses anti-migration rhetoric in the same way that pre-Trump US Republican politics have used the issue of abortion – as a way to whip up support on the campaign trail, but having no interest in actually doing anything about the issue once in government. Political commentator Danyl Maclauchlan argues: “He campaigns on the immigration issue every election, but Peters has been in the powerbroker position in government three times now, and each of those governments has seen very high levels of net migration of what his supporters and voters consider “the wrong sort” of people.”14

It would be best to argue that, although Peters no doubt cynically benefits from the far-right resurgence, and has no shame in appealing to racial populism, he is essentially a conservative rather than a fascist “national revolutionary”. He seeks to bolster and defend the traditional institutions of the New Zealand colonial settler state, rather than to incite mob violence against the Establishment. Although New Zealand First has long used the rhetoric of racial populism, in practice Peters and his party are mainly concerned with getting a seat at the Establishment table, rather than raising mobs to overthrow it.


1 New Zealand’s position as a small developed Anglosphere country in the Asia-Pacific region has historically led to a tendency to “Yellow Peril” anti-Chinese politics. For a historical background, see https://fightback.org.nz/2018/05/30/race-reaction-in-new-zealand-1880-1950/

5 The legality of alcohol as a New Zealand value is ironic given that in this country, as in many others, temperance societies were at the forefront of the movement for women’s suffrage, and prohibitionist leader Kate Sheppard is on our $10 bill for this reason.

13 Constituencies reserved for Māori electors were introduced in 1867, when the restriction of voting rights to property-owning citizens meant that many Māori were disallowed from voting, to ensure that Māori had some input regarding the makeup of parliament. Although they were intended as a temporary measure, they continue to this day, and many Māori still consider them essential to ensure representation.

Migrant and Refugee Rights Issue Editorial + Contents

MARRC Header (TWO LINES) (TERMINAL DOSIS)

This is excerpted from the latest issue of Fightback magazine. To subscribe, click here.

Ani White is a Pākehā postgraduate student/tutor in Media Studies, a member of Fightback, and the coordinating editor of this issue.

In the lead-up to Aotearoa/New Zealand’s 2017 General Election, Fightback and others have co- launched the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign. In the context of rising international xenophobic populism, and the failure of NZ parliamentary ‘Left’ parties to take a consistent stand for migrants, we considered this an important political focus.

The following articles were initially solicited as a part of the campaign. However, as they came together, it became clear that this discussion must be broader and more multifaceted than the theme ‘Migrant and Refugee Rights’ captures; the struggle must be rooted in an understanding of colonisation.

Arama Rata’s excellent article which opens the issue, on the problem of euphemistic discussion of racism, frames the fight against racism against the backdrop of Aotearoa’s colonisation. Relatedly, The Guardian’s David Wearing argues that British xenophobia is inseparable from the country’s colonial past.

This broader post-colonial perspective must frame and inform the street movement for migrant/refugee rights, which the remaining pages focus on – with articles on Brexit, the German far-right, the meaning of the monarch butterfly symbol, and finally the fight against xenophobia in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

The issue concludes with the kaupapa statement of the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign. Contrary to dominant discourse which pits migrants/refugees against the ‘white working class’, we argue that what’s best for migrant workers is best for everyone; universal cheap high-quality housing, Living Wages, the right to join unions alongside other workers.

You can find out more about this campaign at marrc.org.nz, or Facebook.com/marrc.nz.

Contents

  1. Watered-down biculturalism: How avoiding the ‘r-word’ undermines our liberation movement, by Arama Rata
  2. Immigration will remain a toxic issue until Britain faces up to its colonial past, by David Wearing
  3. Brexit, Democracy and Oppression, by Neil Faulkner
  4. The “Alternative for Germany”: A chronicle of the rise of a far-right party, by JoJo
  5. What do butterflies have to do with open borders? Migration is beautiful, by John Lee
  6. Migrants are welcome – leftist xenophobia is not, by Daphne Lawless
  7. Interview: Why Gayaal is standing for Wellington Central
  8. Myths about Migrants and Refugees
  9. Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign Kaupapa and Demands

Pasefika Issue Editorial + Contents

Editorial by Leilani Viseisio, coordinating editor.

Tena koutou, Talofa lava

O lo’u ingoa o Leilani Angela Visesio.

O lo’u tina o Antonina Sasafala Visesio.

O le tina o lo’u tina o Vitolia Tomaniko Fa’atili, e sau mai le nu’u o Matatufu, Upolu.

Afio mai le ali’i o aiga

Afio mai le uso ali’i

Afio mai le matua ia Tapu

Afio mai alala maota

Mamalu ile falefa o Salepaga ma le Ituala

O le tama o lo’u tina o Visesio Ioane I’iga, e sau mai le nu’u o Lano, Savai’i.

Afio mai le Falefa o Alo o Sa Vui,

Vui Umumalu, Vui Tafilipepe, Vui Seigafolava, Vui Alafouina.

Susu mai lau susuga I’iga o le Maopu

Afio maia lau afioga Falenaoti

Afio alo o Va’afusuaga- Lutu ma Ape ma lau susuga Su’ a.

Maliu mai lau fetalaiga Malaeulu le Matua Fetalai

Maliu mai Salemuliaga, o le faleupolu o

Muamua lava ou te fia fa’afetai Fightback mo le fausaga opea, aemaise Ian Anderson.

O lona lua, ou te fia fa’afetai i latou uma oe na fesoasoani i le lomiga o le Pasefika mo latou loto, mafaufau,

upu lototele ma galuega.

Lona tolu, Kassie Hartendorp mo lou lagolago le maluelue ma fautuaga.

Mulimuli ma mautinoa lava, e fa’avavau itiiti – Fa’afetai i le Pasefika Epiphany Trust

mo Aganuʻu Samoa ma i loʻu tuafafine Samoa Liz Ah-Hi, Savali Andrews, Emma Josephine Koko,

Tina Setefano ma Sia Toʻomaga.

Fa’afetai lava mo le avanoa.

Contents:

  1. The Unbearable Lightness, Faith Wilson
  2. Decolonisation Unplugged: My meeting with West Papuans in Indonesia, Shasha Ali
  3. Untitled, Anon
  4. In/Visible, Luisa Tora
  5. Two Poems by Tusiata Avia
  6. Half Cast Away, Anonymous
  7. Pacific Panthers and International Solidarity, interview with Teanau Tuiono

The reality of Winston Peters

Article by Ben Peterson, reprinted from Leftwin.

After 8 years of Prime Minister John Key has stepped down. Bill English will be the new PM but an election is due next year. The sudden departure of Key leaves a political space that must be filled. All politicians will be trying to make the most of this unexpected opportunity, and chief among them will be NZ longest serving MP- Winston Peters.

There are many myths surrounding Peters. For some people, these myths can make his party (NZ First) appear like a project for a new, more progressive politics in New Zealand. The truth is very different. NZ First isn’t committed to protecting New Zealand from powerful foreign interests. And it’s certainly got no meaningful claim to supporting governments of the left. NZ First is a contradictory collection of individuals around the personal ambition of Winston Peters.

So, Winston might be an entertaining politician, but he is no friend of working people.

winston445

The Peters Myth vs Reality

The Winston Peters myth is constantly evolving, but he often likes to paint himself as a political outsider. Winnie likes to portray himself as straight talking, and standing up to the establishment. To give him credit, the fact he can sometimes pull this off is a master class in political spin. The reality is, Winston Peters has more claim to being the political establishment as any other New Zealand MP. He is the country’s longest serving MP, and has been a ministerthree times, including being Treasurer between 1996-1998 and Foreign Minister between 2005-2008.

While Winston wants to appear to be the chief critic of economic neoliberalism and NZ being a pawn in American imperialism, while serving as a minister he failed to make any dramatic departures from political mainstream. He has had his opportunity to raise an alternative, but has failed to do so.

It is important to judge politicians based on their actions, not just their words. The more you look at Winston’s record, the larger the gap between perception and reality.

For some activists, NZ First’s stance against the TPPA has given them some credibility. NZ First has publicly stated concerns about the effect the TPPA would have on working conditions in NZ. While it is true that NZ First has generally been economically nationalist, concern for working people is a new phenomenon. It needs to be remembered that Winston Peterssupported the employment contracts act in the 1990’s. This directly led to an assault on the wages and conditions of working people and the Union movement. Today, NZ First maintains a policy to create provisions for permanent ‘casual’ employment, which would bring back and re-legalise Zero Hour contracts.

To build a mass following, NZ First has tried to channel something darker- xenophobia. Winston Peters consistently appeals to racial divisions to further his own career. Peters has been one of the most vocal critics of ‘Maori privilege’, and consistently blames the Auckland housing crisis and unemployment on migration.

It’s nonsense.Rather than being privileged- Maori are over represented in prison and unemployment numbers.  Housing prices increases and unemployment stem from changes in government policy going back to  the 80’s,  trends extend over decades, and cannot reduced to immigration. For Peters though, the facts don’t matter. It doesn’t need to make sense, it just needs to pander the the superficial fears of some voters. He has perfected this politics of fear.

Understanding this phenomenon is important for leftists for two reasons:

Firstly, false debate takes attention away from the real radical alternatives we need. To fix housing we need to take on big money investors. Most of which are Kiwis, not foreign investors.

Secondly, if the political conversation focuses on distractions, the solutions that working people need will not be discussed and fought for. It makes it harder to build a movement for change. This needs to be a movement that can provide solutions that work for the majority, not those with money. Working people are divided, it makes it harder to put the blame back on the root cause- a political and economic system that puts profit ahead of people.

Working Communities First

Aotearoa/New Zealand needs a new political project. There needs to be an alternative to the growing poverty and environmental destruction today- the world depends on it.

When building this bold vision for the future, do we want a former National MP with an axe to grind to be front and center? Do we need someone whose politics is self promotion, or do we need a new politics that promote ourselves?

Do we really want to trust a politician who tries to tell you that your problems are caused by your Maori and migrant neighbors, all the while he’s wining and dining with the racing industry and the rich?

Do we really believe a politician who’s been in parliament for 4 decades, been a minister three times, and took jobs with both Labour and National, when he tells us he stands for ordinary kiwis?

Is this the best that we can do? Some people, be they desperate or deluded, believe that it is. I beg to differ.

I believe that a movement of people in Aotearoa/New Zealand isn’t just possible, it’s necessary.  I believe that it’s not important where you’ve come from, but what change you want to see. When ordinary people come together, another world is possible.

But that will only be possible if we don’t settle for bullshit and bullshit artists.

Leftwin seeks to host a discussion on building a new left politics in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Be part of that discussion.

5 Myths about the Syrian revolution

regime-death-toll

“The start of solidarity is correcting the narrative.”

-Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and Civil War.

Since the Syrian revolution began in 2011, a mixture of propaganda and conspiracy theories has obscured the nature of the conflict. As the Syrian conflict is the biggest refugee crisis in a generation, we cannot stand by and let these myths go unchallenged.

  1. It’s just a sectarian conflict

As with many conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, Syria’s conflict is often depicted as a solely ethnic/sectarian conflict. The spectre of Arabs, and particularly Sunni Muslims, with guns is stereotyped as only religiously motivated.

However, the beginning of the revolution in 2011 was profoundly democratic and secular. All ethnicities and religious denominations took to the streets, as part of the broader regional upsurge dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’.

In the squares, Syrians chanted ‘One, One, One, the Syrian people are One’ and ‘Sunnis and Alawis are one’, referring to the oppressed Sunni majority and the dominant Alawi minority (of whom President Bashar-Al Assad is a member).

In seeking to crush the democratic movement, Assad deliberately provoked sectarian conflict. Regime death squads primarily targeted Sunnis, and the regime released salafists (militant Sunnis) from jail to add fuel to the fire. While sectarianism has grown since then, the responsibility lies with the regime, which deliberately sought to undermine the secular nature of the revolution.

The democratic current that emerged in 2011 still exists, albeit besieged from all sides.

  1. The Syrian rebels are a US proxy

Conspiracy theorists argue that the revolution was simply a CIA-funded proxy from the start. A more nuanced take holds that the US has since hijacked the revolution. Indeed, the US has in the past funded coups, dictatorships, and Islamist movements in the region.

However, there is a fundamental difference between a US-backed coup, and a popular democracy movement calling for international support.

Assad shot first. When the revolutionaries were forced to arm in self-defence, they had woefully inadequate weaponry. Their call for international support must be understood in this context.

Obama stated that chemical weapons attacks were a ‘red line’ that he would not allow Assad to cross. When Assad carried out a chemical weapons attack in Ghouta in 2013, Obama’s regime failed to act. This led to a sense of betrayal among Syrian revolutionaries.

Assad and his Russian backers continue to rain fire on the Syrian people. In Aleppo, Syrian children burn tires so that the fumes will create a makeshift No-Fly Zone. The US refuses to impose a No-Fly Zone on Assad, or grant anti-aircraft weapons to the Syrian rebels (perhaps fearing that the revolution would turn against the USA and Israel). The revolutionaries remain woefully outgunned by Assad.

If we cannot offer any alternative to the Syrian rebels, we have no right to preach to them about their decision to call for any support they can get.

  1. ISIS is the only alternative to Assad

Many commentators say that Assad is the lesser evil, as ISIS is the only alternative.

However, there are alternatives to both Assad and ISIS within Syrian society. In fact, ISIS did not originate among the Syrian people. Rather, the group formed in Iraqi jails, before recruiting disenfranchised Muslims from around the world. In Syria, ISIS are essentially a foreign occupying force.

By contrast, the Free Syrian Army and its allies have fought both Assad’s and ISIS’ forces. In liberated areas of Syria, democratic Local Coordination Committees remain as an alternative to both Assadist and Islamist dictatorship.

A Free Syria would be governed by the people, not by dictators.

  1. US and Russian intervention are equally to blame

It is no secret that US intervention has torn apart much of the Middle East and North Africa. From backing Israeli colonisation, to funding the Afghan mujahideen which would later morph into the Taliban, and more recently occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has pursued an imperialist policy that continues to destroy lives.

However, Syria is not Iraq. We cannot show meaningful solidarity with the Syrian people if we fail to explain the political conditions they face.

Assad’s regime has killed overwhelmingly more Syrians than any other force involved. Putin’s Russia, in militarily intervening to support the criminal Assad, simply wants a proxy in the region. Any attempt to depict this as ‘anti-imperialism’ makes a mockery of the term.

The United States is not the only evil on the world stage. Rising Russian imperialism poses a similar threat, backing genocide in Syria, just as the United States backs genocide in Palestine.

5. The only people worth supporting in Syria are the Kurds.

Many Western leftists, confused by the supposed “sectarian” nature of the Syrian conflict, have latched onto the Kurdish forces as the only “good guys” in the struggle. The Kurdish enclave of Rojava, ruled by the PYD (Democratic Union Party), is touted as some kind of “anarcho-feminist” safe haven of rights and democracy. This romanticisation of Kurdish culture as somehow superior to other Syrian nationalities is quite silly and somewhat racist, and leads to willful blindness to the negative side of what Kurdish forces are actually doing.

While Rojava’s leaders talk of “democratic confederalism”, PYD forces have ethnically cleansed Arab villages and shut down other Kurdish political parties. The PYD’s fight against ISIS has been supported by both United States AND Russian firepower – a real problem for those who otherwise talk about “foreign intervention” as the real problem in Syria.

Most disturbingly, the PYD have not been above actually working with the Assad dictatorship. The regime actually handed over large parts of Rojava to the PYD without a fight, and continues to pay the wages of the civil servants there. The PYD also holds parts of the northern suburbs of Aleppo, where it has helped the regime forces in the Western suburbs against rebel-held Eastern suburbs.

The Kurdish people in the north of Syria – as well as those in Turkey, Iraq and Iran – have been fighting for their right to self-determination for nearly 100 years, and of course they should be supported in this struggle. But the PYD are no more spotless angels than anyone on the Free Syrian side. Any democratic solution will have to include Syrian Arabs, Kurds and all other ethnicities joining to put an end to the Assad regime.

“When people ask ‘Who should we support in Syria?’ I should say: in Syria no political party, militia or army is worthy of our wholehearted or uncritical support. No ideology either. What we should support are the community-grown democratic and quasi-democratic institutions and the civilian communities they represent. These people deserve support which is both critical and absolute. Critical because nothing should be uncritical. Absolute because these survivors inside are under continuous and full-scale military assault, beleaguered and at risk of extinction.”

-Robin Yassin-Kassab

What can we do?

As Aotearoa/New Zealand has diplomatic ties with Russia, our responsibility is to challenge the Russian role in the conflict.

We can also donate to humanitarian groups like the White Helmets in Syria, and call on our own government to accept refugees.

For more information please:

  • Like ‘Syrian Solidarity New Zealand’ on Facebook.

  • Read the book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and Civil War, by Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab. This book is based on extensive interviews with Syrians on the ground.

Syria Solidarity: National day of action 29th October

day-of-rage-for-aleppo

Civilians in Aleppo and across Syria are being intensively bombed by Russia with bunker bombs, phosphorous bombs, napalm, thermobaric and cluster bombs; and by the Syrian regime with chlorine containing barrel bombs; targetting homes, schools, hospitals, rescue teams, and underground shelters .

Like many Syrian cities, Aleppo has been under a starvation siege. The regime and Russian have even bombed the city’s water supply.
Despite these atrocious crimes against humanity, Aleppo’s people show tremendous solidarity and caring for each other, as they work to find the wounded under the rubble, and rush them to undergound clinics for treatment. Hundreds of democratically run community councils have been formed across Syria in the liberated areas. They have produced a tremendous amount of art, literature, music, and electronic media documenting the revolution and counter revolution in Syria.

The “peace” talks have broken down. It is clear that Russia and the Assad regime are looking for a military solution to enable the genocidal Assad regime to continue in power.

Most of the fighters killing Syrian civilians are not Syrians. They include soliders from Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, many of them conscripted or desperately poor with no other options for a living.
The Assad regime and Russia have killed half a million Syrian people. The genocide has to stop! The regime regularly uses rape and torture as weapons.

The war started because people across Syria went onto the streets to demand democracy, and instead were shot, rounded up, tortured, raped and killed. So the people took up arms to defend themselves. The Assad regime has vowed to continue to obliterate the population until it accepts his rule.

Both the United States and Russia have re-defined the people’s struggle for democracy as a “war on terror” and are both responsible for killing civilians.

Isis grew in Syria with the encouragement of the Assad regime. Assad deliberately released extremists from his jails, who went on to join Isis in Syria. The regime leaves Isis alone, and Isis is continually attacking the democratic opposition groups. The democratic opposition has been forced to fight on two fronts, against the attacks from the regime and from Isis. Despite the evils perpetrated by Isis, it has killed a fraction of the number of people, that the Assad regime has. The Assad regime with its Russian and Iranian allies are the greater evil.

Stop the bombing! Troops out!
No more genocide! Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution!
Victory for Syrian people now!

Wellington action:
2-3pm 29th October, Russian Embassy, 57 Messines Road, Karori
[Facebook event]

Auckland action:
2-3pm 29th October, Aotea Square
[Facebook event]

Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War – A clear perspective shining through the muck

card-Razan-Ghazzawi-FreeSyria

artwork from denisebeaudet.com

Book title: Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and Civil War
Authors: Robin Yassin-Kassab, Leila Al-Shami
Publisher: Pluto Press

Released: 2016
Review by: Ani White

To myself and others in ‘the West’, Syria’s internal crisis has often appeared a confusing mess with no sides worth taking. Competing bombs (Assad bombs, US bombs, Russian bombs) and competing sects (Alawi, Sunni, now ISIS) appear to have displaced the democratic hopes of the Arab Spring. While this despair isn’t entirely unfounded, it also risks turning into dismissal. The most significant refugee crisis in a generation perhaps shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘too complicated’. History may not look on us kindly for turning away.

In the context of this confusion, promoted as much by ‘Russia Today’ as Western networks, certain slogans have struck me as important clarifications. When progressive network Democracy Now hosted another in a series of disconnected white men on the Syrian situation, a change.org petition successfully demanded “Tell Democracy Now to have Syrians on to talk about Syria.”

This is the clarity offered by Burning Country. Written by partisans of the Syrian revolution Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, on the basis of extensive interviews with Syrians, the book offers a clear perspective shining through the muck of sectarianism, propaganda and conspiracy theory.

Burning Country‘s exposition of the 2011 (and ongoing) revolution emphasises its non-sectarian nature, in keeping with the broader uprisings of the region. Demonstrators chanted ‘Sunnis and Alawis are one’, defying what has since become the central sectarian divide within Syrian society; between Assad’s Alawi minority community, and the 60% Sunni majority.

While the book briefly goes into Syria’s ancient history, this account bucks the trend of rooting sectarian conflict in ancient history. Rather, the authors emphasise the long-standing diversity and cosmopolitanism of the region, with both Damascus and Aleppo claiming the title of ‘oldest continuously inhabited city on earth.’ Site of the first agricultural revolution, the first alphabet, and a long-standing trading zone, Syrian society has the potential (like any society) to be a progressive hub.

The early days of the revolution expressed these progressive possibilities. Democratic slogans were translated into action through the formation of the Local Coordination Committees, revolutionary networks transcending sect boundaries, described as an ‘underground parliament’. Extensive accounts of the cultural transformation – beginning in 2011 and continuing, though besieged, in the liberated zones – cannot be satisfactorily recounted here. The book is worth a read for anyone curious about the meaning of the word ‘revolution’.

The authors conversely emphasise the sectarianism of Bashaar-al Assad’s supposedly ‘secular’ regime. At the formal level, atheism is forbidden, and the president must be Muslim. More crucially for this account however, the regime deliberately stokes sectarian tensions to legitimate Assad’s rule. In crushing the 2011 revolution, Assad’s forces (and regime-militias or shabeeha) deliberately targeted Sunni areas, and bolstered the Alawi minority which tends to support Assad’s Baathist party. The release of around 1,500 salafist (militant Sunni) prisoners was another calculated move designed to stoke sectarian tensions.

In contrast to misleading accounts of sectarianism as ‘ancient rivalry’, this account emphasises how powerful forces play groups against each other for political gain. As right-wing populism grows internationally (see Trump in the US, and UKIP in England), this sophisticated account can help us think through the splintering of publics for political ends elsewhere. Rather than innate racial rivalries, let alone legitimate expressions of discontent, these formations reflect manipulation of popular anxieties by elite players.

While the early days of the revolution avoided sectarianism in favour of broad democratic demands, the hardening and militarisation of the revolution allowed Assad’s seeds of sectarianism to grow. The authors underline the contradictory nature of religion, as both a balm in oppressive situations, and a tool of the powerful. In the midst of Assad’s brutal counter-revolution, they note:

Tormented, bereaved, and dispossessed, the Syrian people turned more intensely to religion… [yet] most still expressed the desire for a civil rather than Islamic state.”

Although local Islamist forces grew with the militarisation of the revolution, these were initially not the cruel militants of ISIS; surveys found that 60% of Syrian Islamic fighters thought that ‘democracy is preferable to any other form of governance’. They fought not for an Islamic state, but the end of Assad’s tyranny. ISIS appeared as an opportunistic foreign intervention, originating in Iraq and taking advantage of Syria’s strife.

Although some Syrians have joined ISIS, and others quietly accept its capacity to offer relative ‘stability’, Daesh (as ISIS is called by detractors, with a similar sound to the Arabic for ‘donkey’) overwhelmingly does not enjoy the support of the Syrian people. Revolutionary intellectual  Yassin al-Haj Saleh influentially termed their rise a transition from ‘neck-tie fascism’ to ‘long-beard fascism’. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) fights both Assad’s forces and Daesh, and where civilians have an opportunity to resist, they generally join the FSA in beating Daesh back. 

Probably the most prominent example of resistance to Daesh is the widely promoted Kurdish struggle, dominated by the formerly Leninist PYD/PKK and centred in Kobani. Conversely, the authors underline the ‘ruthless pragmatism’ of the PYD, which has collaborated with the regime. Locals reportedly express bemusement that the small town of Kobani receives such international attention, while the liberated zone of major city Aleppo remains beseiged and isolated.

As in Libya, the call for US intervention in support of the Syrian revolution is controversial. Burning Country co-author Leila Al-Shami has clarified in an interview that she is against US intervention:

I’m not calling for anything from America. I don’t think America should be involved.”

Conversely, the books’ sympathetic account helps to explain why so many Syrians called for intervention. Between Assad’s brutality and the rise of ISIS, the forces of the revolution have limited resources and few friends. Many Syrians were shocked when Obama’s supposed ‘red line’ of no chemical attacks was ignored, after hundreds were killed in the deadliest chemical attack since the Iran-Iraq War.

Although many leftists oppose any US intervention, this risks devolving into a crudely one-sided ‘campism‘, where the biggest bully is perceived as the only bully. Syrians who have survived Assad’s massacres do not see the world this way. In light of international complacency, Assad has continuously bombed his citizens and subjected them to a ‘surrender or starve’ policy. Calls for a no-fly zone were ignored. Eventual US intervention in 2014 focused only on ISIS, implicitly supporting Assad and (perhaps unsurprisingly) offering no support to the revolution. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran back the regime for an opportunistic mix of military, economic and political reasons, centrally their own hegemony in the region – any attempt to depict this as ‘anti-imperialism’ makes a mockery of the term. Turkey and the Arab Gulf states have offered some support, the authors note, “not so much [as] allies of the popular revolution as opponents of Assad.”

So what can we do, assuming here a progressive ‘Western’ audience? Most immediately, the refugee crisis demands a humanitarian response, as many realised with the spectre of drowned children washing up on beaches. By July 2015, half of Syria’s population were not living at home – including international refugees and internally displaced. A majority of international refugees live in surrounding countries’ refugee camps, while a growing minority attempt escape to ‘Fortress Europe’. Standing with the refugee and migrant worker movements, we must demand open borders, full rights for migrants and refugees.

Beyond the humanitarian level, Syria’s crisis is political, as political as our own interconnected crises. Explaining the non-sectarian nature of the Syrian revolution, and boosting voices of the revolution, can counter the myth of innate Arab-Islamic sectarianism. As the authors of Burning Country underline, “The start of solidarity is to correct the narrative.”

The authors encourage readers to learn from Syrian experiences. We must build our own solidarity networks, our own revolutionary strength, if we are to stand with the Syrian revolution. Internationally, Syrian expatriates have formed solidarity groups, largely ignored by an ‘anti-imperialist’ left focusing on the Manichean evil of US intervention. However it may manifest in the specific, these groups demand our support. The old Third Camp slogan can be appropriately reworked: Neither Assad nor ISIS but Free Syria.

Reports: Aotearoa stands in solidarity with Palestine

tamaki palestine demo Fightback supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a tactic to show solidarity with Palestinian resistance. The following reports are from demonstrations over the weekend from Fightback activists and supporters.

In Auckland, around 3000 people turned out on a miserably cold day to protest the latest Israeli attacks on Gaza. The rally heard speakers including John Minto from Mana, Roger Fowler from Kia Ora Gaza, Marama Davidson and Kennedy Graham from the Greens, and Mike Treen from Global Peace and Justice Alliance. Two young Palestinian girls also addressed the rally. A loud, vibrant march down Queen Street followed, with colourful banners, Palestinian flags and placards, and chants of “Free, Free Palestine”. The march ended at the US Consulate where protesters laid olive branches in memory of the victims of Israel’s genocide. MANA candidate John Minto called for the closure of the Israeli embassy. The protest ended with a song from Roger Fowler, “We are all Palestinians”. The event raised over $1700 for Gaza Mental Health Fund.chch palestine demo In Christchurch over 200 people gathered outside the Cathedral after just a few days’ notice to stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine. The rally, organised by ‘Canterbury for Justice in Palestine’ managed to raise $668 to go towards helping those in Gaza. Speakers included Martin & Lois of CJP, Brian Turner from the NZ Palestinian Human Rights lobby, Pauline McKay the current CWS director, Michael Hosking – long-time activist for Palestine, and Ben Peterson speaking on behalf of UNITE union. The crowd then marched down Colombo street and through Cashel Mall with chants of “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free” – receiving many toots of support from passing motorists. Without any regard for the low temperatures, much of the crowd stuck around for half an hour after the end of the event to network and plan further actions and organising. The consensus was clear: only with justice for Palestine can we achieve peace. poneke wellington demo In Wellington, 300 people attended a rally outside the Israeli Embassy. A number of Palestinians spoke on their experiences in Palestine and the Middle East recently, as well as speakers from the Wellington Palestine and the Wellington Boycott Divestment and Sanctions groups. Like the recent protests against the Batsheva Dance Company performances in Wellington, around 50 fundamentalist Christians were bussed down from Napier/Hastings to stage a counter protest on a parallel street to the pro-Palestine rally.

A crowd upwards of two hundred marched in Dunedin‘s CBD on Saturday bringing the usual flurry of shopping traffic to a halt as pleas were chanted to ‘FREE FREE PALESTINE’. The demonstrators were met at the cities heart, the Octagon, by representatives of the Greens, Mana Party, and the local Muslim community, where, in the downpour of rain, they joined in solidarity for the people of Palestine, showing their commitment to oppose the Zionist regime of Israel, demanding that not only the people of New Zealand, and it’s Government, but also of the UN and International community, not stand by in silence as Israel continues its ethnic cleanse of the Palestinian people. The crowd occupied the Octagon for over an hour in communion, even with the presence of a lonesome four pro­-Israel individuals holding placards with anti­Hamas slogans.

Istanbul to Brazil: neoliberalism, democracy and resistance

turkey mcdonalds

From a talk given by Andrew Tait. Originally printed by the International Socialist Organisation (Aotearoa).

Three weeks ago, police moved in to clear a protest camp out of an inner-city park, to make way for a shopping mall.

The protesters were a mixed bunch: leftists, environmentalists, even architects,who felt they had no other option than direct action to stop the destruction of another piece of history, another park, another shared social space. The police moved in with brutality, with near-lethal force. Images of their violence were shared on the internet and instantly sparked outrage from hundreds of thousands of people, especially youth. After three weeks of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, the police have managed to clear and hold the city square and protests are quietening down. But after the police moved in, council workers followed, planting trees and flowers – a sign perhaps that the mall development has been abandoned.

Elsewhere, a demonstration against public transport fare rises was attacked by the police, sparking an outpouring of anger and copycat protests and riots. In one city, a police facility was burned and the City Hall was attacked. The government backed down and the price hikes were scrapped, but protests are continuing – now against the spending of billions on hosting a sports event instead of funding health and education.

The first country is Turkey and the second is Brazil. The same events could have taken place in almost any developed country – in Auckland, Jo’burg, Paris, Beijing. Although each country has its own culture and history, there is a massive political convergence underway from Istanbul to Brazil.

One reason often suggested for this convergence is the internet. The ability to share not just messages but images, movies and music has eroded the traditional boundaries between young people in different countries and has broken the stranglehold of monopoly media.

But important though this new technology is, there is a deeper reason: neoliberalism has globalised production, meaning work and wages are similar across more countries than ever before, and neoliberalism has deprived democracy of real content because “there is no alternative” to the market and austerity. There are more supposedly democratic countries in the world than ever – but the range of political choices and citizen engagement is declining.

Both Brazil and Turkey are “new democracies”, which only emerged from military dictatorships in the 1980s. Both have booming economies. Brazil has emerged from Third World semi-colonial status to become the seventh largest economy in the world. It is often cited, alongside Russia, India and China, as an emerging power. Turkey, although smaller, has also enjoyed double digit GDP growth recently but the benefit of this growth, as in Brazil, has been unevenly shared. It is now one of the most unequal countries in the OECD. [Read more…]