What dark secret is in the Singapore basement?


I had not heard of the child in the basement, the one who is in our midst.

Until I read The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by American writer Ursula Le Guin, and wished more people would read it.

This is the gist of the story: In the city of Omelas, life couldn't be better. The people are happy, they have everything they want and they live life to the fullest.

Except for one dark secret that they share.

There is this child who is kept locked in a basement in utter misery, deprived and tortured. The author does not say why this is so, or what the child has done to deserve this terrible imprisonment.

Only that it is necessary for the city's continued success and contentment. Free him and everything that made the city such a wonderful place will disappear.

"They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery."

Most accept this unwritten social contract that guarantees their happiness.

But not everyone is happy with this state of affairs. There are those who cannot stand the injustice and leave the city.

"They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."

As you can see, it is a strange tale but even based on this very short summary, most of us instinctively understand what the story is about and can identify with the troubling issues this allegory raises.

Writing in The New York Times earlier this month, David Brooks offered various interpretations of the story.

One is that it's about exploitation - of cheap labour for example - which is invariably present in modern global production, with companies always seeking out the lowest cost.

Brooks writes: "Life is filled with tragic trade-offs. In many different venues, the suffering of the few is justified by those trying to deliver the greatest good for the greatest number.

"The story compels readers to ask if they are willing to live according to those contracts. Some are not. They walk away from prosperity, and they make some radical commitment... The rest of us live with the trade-offs... The people who stay in Omelas aren't bad; they just find it easier and easier to live with the misery they depend upon."

So here's a poser: What child is in the Singapore basement?

To qualify, it would have to be something we are not proud to be associated with, but which exists nonetheless and can be rationalised in any number of ways, always for the greater public good.

We don't need to be ashamed to ask this question because no society is perfect and all have their own demons.

Different people will have different answers to the question but I can think of at least three candidates that a fair number might agree with.

The first would be low-wage workers left behind in the economic race that has brought the country to where it is today.

In a nation with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, it surprises many people that more than 200,000 residents earn less than $1,000 a month and struggle to cope with life here.

It's easy to rationalise their plight as a product of globalisation, and that a small open economy has to accept what the world is willing to pay for these workers.

To be fair to this child in the basement, more people today are beginning to ask for more to be done to improve their lot.

Programmes such as Workfare and the progressive wage system that the labour movement is championing have been introduced in response to these calls.

For some, another group would be political opponents of the ruling party and activists who have suffered as a result of their beliefs and actions, some of them severely so, during the uncompromising days of the 1960s to the 1980s.

This is a diverse group, including those detained because of the alleged Marxist conspiracy of 1987 and later freed or who escaped, and assorted politicians who have felt the full brunt of the ruling party's power.

This isn't a column about the rights or wrongs of each of these cases.

What I think most people would agree with is that they mainly occurred during a time in Singapore's history when the politics was rough in a way that would be out of place today.

The issues they were associated with might no longer be relevant - too many years have passed - but for some, the shadow of that period lingers.

Occasionally, they spring to life as in the controversy over the banning of the film, To Singapore With Love, and the running debate over which version of Singapore's political history is accurate.

The ghost of that child continues to haunt some.

A third group would be the large numbers of low-wage foreign workers and maids brought in to do jobs no one else wants to do.

Their living and workplace conditions, the circumstances under which they are brought here, paying large fees to labour contractors, and their general alienation from the local population are issues most Singaporeans would rather not know about.

Too many see and treat them as economic digits brought here to do a job and best kept out of trouble.

A child in the basement? Some would say they fit the bill perfectly.

These examples show that the trade-offs that every society makes abound, balancing what they perceive to be for the greater good with the suffering of the few, but they are also not unchanging.

In all three examples I have cited, things are getting better.

The income divide is being tackled, foreign workers' living conditions are being improved and Singapore's political culture is changing.

Much of this change occurs at the individual level first - what pricks the conscience of Singaporeans, what they believe is right or wrong.

These are inner battles fought deep inside our own basements.

You could say more Singaporeans are walking away from their Omelas, and the city changes as a result.