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Singapore Policy Journal

Topic / Social Policy

The politics of language: How can we mainstream social justice vocabularies?

How might we mainstream social justice ideas and vocabularies, beginning a national conversation that extends beyond more recognised civil society actors? In a recent piece, Poh Yong Han identifies one challenge in relation to this. She laments that those outside of an echo chamber” of civil society activists do not grasp certain key terms or buzzwords, noting how phrases like institutionalized racism”, Chinese privilege”, and intersectionality”…often… fly over the head of those who have not heard of such terms.”

While this is undoubtably presently true, I do not think this is irremediable. Key terms like ‘fake news’, ‘POFMA’, or ‘circuit breaker’ have recently entered the shared Singaporean lexicon. More traditional terms like ‘meritocracy’ or ‘multiracial’ are also commonly used by all Singaporeans, regardless of social or educational background. This suggests that the capacity to grasp terms like these already exist.

Rather than taking on a defeatist stance and avoiding the issue of the lack of a shared vocabulary, I suggest that civil society actors organise themselves linguistically, in an attempt to intervene in the national discourse on migrant workers. They should work in a deliberate, coordinated fashion to introduce a particular term into society’s shared vocabulary. In particular, I propose that the language of exploitation meets the necessary strategic criteria to provide a communicative tool that comprehensively describes the material conditions of migrant workers, therefore communicating the moral harms being done to them. Developing a shared vocabulary of this sort has great liberating potential, and offers possibilities for the structural change that is needed on the issue.

“Sexual Harassment” as Model
One model for how the coordinated use of language can be used to work towards social justice lies with the history of the usage of the term ‘sexual harassment.’ In Epistemic Injustice, philosopher Miranda Fricker details how the concept was missing from the vocabulary of women before the 1970s. Women therefore struggled to express and explain their experiences with sexually predatory behaviour from their male colleagues and superiors, as their experiences did not conform to any common notion in society’s lexicon. These behaviours were dismissed as ‘harmless flirting’, and women were often forced to accepting them, or led to believe that there was nothing wrong. Society was therefore unable to recognise the experiences of victims of injustice.

However, second-wave feminists intervened in the 1970s, explicitly naming these experiences as cases of “sexual harassment”. Once the concept was named (not merely identified), penetrating society’s shared vocabulary, women were able to clearly understand and communicate their own experiences, rejecting such behaviours as inappropriate and harmful.

While there are vast differences in the nature and influence of civil society in Singapore and America, this perhaps provides a rough model for activists to follow. In the same way, migrant workers in Singapore and Singaporeans can greatly benefit from developing a shared vocabulary that expresses the experiences of migrant workers. This vocabulary will then hopefully allow the migrant workers into our linguistic community, giving them voice in the publicly shared discourse that has thus far largely excluded them.

Three Criteria
This raises the questions of which term should be selected for introduction into the public space, and the criteria based on which we might make such a decision. Here, I would suggest that the language of exploitation adequately fulfils three important criteria for our objectives.

The first is the most obvious – it must sufficiently capture the migrant workers everyday lived experiences, which include “include low and unpaid wages…indebtedness, sudden termination of employment, abandonment by employers, physical and psychological abuse, and forceful repatriation.” More than just describing these poor conditions and experiences, ‘exploitation’ also carries a sense of injustice, and the implication that such conditions and behaviour should not be allowed to persist.

One recent study by TWC2 shows how workers certainly resonate with the fact that they are abused and taken advantage of, but I think an extra step could be made to specifically centre their grievances around the language of exploitation. This would arm them with a communicative tool to get their point across more sharply, as women in the 1970s had done.

Second, the term has to be sufficiently colloquial and digestible for both the general population and migrant workers. The aim is to be able to equip both Singaporeans and migrant workers with a shared vocabulary, and therefore the priorities are the term’s ease of recognition and ‘spreadability’.

There are undoubtedly issues with effectively reducing and simplifying the entire migrant worker experience to that of ‘exploitation’. Most obviously, by reducing the injustices they face to material conditions, the language of ‘exploitation’ glosses over the racial-ised realities and issues surrounding citizenship that are central to a migrant worker’s experience. To that end, Nancy Fraser’s concept of expropriation is analytically more appropriate and precise. Expropriation goes a long way in explaining and exposing the race and citizenship-based “Othering” that occurs.

Nevertheless, we should resist the temptation to rush towards the term, as whatever is gained in analytical precision would likely be doubly lost in practical usage and spreadability. The latter two are the immediate concerns. What matters is instead everyday use and understandings, and the vague shared meanings behind the term being used. Terms like ‘expropriation’, while analytically robust, are highly technical and are not sufficiently colloquial. Here, I suggest that discipline is paramount.

Being the subjects of injustice, it is crucial that migrant workers are themselves able to access this language. While dialect or Mandarin might be able to reach important sectors of Singaporean society, English is still the shared language that both Singaporeans and migrant workers have, and probably stands the greatest chance of making an immediate impact. Translations into dialect and other languages, without losing the force behind the term, would probably be a later step.

Third, the term has to have the potential to be able to eventually pivot towards larger structural critiques. Having sufficient vocabulary to recognise and communicate the issue would already go a long way towards changing the conditions of low-wage migrant workers. However, we ultimately cannot avoid confronting the structural conditions that allow these issues to be produced and reproduced.

Exploitation carries a reservoir of meaning that allows us to draw links to other sectors of Singaporean society, and be applied to other contexts. Migrant workers are not the only ones who are exploited, in any sense of the term, within the geographical boundaries of Singapore. Should the language of exploitation be sufficiently widespread, similarities can perhaps be drawn between, for example, the experiences of PMD riders and migrant workers. This paves the way to both a broader class critique of Singaporean society, underscoring the similarities in precarity and vulnerability that  migrant workers and other low-wage workers share.

Contrast this with the idea of ‘gratitude’. It is true that migrant workers have helped us build Singapore, both metaphorically and physically. It is also true that we should be more grateful for this, and that we should therefore treat them better. However, the language of ‘gratitude’ is more unlikely to pivot to a structural critique, as it is solely confined to changing our individual behaviour and attitudes, instead of targeting the broader socio-economic structures in which they are embedded.

Clarifications and Optimism
To be clear, in suggesting that we ‘develop’ a shared vocabulary, I do not intend to send us to the dictionaries and learn new words, nor to imply that we do not already know what exploitation means. In fact, everything that I have written here hinges on the fact that we already have a vague sense of what the term entails. NGOs and commentators already use a cluster of terms to express a central theme of exploitation, describing “mistreatment”, “abuse”, or “exploitation” itself. These are invaluable contributions to our understanding of the situation, and the circumstances that migrant workers in Singapore go through.

However, civil society as yet does not have any overarching term, as part of our shared language ‘toolkit’, that we can easily draw upon to effectively encapsulate and communicate the experiences of migrant workers. My suggestion to ‘develop’ the language of exploitation is for civil society to take the next step of settling on a term “that embraces [the] whole range of subtle and unsubtle persistent behaviors” that are done to migrant workers, and then introduce it into public discourse. This will hopefully bring the benefits that I outlined.

It is therefore to our advantage to draw from a term that has already made some way into the Singaporean vernacular rather than starting from scratch, even at the cost of some analytical slippage. Singapore society’s relative familiarity with ‘exploitation’ allows us to more easily access the vague moral content behind it, including – abuse of power; one party taking more than their fair share; being treated unfairly; and so on – communicating the harms done the migrant workers.

As in the ‘sexual harassment’ case, the terms that comprise of our linguistic toolkit are not introduced simply by us explaining what they mean, but through a sustained process where we actively use, repeat, and highlight the chosen term in public discourse. My contention is that civil society groups should consider initiating this process.

Perhaps those working on the ground can recommend that migrant workers can describe their conditions and grievances as “exploitation” or “being exploited”. Those writing commentaries could deliberately choose to highlight the word often, even foregrounding it as part of the headline. The rest of us should emphasise the term in conversations with others. In other words, having settled on a term, civil society should engage in coordinated action for the term to gain traction and hopefully media penetration.

I believe that there is room for optimism. It is likely that public sentiment and sympathy for migrant workers has never been higher. Feminists in the 1970s made major sacrifices to push the language of ‘sexual harassment’ into the public space, giving women a potent tool of resistance. With persistence, organisation, and coordination of tactics, there is no reason that Singapore cannot do the same for its migrant workers.

Image Source: The Straits Times