Singapore and the Management of Long-Term Disability
When the National Council of Social Services in Singapore invited me to come talk on “Management of Long Term Disability,” I had misgivings. Too often, emphasis on “management” bespeaks a top-down hierarchy. As a person with a disability myself, I am less interested in management than in the never-ending struggle by disabled persons for acceptance, understanding, dignity, and opportunity. Most disabled folks I know do not ask anyone to “manage” their abnormalities. Rather, they seek liberation from prejudice, pity, over-protection, domination, and exclusion by society.
“So you see, in Mexico we deal differently with drug traffickers than here in Singapore. While you apply a mandatory death penalty, we try to provide an opportunity for a socially constructive life.”
In Singapore, however, management is as omnipresent and indisputable as a supreme being. Virtually everything and everyone is carefully managed. Singapore is a largely benevolent police state—benevolent, at least, to those who follow the rules. Big Brother reigns in the form of armed guards, security cameras, and a deeply entrenched value system that places good manners, obedience and conformity before individuality and or (forgive the thought!) independent living. The red tape for me to get a visa as a guest speaker was astounding. When I asked my hosts if it might be easier for me simply to enter as a tourist (for whom no visa is needed), my hosts were shocked by such a delinquent thought. The law, I was told, is inflexible and unforgiving. When I was about to cross an empty street mid-block, my guest restrained me, warning that jay walking brought a mandatory $60 fine. A printed notice handed to every visitor on arrival states bluntly, “WARNING: For possession of illegal drugs, the death penalty is mandatory.”
Months before giving my keynote address, I was told to send a script of it to the program planners. I later learned that the purpose of this was so that the appropriate officials could screen my speech and edit it for protocol. “Not as censorship,” I was told, but to be sure speakers say nothing that might cause discomfort for either them or their listeners.” My personal host, who said my talk was remarkably provocative and challenging for Singapore, told me privately how surprised she was that I had been permitted to deliver it without changes.
In any case, when I gave my talk, I could not resist a few ad libs. When I described our new work program in Mexico, I explained that one of our goals was to rehabilitate disabled hoodlums and drug dealers. When given a chance to help disabled children, some of these thugs transform into loving, caring, capable community rehabilitation workers. “So you see, in Mexico we deal differently with drug traffickers than here in Singapore. While you apply a mandatory death penalty, we try to provide an opportunity for a socially constructive life.”
If you would like a copy of David Werner’s keynote address in Singapore, in which he argues for the enablement rather than management of disabled persons, please send US$5.00 to HealthWrights. Or pay by Visa card (see the enclosed flyer).
The day after my talk, I met with government and NGO planners in the disability field. One participant was Ron Chandran Dudley, an exceptionally outspoken blind leader of the Singapore Association of Disabled Persons. In mock seriousness, Ron said, “I think we in Singapore should think seriously about what David Werner said in his address. Rather than put drug traffickers to death, why don’t we shoot them in the spine to disable them, then rehabilitate them into constructive citizens?”
To my amazement, the chief of the country’s biggest public service program (an ex-military man), took Ron seriously. “Even if it might work, I don’t think we should try it.” he replied. “The international community, especially the USA, would surely protest, claiming that shooting criminals in the spine as part of their rehabilitation is a violation of human rights. We don’t want to invite international reproach.” Most listeners nodded in agreement.
Full of titanic paradoxes, Singapore is a thriving success story of international capitalism. Wholly urbanized, this wealthy, cosmopolitan island’s commodity-driven culture has a global market lifestyle. Multinational corporations pilot people’s dominant hungers and values. Shopping malls, clothing and haircut styles, TV ads, and soap operas religiously mirror those in the US. Virtually all food and raw products are imported, as is most music and entertainment. Billboards for Marlboro and Coca Cola dominate the busy landscape.
I was astounded to hear a song taught in kindergarten, with these lyrics: “McDonalds! McDonalds! McDonalds! Burger King! Burger King! Burger King! Kentucky Fried! Kentucky Fried! Kentucky Fried!”—with no additional rhyme or reason. In their free time, teenagers hang out in the shopping malls.
Average income, standard indicators of health, and life expectancy are quite high. Poverty is simply not permitted. Crowding is such that 84% of the population live in high-rise apartment buildings. A married couple often has to wait years for a place to live. Yet despite the extreme crowding, the government provides economic incentives for Singaporans (or at least more educated ones) to have more children. More people mean more workers, more consumers, and faster economic growth. In Singapore crime rates are low and suicide rates high and rising, especially among young people.
The situation of disabled persons in Singapore is likewise paradoxical. Most get the medical care, assistive devices, and special schooling they need. But there is little integration into society. Significantly disabled persons remain institutionalized, shut off in their homes, or sent to special schools. Public transportation has almost no provision for disabled persons. Except for a few showcase sheltered workshops, most disabled persons are unemployed.
In discussions with groups and organizations of disabled people in Singapore, I was told that the island has virtually no laws protecting the rights and opportunities of disabled persons. I pointed out that in countries where disadvantaged groups win more equal rights and opportunities, it is usually because they have organized and made strong demands.
“That is not our way,” I was told. “We in Singapore like to be polite. We do not believe in confrontation with authority.”
Yet some disabled people are becoming critical of the managed social environment that cares for them but excludes them. Especially among younger, newly disabled persons, there is an emerging spirit to take organized action to overcome existing prejudice and barriers. One outcome of my visit was that people from different disability groups, who have too often been at odds with each other, came together and began to discuss their common needs. There was growing recognition of the need for all disabled and disadvantaged to work together in solidarity. Plans were made for further meetings to form a more active coalition.