Different continents, similar problems
16 September 2012
SOMETIMES it is healthy to move away from the vortex to identify what’s real and what’s constructed to appear factual. The North-east region is so compulsively provocative that there is never a moment for reflection. All that we writers do is pen narratives of instant history without the luxury of careful reflection. Hence my recent trip to Australia (Melbourne) via Singapore was a much-needed break from conventional thinking. While Australia is a developed and fairly affluent country with good human development indices, the part of India where I come from bears no comparison. Yet there are some strange equalisers.
When I left home on 4 September, high school teachers in Meghalaya were gearing up to strike work the next day (Teachers’ Day). When I landed at Melbourne, thousands of teachers in the state of Victoria were up in arms asking for better pay. Nearly 40,000 of them took part in the strike, with up to 400 schools closed. The Australian Education Union has rejected the Victorian government’s offer of a 2.5 per cent pay rise with performance bonuses.
The Teachers’ Union led by Mary Bluett, says the disruption is widespread but most parents will understand why the teachers are striking. They had given notice to stop work a month ago and parents, too, had been informed. It is coincidental that teachers in Victoria also went on a mass strike on 5 September, although Australians do not have what is known as Teachers’ Day. About 15,000 teachers dressed in red gathered at Rod Laver Arena for a rally and to vote on further industrial action. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard taunted the striking teachers, saying that the standards of education had not improved over the years. What teachers are demanding are not just a pay raise but also fewer short-term contracts and smaller class sizes.
I was told that teachers in different states of Australia get different pay. In Western Australia, teachers at the top of the incremental payscale are paid $7,441 (about Rs 4.46 lakh) a year, more than teachers in Victoria for the same role. However, while the Teachers’ Union said that while they may be prepared to budge on pay, they were resolute in their opposition to the government’s proposal to introduce performance-based pay apart from the high levels of short-term contract employment. My Aussie friends told me that this was the largest strike in 40 years. So even in the developed world all is not well with the teaching community! A good lesson for us who think that the grass is greener Down Under!
Travelling to Australia invariably means a stopover at Singapore. Here, too, things are not hunky-dory. And newspapers give you a sense of what the prime issues of any country are. Like us in North-east India, the government of Singapore is also troubled by largescale immigration from India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, China, etc. A columnist writing on this issue said that Singapore’s founder and former Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew, while speaking at a function in 1971, had warned that what the ordinary Singaporean refused to do — cleaning the streets, public toilets, construction work, etc — would have to be done by migrant workers. But migrants were not tuned to the milieu of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew said.
His contention was that migrant workers imported the culture of their homelands, which did not put a premium on the cleanliness and orderliness and respect for the law that Singapore is known for. Hence migrants by nature were a necessary evil, the former Premier is said to have observed four decades ago.
Recently, Lee Kuan Yew revisited his speech and said that the economy of Singapore could shrink by as much as 10 per cent in 2012 and that the worse affected by the economic downturn were migrant workers as massive construction projects were halted or companies were simply unable to make ends meet. John Gee, head of Transient Workers’ Count Too, a Singapore-based organisation dedicated to looking after the welfare of migrant workers, reported that many more workers had been coming to them for help in the past few months. Most migrant workers in Singapore fulfil their contracts and return home. But in the recent economic downturn, migrant workers are not even paid, so much so they have to look for a free meal facility.
And illegal immigration in Australia is worse. Every day there are boatloads of people from Korea, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia who brave it out to land on Aussie shores and settle there. When I was in Melbourne, the newspapers reported that a boat carrying 20 Sri Lankan migrants was stuck at some place a little away from the mainland because it had run out of fuel. The migrants refused to be deported. They asked instead for refuelling and also sought asylum in that country.
In November last year, Australia recorded the number of illegal immigrants at 60,000, which they say is enough to fill one whole region. Interestingly, these illegal settlers are mainly Americans, British, Chinese, Malaysians and South Koreans, who arrived in Australia by plane and overstayed their visas, according to the Herald Sun newspaper. The paper reports that Australia has enough visa over-stayers “to populate a large regional city”. The numbers may not look huge by Indian standards but in a country with a total population of 22 million, 60,000 is a significant number. Again interestingly, one in three visa over-stayers have been in the country 10 years or more.
Australian Human Rights Commission president Catherine Branson said there were many more asylum-seekers in Australia who arrived by plane than by boat. The illegal immigration route always follows a pattern. People move from poorer countries to more affluent ones. And in the case of India and Bangladesh, immigration is from the poorer Bangladesh to the lesser poor India.
One other issue that appears uncannily common is about state control over media. The Australia government is coming up with what media persons term “draconian” proposals for a new media regulator with the power to jail journalists for misconduct. While agreeing that self-regulation is the best regulation, leading journalists and media owners such as News Limited chief Kim Williams, said there were ways to boost the accountability of journalists without the unhealthy prospect of “unhealthy levels of government oversight”.
He said the answer to “who watches the watchmen? must be ourselves — through a body that is independent of us”. I recall the Indian Parliament had also sought to put curbs on the media recently but had not yet succeeded to create that lobby to push in such legislation.
The moot point there is that whether a country is developed or developing it is peopled by human beings with similar needs, hopes, fears, hatreds, aspirations and ego. Hence, it is often a relief to know that people across the universe grapple with the same problems and desperations as we do. This gives hope to writers like this one, a hope that, unfortunately, evades the doomsday predictors.
The writer is editor, The Shillong Times, and can be contacted at