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Strike by China bus drivers tests Singapore

SINGAPORE -- This week's walkout in Singapore by dozens of mainland Chinese bus drivers over disparities in pay would have been considered small, calm and short-lived in almost any other nation.

But the strike, in breach of the law and mostly over by Wednesday, was the first significant industrial action in the tightly regulated Asian financial center in more than 25 years.

For the first two days of this week, buses ran late and crowded in a city that prides itself on efficiency, leading to complaints from customers.

“This is Singapore NOT China. If you cannot follow the law of the land please go back to your own country and strike,” Today newspaper reader Leonard Low wrote on the paper's website.

After a tough election last year, the strike highlights challenges for the long-ruling government of the majority ethnic Chinese island as it tries to defuse anger over an influx of immigrants while discouraging labor unrest that could hurt investment.

The action by the drivers from China, over complaints they are paid less than Singaporean and Malaysian peers, also underlines the treatment of lower-skilled foreign workers who are vital to the construction, hospitality and transport sectors in the wealthy city-state.

“There's a danger in becoming too emotional about it,” said Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Chua Hak Bin. “Not many Singaporeans want to work as bus drivers at these kind of wage levels. You need foreign workers to fill the gap.”

Chua said companies would have to get used to higher wage demands by lower-skilled foreign workers, given the much larger salary increases in countries such as China.

In the case of SMRT Corp. Ltd., one of two bus companies that ply Singapore's roads, Chinese nationals account for about 450 of the 2,000 or so drivers on its payroll.

As a global financial center with the world's highest concentration of millionaires, Singapore is awash with flashy cars, pricey shops and fancy restaurants that epitomize the wealth of foreign and domestic businesspeople and bankers.

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