A group of migrant workers stand in a cramped and crowded room

Singapore: Let’s not ignore the downtrodden; nor those who speak up for them

Singapore has rightly won plaudits for its pandemic response thus far. Yet the recent emergence of clusters of infections at four foreign-worker dormitories shows that complacency is creeping in. What can we learn from this episode?

Consider first the warnings that were ignored. On 23 March, in a letter to The Straits Times’ Forum page (“Employers’ practices leave foreign workers vulnerable to infection”), Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a Singaporean NGO focused on low-wage migrant workers, called on the government to provide better accommodation for workers and crack down on errant employers. These are pleas that TWC2 and others have made for years, but with added urgency amid the Coronavirus pandemic.

Coincidentally, the very next day, the Singapore government announced that it would begin to house returnees from the UK and the US at hotels, including five-star luxury ones on Sentosa, for their mandatory fourteen-day isolation. After some initial disgruntlement, it appears like most returnees adjusted to their new routine, finding solace in that beloved Singaporean pastime: one-upping other countries to feel good about ourselves. Nowhere else in the world, so it goes, would potential vectors be isolated in such decadence, able to enjoy biryani, bubble tea, care packages from loved ones and fresh laundry dangling from the doorknob.

With many basking in Singaporean pride and glory, society’s gaze may have been diverted. Little, if anything, has been done to address TWC2’s concerns over the past two weeks. Now, while all returnees have presumably been certified virus-free and are back in mummy’s embrace, the four dormitories have become virus hotspots, with over a hundred confirmed cases. Some 50,000 workers are now in effective lockdown.

It is ironic that Singaporean taxpayers funded “staycations” for privileged travellers, many of whom could probably afford to pay their own way; while ignoring poorer migrant workers stuck here because of our (somewhat understandable) desire to keep our economy chugging. While some returnees whined that their luxury hotel rooms were too small, migrant workers were and still are being squeezed 12-20 people to a 90 square metre room, far from their families.

Migrant workers were and still are being squeezed 12-20 people to a 90 square metre room, far from their families.

The comparison is a little unfair. Every country will offer extra privileges and protections to its citizens. Yet it exposes how Singapore has long tried to ostracise our low-wage migrant worker community. We create a parallel universe for them to inhabit, exclude them from official statistics (e.g. measurements of the Gini coefficient, or inequality), and just generally shut off any attempt to integrate them into society. We treat them at best as guests and at worst as expendable widgets.

The establishment school of thought is that we should not compare the lives of migrant workers to residents or citizens, but to their next best alternative. In other words, as long as Singapore offers them better conditions than, for instance, at home in South Asia or abroad in Qatar, that is enough. They should be thankful to be here. Perhaps that worldview also informed our pandemic support to them.

For more on the lives of migrant workers in Singapore, see Myths and Facts about Migrant Workers in Singapore, by Charan Bal

However many of us believe it is anachronistic for our country to be benchmarked to developing countries or dictatorial monarchies. Why not other developed countries, such as Japan or Germany, which pay living wages and treat all workers with dignity and respect?

After years of preaching to deaf ears, TWC2 must think it tragic that Singapore needed a major migrant-worker infection cluster in order to be alerted to their decrepit living conditions. This includes cockroach-infested, stinking rooms and toilets overflowing with urine—not what one expects in Singapore.

What can Singapore do to ensure that nobody else falls through the cracks? First, cut back on the back-patting and self-praise, and instead approach our problems with more humility and self-awareness. Yes, we are all glad to be living in Singapore, more so now. And yes, we all need occasional boosts to our flagging spirits. But this euphoric “Singapore is best” drumbeat, including from foreign observers, may be drowning out genuine cries for help in what looks like a long journey.

Understanding the roots of this euphoria is key to tempering it. In January, during the first wave of Coronavirus cases, Singapore’s measured response, particularly in comparison to seemingly chaotic Hong Kong, sparked some early triumphalism about its supposedly superior political system.

Yet it soon became clear that Hong Kong, once it had dealt with the acute risk of Mainlander arrivals, was also doing a splendid job of containing the virus’ spread, its poisoned political atmosphere notwithstanding. The two city-states, along with South Korea and Taiwan, are today the recognised leaders in this “war”.

Assuming they continue their good work, it will be instructive to identify what they have in common: including good governance, strong institutions, communitarian societies and, perhaps most important, prior experience with SARS in 2003.

By contrast, geographic size and political system seem to matter less. South Korea and Taiwan, feisty, large multi-party democracies, have so far succeeded alongside the tiny, more autocratic city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore. (Closet autocrats: don’t pop the champagne yet.)

There is nothing, then, to indicate that a top-down political system is more fit for purpose in terms of a pandemic response. Indeed, the emergence of the four clusters at the dormitories suggests it may be less so.

Singapore should pay more attention to civil society groups such as TWC2, while also remaining open to naysayers and critics.

This leads to the second notion: that Singapore should pay more attention to civil society groups such as TWC2, while also remaining open to naysayers and critics. In recent weeks a baffling, censorious mood seems to have gripped many well-meaning Singaporeans.

“Stop all complaining and criticising, it is time to get behind our government”. This is often accompanied by #SGunited or some other patriotic waffle, as if to imply that constructive criticism is bad, and that homogeneity and blind, unquestioning adherence are the hallmarks of a healthy, “united” society.

The other wonky proposition is that because many in government and the frontline are working so hard, those on the outside should not be bothering them with (seemingly) piffling complaints. In fact, the opposite is true. It is precisely because they are so busy now with crisis management that they might miss more than they ordinarily do. Civil society and other concerned outsiders arguably have an even bigger responsibility to raise the alarm—as TWC2 did.

On a related note, Singaporeans are often cast as relatively apathetic and passive compared to people in Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, places with more vibrant civil societies. Yet with government so distracted and occupied, now is arguably the time for people to step up and become even more engaged (in so far as they can, given current isolation and social distancing measures). For instance Preeti and Subhas Nair, siblings and two of Singapore’s most popular rappers, have just helped raise over S$100,000 (US$70,000) for the migrant worker cause. UK Shyam, former national sprinter, is leading a drive to get laptops to underprivileged kids for home-based learning.

Finally, Singapore should encourage discourse among all ordinary citizens. Should all Singaporeans be wearing masks all the time, even homemade ones? How long should the (effective) lockdown last? Does GovTech’s TraceTogether app have sufficient privacy safeguards? When is the right time for an election?

These are important questions. The ruling People’s Action Party is in such a dominant position ahead of an impending election that it should discount any minuscule political risk of such introspection—if, say, it is forced to reverse its earlier instruction that healthy people should not wear masks, given what we now know about asymptomatic transmission. (See New Naratif’s Singapore elections coverage here)

For there is a much greater upside: by involving ordinary citizens in these debates—perhaps by promoting alternative views through our media channels—Singapore will in the short-term find it easier to get buy-in for its pandemic responses and in the longer-term make Singaporeans feel more invested in this country.

Who knows, we might even start caring for the bricklayers.


For those who want to contribute or help, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) recommends a top-up of migrant workers’ prepaid SIM cards through its Giving.sg page.

More broadly, a group of volunteers maintains a COVID-19: Directory of current/urgent needs in the migrant community that provides a more exhaustive list of organisations and and other means of help and outreach.

Edit: We have updated the information above to reflect some of the latest numbers (as of 2pm on 9 April 2020) regarding the number of workers in lockdown and the number of dormitories quarantined.

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