When I was nine, my grandmother would wrap warm slices of kueh lapis – a colourful steamed layered cake, a popular snack in Singapore – in brown paper and instruct me to bring them to a nearby construction site. I’d give it to the same group of smiling men to whom I never spoke a word. They only ever nodded in thanks, and I would take off immediately, back home.
Singaporeans have always been aware of the migrant workers’ presence. They live among us, yet we rarely interact. They are mainly seen either at work, or on Sundays, where many gather in large, open spaces to enjoy lunch with their friends, video call their families, and play frisbee.
Singapore has indeed overlooked foreign migrants but can no longer. The COVID-19 pandemic served to many as a rude awakening. Singapore had, until last month, won praise as the best-in-class at containing the coronavirus. Rights groups and medical experts warned that migrant workers were vulnerable to infection. In each case, they were ignored.
Subsequently, there was a rapid rise in the number of infections, fivefold in a fortnight. Nearly 95 per cent of these stem from crowded dormitories housing migrant workers. The living conditions in these dorms are far from ideal when handling a viral pandemic, or indeed at any time. The lavatories overflow, cockroaches infest the buildings, and there isn’t space to self-isolate. One hesitates to draw comparisons between these conditions and the luxury hotels that returning travellers stayed in, at government expense, for their 14 days of self-isolation.
Only now is there large media coverage of migrant workers’ plight. They are, without a doubt, Singapore’s lowest-paid, most vulnerable people. I was shocked hearing some were even turned away from hospitals with coronavirus symptoms. This blind spot in Singapore’s policymaking is outrageous.
But the pandemic offers a silver lining.
Singaporeans now realize the living conditions of foreign workers are unacceptable. There will be calls for change.
In a speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasized migrant workers’ integral role in Singapore’s development. The small number of newspapers that have blamed the spiralling infections on the background and habits of workers, many of them from South Asia, have been lambasted. Local communities and firms have banded together to offer migrant workers support. Initiatives such as Project Belanja and ‘MaskForce’ provide meals and donate cloth masks to dormitories.
I am proud to see most Singaporeans have not degenerated into racism and xenophobia, something I fear may have exploded elsewhere. After all, Singapore is an island of immigrants: our ancestors came from different parts of the world, and often were foreign labourers themselves.
It’s true Singapore may no longer sit at the top of global league tables in terms of keeping the number of infections down. But in revisiting migrants’ place in our society, and our bottom-up as well as top-down response, I certainly admire it.