When a pandemic entered Singapore’s working-class dorms

Kenneth Paul Tan | Updated on: May 08, 2020

Jostling for dignity: Over 90 per cent of Singapore’s 4,800 foreign workers from India found infected live in dormitories | Photo Credit: MINISTRY OF MANPOWER SINGAPORE

At the heart of the island nation’s battle with Covid-19 are its questionable labour policies

* A majority of Singapore’s Covid-19 infections were found among Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers, most of whom live in overcrowded dormitories

Nobody wishes for a crisis. But the saying ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’ should make us reflect on the ongoing pandemic. With over 20,000 Covid-19 cases, the highest number in Southeast Asia, and one of the smallest populations (5.85 million), Singapore should certainly introspect on these lines.

One casualty of the pandemic is Singapore’s global brand. In my 2018 book Singapore: Identity, Brand, Power , I argued that Singapore’s international reputation was built firmly on the success of its governance model, and not just its spectacular commercial brands such as Singapore Airlines and Changi Airport.

For a small geopolitically vulnerable State with limited natural resources, Singapore’s brand was valuable not only for economic reasons. It could also earn the respect, affection and support of more powerful countries.

Singapore’s initial response to Covid-19 was much vaunted. The World Health Organization (WHO) praised its thoroughness in implementing testing, contact tracing and isolation. A Harvard study described its detection capabilities as “gold standard”.

A clean, meritocratic and pragmatic government is at the heart of its governance model. Highly credentialed and well paid, Singapore’s political leaders and policy professionals approach problems technocratically. By drawing lessons from the SARS crisis in 2003, Singapore had put systems in place to brace for the initial stages of Covid-19.

By mid-March, however, large numbers of Singaporeans who had been based overseas were urged to return, often from countries where the impact and control of the pandemic was of concern. Singapore’s labour-intensive, investigation-style contact tracing methods were hard to sustain.

Many returning Singaporeans also flouted the rules requiring self-isolation at home. The public alert system was never raised to the highest level. Instead, euphemisms such as “circuit breaker”, instead of “lockdown”, were preferred. Avoiding extreme measures was consistent with the scientific knowledge at the time, but also with the goals of buoying public sentiment and minimising the damage to businesses. The government was also preparing to hold parliamentary elections. All of this may have diminished public appreciation of the problem’s severity.

By April 20, the number of new cases each day crossed the 1,000-mark. The vast majority were among the two lakh, mostly Bangladeshi, migrant workers housed in 43 privately run dormitories. And 4,800 infections were found among Indian nationals, over 90 per cent of whom were living in dormitories for foreign workers.

Their rooms were overcrowded, poorly ventilated, and often unsanitary, each accommodating up to 20 workers, who shared kitchens, toilets and washing areas. Personal hygiene and social distancing practices, essential to the broader pandemic control strategy, were not practicable in these circumstances. Government regulations, existing before Covid-19, had not been complied with nor enforced with much enthusiasm.

To contain the spread, about 25 dormitories were declared as isolation areas. Migrant workers are now placed under quarantine in their dormitories, their anxiety compounded by poor-quality food, a sense of helplessness and the monotony of confinement.

Doing many of the low-paid jobs in construction and waste management, the million-odd migrant workers have over the decades built and kept clean and green the gleaming global city, which is the material basis of Singapore’s iconic brand image. They are also among the most vulnerable in this wealthy and business-oriented country, often subjected to exploitative practices, social stigma and discrimination.

In these anxious times, social media is full of examples of xenophobic and racist speech and behaviour, showing intolerance, finger-pointing, and social bullying in a society that is used to being held up as a model of multi-racial and multi-religious harmony.

However, there are just as many examples of Singaporean kindness, generosity, and civic action. For many years, civil society organisations such as Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) have independently persisted in lobbying for policy change while providing necessary assistance to the countless cases of migrant workers who fall through the cracks.

In fact, weeks before the dormitory outbreaks, TWC2 had, in a letter published in a local broadsheet, warned of Covid-19 vulnerability among migrant workers. Were such warnings ignored?

Covid-19 has mobilised help from ordinary Singaporeans. However, mobilising the people’s sense of decency, helpfulness and togetherness should not obscure the deep structural deficiencies of the Singapore model. Nor should it stand in for the fundamental changes that are needed. It would be tragic if Singapore simply treats the pandemic, after it ends, as a technocratic case study for dealing with future pandemics. Or if it cosmetically improves the living conditions for migrant labourers by building one or two world-class dormitories before reverting to business as usual.


Grounded: Migrant workers look out from their balconies at Singapore’s Punggol S-11 dormitory


As a society, with the government taking the lead, Singapore must ask itself why it has been so difficult to include diverse, alternative, and even oppositional voices from the ground in its collective decision-making process.

It must ask itself why, after so many decades, its economy and society continue to depend so integrally on low-waged migrant workers, whom it is reluctant to treat with the dignity and full protection that any other worker would expect.

It must ask why, even as it touts itself as a “smart nation”, its economy has been so slow to reduce this dependency by investing in and adopting productivity-enhancing technology and know-how. Should creative destruction be the answer?

Do Singapore’s highly conditional social welfare policies provide enough safety nets for those affected by the economic and social transformations?

If Singapore continues to swerve away from these and other necessarily confronting questions, then a very painful crisis would have certainly been wasted.

Kenneth Paul Tan is a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Published on May 08, 2020
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