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Singapore, how did we fail our migrant workers?

Earlier this month, my friend Jill Sara made a public call on Instagram canvassing for donations. Her aim? To deliver over 6,000 bottles of hand sanitisers to the workers living in Westlite Woodlands as the most basic form of protection against COVID-19.

Alarmed by the potential of a spiralling health crisis, I made a small donation amounting to 100 bottles.

“I hope this helps in any small way,” I told her.

“Dude! You just helped one hundred migrant workers fight this COVID-19 virus!” she exclaimed.

Still, 100 is a drop in a roaring ocean. Singapore is home to 200,000 low-wage foreign workers, most of whom are employed in the construction industry.

And then came the shockwave following the news that 20,000 of them are quarantined in gazetted isolation areas with many more clusters around the island.

What has followed is a deep soul searching across the nation. Friends on social media are posting ways to help, while public figures had nothing but scathing remarks for the way the migrant community are made to live here.

(Image credit: Yancy Min via Unsplash)

“The way Singapore treats its foreign workers is not First World but Third World,” wrote Singapore Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh on Facebook. “They stay in overcrowded dormitories and are packed like sardines with 12 persons to a room. The dormitories are not clean or sanitary. The dormitories were like a time bomb waiting to explode. They have now exploded with many infected workers.”

By 20 April, Singapore is seeing record numbers: 1,426 total cases to be precise and we’re set to be number one in Southeast Asia for all the wrong reasons. Make no mistake, this full blown crisis is akin to having our dirty laundry being dragged out by the hair and paraded for all the world to see.

It’s a 180-degree turn from the glowing headlines we’ve been receiving.

“How we treat them reflects on how we collectively as a society treat our poor,” wrote Dr Imran Tajudeen, a professor at the National University of Singapore. He goes on: “We import our poor — the impoverished men (and women) who do the bulk of the menial jobs for us and can be paid a pittance.”

There are no two ways about it: Our country was built on the back of these foreign workers. Our houses, our cushy offices, our award-winning restaurants and sexy bars from which we oh-so-affably sip on our highballs were built brick-by-brick by labourers who not only remain at the fringe of our society but are sometimes treated with disdain.

Need evidence? Here’s a picture of a newspaper clipping dated 31 March 2020 where the Singaporean protagonist lived 26 years of his life thinking migrant workers are criminals.

(Image credit: Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh on Facebook)

I quote the second paragraph: “His impressions of them were shaped by negative stereotypes and anecdotes shared by friends and family — some warned him against migrant workers saying they would “kidnap” him. Others poked fun at their skin colour and food, and claimed that they smelled.”

Need more? Take a trip to the comments section and read what all the vicious racists of Singapore have to say for themselves.

Every single time a community is mocked and belittled, it enforces an existing power structure; one that enables exploiters to treat marginalised communities shoddily — like cramming as many workers as possible in a room.

Did it have to take a global health crisis for Singaporeans to wake up?

(Image credit: Scott Blake via Unsplash)

My message here is clear: Post-COVID-19, we need to grow into a kinder, gentler and more inclusive society. It is not about legislation nor capitalism but embracing the reality that all human beings are born equal. This would not have happened if the workers were housed with dignity and not made to be invisible. There is a need now more than ever to give thanks to every member of society — from the tired nurses in NCID to the cleaner sanitising each table — and discard the putrid corpse of prejudice.

If COVID-19 has taught us one thing, it’s that the status quo cannot continue.

But that’s not to say that all is lost. Non-profit advocacy groups like HOME and TWC2 have long assisted the migrant community and recent days have seen friends like Jill Sara and public figures like Preetipls campaigning for donations on behalf the groups.

The most heartwarming part of it all? Jill’s donation drive met her target in less than 48 hours while Preetipls’ campaign raised over S$100,000 in 12.5 hours.

These are certainly strange times to be alive. The least we could do is extend that compassion to everyone living under the Singapore umbrella. To those looking to do their part, head here for ways you can help. The migrant community is part of Singapore, and right now, Singapore needs you.