COMMENT: Fencing workers off will only cause more distrust, animosity

Kirsten Han

(In this photo taken Feb. 9, 2014, a member of an elite police unit, left, watches over migrant workers as they wait for shuttle buses to take them back to their dormitories after spending their day off in Singapore’s Little India District. AP Photo/Joseph Nair)

It’s been over two years since the short-lived riot in Little India. After that incident, I met Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers who were hesitant to return to the area, or to even talk about going to Little India, for fear of being somehow implicated in the riot.

This fear might now have worn away, and the workers are returning to the area for their shopping and socialising. Little India is once again a noisy, somewhat chaotic neighbourhood, a vibrant space on an island that increasingly covered by conformist, manicured malls.

Denise Phua, Member of Parliament for Jalan Besar GRC, thinks this is a problem. Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, she said that the crowds in Little India had returned to “pre-riot” levels, and described the high density of predominantly South Asian migrant workers as “walking time-bombs”. Her solution was to build more recreation centres for migrant workers outside of Little India, and to fence off communal areas such as playgrounds and void decks so that “the old and young can get to use the space meant for them”.

At a time when we’re laughing at Donald Trump’s racist, xenophobic idea of building a wall along the US-Mexican border to keep the Mexicans at bay, it’s useful to be reminded that such sentiment can also manifest on our supposedly multicultural and harmonious doorstep. In Phua’s speech we see power and privilege at play in the contestation of urban space: in Singapore, “communal areas” are only for certain communities. These spaces might be built by migrant workers, but they certainly aren’t meant for them!

In Singapore, migrant workers are not considered real residents. They are merely transient. They aren’t going to settle here; their families and children won’t ever be targets of our pro-family efforts to increase the birth rate. We have no interest in their long-term needs and desires; they are here to work, and that’s all we expect them to do. We expect them to prune trees, clean HDB estates, build roads, hotels, flats and malls, then quietly disappear when the job is done.

So little consideration is made for them as members of society in Singapore. We don’t consider their need for space – to relax, to socialise, to just be. We certainly don’t consider their need for agency – to decide where they want to go. We think we can keep them away by merely making the dorms huge and multi-purpose, expecting them to live their lives within the walls of that enclosure. The fact that many workers might have their own reasons for not wanting to stay in the dorms on their days off doesn’t even appear to register.

If we continue to designate who is or isn’t entitled to use “communal space”, then we should ask ourselves what sort of community we’re building. If we want people to come work in Singapore, then we need to accept that they will want to exist in our spaces, to walk on our streets and hang out just like anyone else.

It’s simple, really: if we can’t deal with people’s needs, then we shouldn’t bring them into Singapore and profit off their labour.

Fencing workers off – and I have no doubt that Phua expects the workers themselves to build the fence – will only add to a sense of alienation, isolation and disconnect among the migrant worker population in Singapore. The sense of being unwanted and looked down upon sparks animosity and distrust, which simply causes more trouble down the line.

The workers are not the problem here. Racism, prejudice and xenophobia are the real time bombs.

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean blogger, journalist and filmmaker. She is also involved in the We Believe in Second Chances campaign for the abolishment of the death penalty. A social media junkie, she tweets at @kixes. The views expressed are her own.