COMMENT: Singapore’s treatment of foreign workers is a stain we can do without

Foreign workers wave from the corridor of their rooms at the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol, where there are 62 cases of individuals with the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, in Singapore on April 6, 2020. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP) (Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Foreign workers wave from the corridor of their rooms at the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol, where there are 62 cases of individuals with the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, in Singapore on April 6, 2020. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP) (Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — How quickly fortunes can turn. It was only a few weeks ago that Singapore was smelling like roses with the country being praised, both here and abroad, for its efficient handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Today, the same government is struggling to contain the quick spread of the virus as dormitories for migrant workers open up a new battlefront.

The stark news that came out of the multi-ministry taskforce on Thursday (9 April): coronavirus cases hit a new single-day high of 287, with migrant workers making up 219 of the total number. That is more than two-thirds of the total.

Alarm bells should have rung as soon as five migrant workers from Seletar Aerospace Heights were hit in February. Without enough information, I can only make a calculated guess that these Bangladeshi workers had gone back to their dormitory and infected more before being hospitalised. With dormitories so crowded and compact, the quick spread inside these places was not unexpected.

While the urgency of fighting the pandemic cannot be understated, recent events have brought up a longstanding issue: our attitude towards migrant workers. Over many years, their treatment by employers has been extensively reported by media and NGOs. But even horrendous acts against them did not force the authorities to act in a holistic way.

Just one example: 23 years ago, a half-paralysed Bangladeshi worker was dumped in a drain in Sembawang and left to die. Md Bashar, 24 years old at the time, was badly hurt when a lift hit him at his work place. His story made for chilling reading. He told The New Paper’s Augustine Pang, who brought the story to light: “My legs were numb. I knew then that my spine was finished. They made me lie down. I was feeling very cold and they covered me with a sarong.”

He was then driven to a remote part of Singapore and thrown into a drain.

That sarong came in handy. In the drain, while submerged in black water, he waved it and screamed at the top of his voice to attract the attention of passing motorists. “But none of them could hear me, because the vehicles were all air-conditioned. Later, two military jeeps passed by and the army people noticed me. They called the police and an ambulance,” he said.

Bashar underwent a series of operations and eventually went back to his native Bangladesh. Shocked by this dastardly act, many Singaporeans opened their wallets and cheque books. Those who dumped him went to jail.

While the working and living conditions of foreign workers have greatly improved since, I’m not sure if Manpower Minister Josephine Teo remembers this story. It was over two decades ago and she was then an officer at the Economic Development Board. By the time she was appointed to head MOM two years ago, Bashar had become a statistic to be filed away on some official’s shelf.

Besides Bashar, there have also been instances like foreign workers being dumped in containers and housed in cemeteries – even People’s Action Party (PAP) Members of Parliament like Irene Ng called it modern-day slavery in Singapore back in 2009, and again in 2015. Ng told Parliament five years ago, “Singapore owes it to foreign workers to ensure they are provided with decent living conditions here and are not vulnerable to exploitation on account of their weak bargaining power and willingness to suffer hardships just to work here.”

If she did remember, Teo might have been a little more sympathetic – and decisive – to their cause. I’m not sure what the stand is currently, with the messaging flip flopping between cost and giving assurances that the issue of foreign workers’ living conditions will be thoroughly dealt with once the COVID-19 pandemic is resolved.

Up to 49,300 quarantined

These workers’ wretched living conditions were brought out into the open again when the government imposed a clampdown on five dormitories (as of Friday) after infection clusters emerged there. The Straits Times’ plucky reporter Joyce Lim, jumped on to the story and exposed the horrid living conditions: cramped dormitories, choked toilets and filthy living spaces.

Besides the dormitories that have been designated as social isolation areas - the 160 cases at the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol currently form the biggest cluster - nine other dormitories across the country have also emerged as clusters. Authorities have scrambled to find alternative living accommodations, rehousing 21 vacant Housing Board blocks - but only for healthy foreign workers working in essential services.

It is a perennial problem which crops up regularly, then goes on the back burner, then returns to the spotlight when something bad is exposed. The media at the forefront of the issue goes on to other topics, NGOs that try to assiduously put the topic on the boil are ignored and sometimes countered by rivals spouting the same government lines, the minority public-spirited citizens are weighed by fatigue and the government reacts in fits and starts. And the stain on Teo’s ministry, as well as Singapore’s reputation, has remained.

Ironically, it has taken an unprecedented challenge in the shape of the pandemic to get the authorities to seriously address living conditions in the dormitories, which now pose an imminent threat to the health of both foreign workers and Singaporeans.

Things must change

There are two ways to tackle this problem – and it starts with you and me.

One, Singaporeans must not only open their wallets, but also their hearts to foreign workers. This is unlikely to happen as the issue is not a hot topic for them. Remember how residents of Serangoon Gardens protested against the government’s decision to build a dormitory for foreign workers in their backyard just before the 2011 general election? That decision was one of the reasons the ruling party lost a prized GRC, Aljunied.

The unspoken conversation goes like this: We empathise with them, but don’t let them live near us. That attitude won’t disappear as Singaporeans’ zeal to accumulate wealth and prosperity continues. Is this the legacy we want to leave behind for our children?

Two, the government can act if it wants. But it knows it won’t pay a political price if it just talks and doesn’t act. It has all the power to put the screws on employers who treat their foreign workers like slaves, make them work long hours, pay them low salaries and house them in inhumane conditions. The 4G leadership, of which Teo is a member, must take ownership and try to erase the stain that a first world country like Singapore can do without.

But it looks like the 4G leadership has lost the plot on this. Now they have invited Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, who was in charge of ministries that are known to take tough measures, to oversee the migrant worker issue.

As Singapore talks about holding an election in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and co must admit they have dropped the ball on this, and try to quickly erase the stain that a first world country like Singapore can do without.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

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