TL;DR – Have Singaporeans stopped saying things like “I don’t want ‘half-naked men’ hanging around our neighbourhood”?
That was the number of new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, 9 April 2020. Of those, most are foreign workers living in dormitories. The S11 Dormitory at Punggol alone has 160 cases. How did we get here?
I blame the residents of Serangoon Gardens. Back in 2008, a whole bunch of residents signed a petition to block plans to build a foreign worker dormitory in the Serangoon Gardens area. Among the arguments forwarded by residents against the dorm plans were:
- They don’t want “half-naked men” hanging around their neighbourhood;
- The neighbourhood will become unsafe for old people;
- Parents will worry about leaving their young children and aged parents at home when they go to work;
- Traffic congestion by lorries ferrying workers;
- The estimated 1,400 properties worth over $1 million each would see a drop in asset value.
I guess ensuring the high property value was more important than providing proper accommodation for our foreign workers. If those residents had their way, would we be seeing foreign workers living on the construction sites, or in the garbage collection areas instead?
Sure. That was back in 2008. But have things gotten better?
Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC, drew flak recently for a completely tone-deaf post about foreign workers, where he said:
The open space beside the Kallang MRT is empty. Usually every Sunday both foreign domestic workers and workers will congregate till late night. This has caused some inconvenience to my residents. We have developed a plan to tackle this challenge. But it takes a virus to empty the space.
Again, I emphasize that I think the post was completely tone-deaf, absolutely insensitive, definitely inappropriate. But what made Dr Yaacob say something like that in the first place? He must have received numerous complaints from his residents.
And could we have provided much better living conditions to the foreign workers? They sleep 12 to a room. Gasp. How horrible! Can’t we let them have, say, two to a room instead? Sure. Who pays? Employers? Employers will pass the cost to consumers. Which means your construction costs will go up. And your service and conservancy charges will go up too. And remember the fuss we, Singaporeans, kicked up the last the Town Councils raised the service and conservancy charges?
Oh sure, the government can absorb the costs, they always say. And pay with what money? It’s got to be taxpayers’ money, right? Which means we have to pay more taxes. But here we are, screaming bloody murder when the government even so much as breathes about raising GST. And to raise taxes so that we can provide better living conditions for foreign workers? In Singapore, any politician who dares to suggest this is committing political suicide. Not least because some Singaporeans are already biased against foreign workers. Remember that aunty who was reluctant to sit next to someone she thought was a foreign worker?
So you see, while many keyboard warriors have been hacking away, with their virtual weeping and gnashing of teeth about the plight of the foreign workers, the reality is that we, Singaporeans, each and everyone of us contributed, in some way or another, to the living conditions of the foreign workers.
Over the next few weeks, the government will move some of the foreign workers out to army camps, floating hotels (what the hell are those?), and vacant HDB flats. Some of these HDB flats are in the Redhill Close area. Yes, very local housing estate. These 21 blocks of HDB flats have been vacant since 2018 from a SERS exercise. These will house healthy foreign workers who are providing essential services, like cleaning and facilities management. I wouldn’t be surprised if there will be complaints from residents of that area about this move. But I hope there won’t be that many of them.
I hope that most of us will do our best to comfort and support the foreign workers in our midst, still working hard, despite the fear, anxiety, and many challenges that they now face because of this situation.
And I hope that once this passes, we truly will do some soul-searching about the way we treat the foreign workers in our midst. Minister for Manpower, Mrs Josephine Teo, has already given her word that she, and her Ministry, will look into providing our foreign workers better living conditions in a dedicated way once the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis is over. While living a better life is important, the more pressing issue right now is saving lives. When that time comes for us to really work on raising the standards of foreign workers’ living conditions, I hope Singaporeans will match our words with actions and support Mrs Teo, and her Ministry.
In the mean time, the least we can do, if we can’t help, is to not get in the way of those working tirelessly to get everyone of us through this COVID-19 situation safely. We can. We must.
#StayHome #SaveLives #DoNotWasteOur5b