Virus breaks down social barriers in Singapore

Virus breaks down social barriers in Singapore

On any other day, 20-year-old Singaporean student Caris Ng and Abdul Kader, a 31-year-old Bangladeshi construction worker, would have almost zero chances of crossing paths. But in the nearly two months of Singapore's "circuit-breaker" lockdown until June, the pair has been coming together through social media, and finding much to bond over common interests in food and music.

Caris and Abdul are just two out of 428 Singaporeans and migrant workers the WePals Befriender Programme -- an initiative under the community-based Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition -- has helped to connect.

Migrant workers living in dormitories account for more than 90% of total Covid-19 infections in Singapore, which hosts nearly 1.5 million of them in a country of 5.9 million people. As crowded dormitories were declared isolation areas amid soaring infection numbers, many found themselves alone, worried and without support.

"I realised that many migrant workers would appreciate talking to local friends during this period. At the same time, there are many Singaporeans who want to get to know migrant workers," the 33-year-old leader of WePals, Ronald Wong, said. "But how can we transcend the social divide? Technology allows us to try."

Covid-19 has provided an impetus for locals and migrants workers to connect, not least during the stay-at-home period in the city-state.

The unique circumstances of the pandemic, which mandate social distancing, have driven this rare window of engagement to take place mostly online. It is not just Singaporeans who are reaching out. Migrant workers are using Facebook and WhatsApp to seek verified information from local contacts, migrant opinion leaders and friends, as well as official sources as anxieties run high and as misinformation spreads.

The window that this connections have opened, even if it tiny and uncertain in the long run, offers a refreshing alternative view of what Singapore could be -- one where migrant workers are visible, and their presence recognised.

After all, Singapore is a first-world country where these two communities live in separate worlds. Misconceptions and prejudice remain rife.

Where locals and migrant workers have "met" each other during Covid-19, the experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.

"This is a good experience, not a bad experience. Covid-19 is like a 'middleman' who has brought Singaporeans and migrant workers together," says Zasim, a 28-year-old Bangladeshi construction worker who has tested positive for Covid-19. "Usually we will just go our separate ways. But maybe this situation has made Singaporeans think connecting with migrants is necessary. It is a good example to see Singaporeans as better humanity (sic)."

Abdul agrees. "Before joining WePals, I never thought that Singaporeans would treat us so well. Now I understand Singaporeans think we are one of their family."

But there is also no overlooking the strong negative pushback in mainstream sentiment amid the seemingly greater sensitivity, or at least interest, in how migrant workers live. An April 13 forum letter published in the Chinese national daily Lianhe Zaobao suggested that migrant workers from "backward countries" with "poor personal hygiene habits" were responsible for the Covid-19 spike in crowded dormitories.

A June 1 announcement that workers' dormitories might be built near residential areas was met with more than a few xenophobic responses from Singaporeans. In one of the more extreme views, a netizen suggested that housing migrant workers in residential areas would lead to foreign domestic workers getting pregnant.


In this the tug-of-war between a push for greater engagement versus a nationalistic turn inwards, Singapore is grappling with how to redefine the relationship between host and migrant.

Some like Zakir Hossain Khokan, 41, a Bangladeshi migrant worker and founder of Migrant Writers of Singapore, are looking to literature and the arts as a bridge to link locals and migrants and help them look beyond labels. A two-time winner of the Singapore Migrant Workers Poetry Competition, Zakir one of the editors of the locally published poetry anthology Call and Response.

"Migrants in Singapore often feel invisible in society and many become mentally ill or homesick. We want to change how locals and migrants see themselves -- that they are people with talent, not just workers who perform the "3D" -- dirty, dangerous and difficult -- jobs." Zakir says. "[Through the arts,] people can come together and share feelings as human beings."

Shivaji Das, founder of the Global Migrant Festival that features the work of low-wage migrants and refugees, welcomes cultural engagement but says this is not the complete answer. "In the end, we will need policy changes to play a key part in reducing disparity. Only then can there be faster and greater engagement," Mr Das said.

Public policy would provide a long-term commitment to migrant workers' wellbeing, beyond seeing them as faceless economic resources, says Sim Irene, a 47-year-old former civil servant. "Some empathy (for migrant workers from the pandemic) will endure, but most would eventually die out. Nevertheless, new legal institutions governing living conditions for migrant workers will be negotiated. But for them to be effective, we will need mechanisms that can hold all stakeholders accountable, and ensure unbiased enforcement."

In early May, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said in parliament that nearly half of dormitory operators breach conditions for dormitory licences each year. In a bid to alleviate crowded dormitories, the Singapore government has announced plans to house around 60,000 workers in new quick-build dormitories and temporary housing by the end of 2020. Long-term plans for new purpose-built dormitories for up to 100,000 workers have also been put in place. These will comply with improved standards that will give workers more living space while lowering occupancy per room and density.


But living conditions are just one problem that migrant workers face. They often pay high agency fees to secure a job in Singapore, and once here, end up at a disadvantaged position, one where their legal status can be revoked any time by their employers, say campaigners for migrant workers in Singapore. They add that workers are often vulnerable to exploitation, such as having unpaid salaries, no days off or employers refusing to bear the costs of medical treatment for injuries at the workplace.

"I'm under no illusion that (improved dormitory standards) represent far-reaching policy changes where migrant workers are concerned," said Ethan Guo, manager of Transient Workers Count Too, which has been advocating for migrant workers since 2004. "(For the government), it will always be Singaporeans and the Singapore economy first, and rightfully so. I can only hope they will see migrant workers as an intricate part of this country and its social fabric that should not be ignored."

As of December 2019, work permit holders -- workers in low-wage and low-skilled positions -- made up nearly 70% of Singapore's 1.4 million foreign workers.

Of these, 293,300 work in the construction industry and 261,800 are foreign domestic workers. There are signs that Singapore will be looking to retool its growth strategy, which has been reliant on low-cost labour, in the post-Covid-19 world. But before these policy changes, it must learn to navigate the social implications of having a foreign workforce that makes up nearly a quarter of its population.

Meantime, Singaporeans like Caris, who hopes to carry forth her newly formed friendship with Abdul, are keeping the momentum of their engagement alive -- one that co-creates what a post-pandemic Singapore may look like.

Ronald sees it as a moment in a movement. "What's key is to engage as many people as possible, and to engage deeply, so that when the moment has passed, they will sustain the movement in their own spheres of influence and social groups."

"People think this is about helping migrant workers, but it is really about helping Singapore." Zakir says. "Singapore cannot truly be a healthy, multicultural society till it accepts its migrant workers as part of the community."

This is part of Reporting Asean's 'Stories Behind the Covid-19 Series'.

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