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Migrant Workers Aren’t Just a Part of Singapore’s Landscape

This article is an opinion piece by the writer regarding the local perspectives of migrant workers before and during the Covid-19’s crisis, together with her hopes for the future.



My earliest impression of men who seemed different from the people I was familiar with—my family members, school teachers, and classmates—occurred in primary school: on its way to bringing us home, my school van stopped at a traffic light and my seatmate pointed a finger out of the window.


Don’t look at them,” she screeched, and ducked. I looked, of course, because I was curious about who she’d referred to: ten men, dark-skinned, sitting in the back of a lorry. The vehicle had pulled up next to us. No canopy; the afternoon sun illuminated its passengers’ faces, and when one of the men caught my eye, I followed my seatmate’s act. I ducked into my seat, too. 


I never did see his expression afterward. The traffic light blinked green, and the vehicles parted ways. 


This memory didn’t stand out to me for a few years, not until my school began introducing words such as “prejudice” and “privilege”, and eventually my reflections on that memory gained a new light. Unfortunately, this experience isn’t unique; reports of casual racism and xenophobia crop up now and then in the local news, and whether you’re in the majority or minority of any social group, I’m sure you have stories to tell, too. 


Even then, it’s easy to hear these words and grasp their definitions. It’s also easy to acknowledge inequality when reminded of it. But how easy is it to remember its existence when we’re not prompted by high-profile events like Covid-19? Before the pandemic, for instance, we caught snippets of abuse against foreign domestic workers or the death of construction workers who’re overworked beyond the legal number of hours. We probably scrolled through an opinion piece or two. We probably agreed with the authors who argued for the migrant workers’ rights. 


It’s also easy to acknowledge inequality when reminded of it. But how easy is it to remember its existence when we’re not prompted by high-profile events like Covid-19?


Yet, after an obligatory, “Poor guys,” did you let the moment slip away? 


Maybe sympathy lingered, but once the reminders of inequality passed—maybe we started reading the next sensational news, maybe we clicked away from the page to respond to a text message—most of us returned to our own lives, unruffled by the going-ons of the migrant workers’ community. 


Between the incidents that make the news, it’s as though these men and women don’t exist in the minds of citizens and permanent residents. It’s as though they’ve melted into the background of Singapore’s landscape: silhouettes toiling away in construction sites, shadows napping under bridges and in void decks, figures sweating over the chores in our homes. 


This has been Singapore’s status quo: the invisibility of these individuals. 


The fiery spread of Covid-19 across the migrant workers’ dormitories shone a spotlight on this status quo. I’m sure you’ve come across articles criticising the workers’ living conditions, among other injustices they’ve faced in our country. Singaporeans have responded to this news, too, some with discriminatory remarks, others with sympathy and support. 


It’s as though they’ve melted into the background of Singapore’s landscape: silhouettes toiling away in construction sites, shadows napping under bridges and in void decks, figures sweating over the chores in our homes. 

But, I hope this doesn’t become just another reminder of inequality in our country. I hope it doesn’t slip from our minds after the pandemic’s been wrestled under control. I hope we don’t return to the status quo we’ve been unaware of, forgetting about or ignoring for years.


To do so otherwise is to perceive these men and women as less than the men and women who just happen to be Singaporeans. 


This requires a conscious change in the way we see migrant workers. A step to achieve this is to keep ourselves informed of what’s going on beyond the bubble of our own comforts and worries. Advocacy groups such as Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) are wells of information explaining the complexities of the problems migrant workers face. “The dorms are not the problem”, for instance, is an article by Alex Au that breaks down why the root cause of Covid-19’s high rates in the migrant workers' communities isn’t the dormitories’ living conditions. Instead, the latter is a symptom of the way Singapore perceives migrant workers as simply cheap labour and is indicative of underlying structural problems we need to address as a country.


At this juncture, you may think: “Well, this situation sounds like it’s out of my hands.” It’s easy to think this is the responsibility of advocacy groups and the government, to think it’s not the layman’s duty to oversee the rights and policies of migrant workers. It’s easy to think ourselves powerless.


But, we have power. 


We can support various organisations, whether it’s by engaging with their articles, their social media, or by giving our time, money or effort to their causes. Established non-profits such as TWC2 and Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economies (HOME) are transparent about how your donations are spent.


Most of all, within each of us, we have the power to address our own prejudices against people we perceive to be different. We may have unwittingly absorbed stereotypes of and biases against each social group when we were children, such as I had in primary school, or even now, still, from family, friends, and the media we’re exposed to. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work towards becoming more conscious of them, to undo them and their influence on our behaviours. 


With the combination of educating ourselves, putting in our efforts, and checking our prejudices, Singapore can become a kinder country—one which treats our migrants with the same respect and dignity as it does for the people who are not.


Written by Koay Tze Min, edited by Samihah Niquat Safeel and Wu Weiming

Illuminate Singapore will be hosting .CommonSpace, a virtual fireside chat with key actors in the issues that Covid-19 has brought about our migrant workers. It’ll be held over Facebook Live next Saturday, 6 June 2020, 3.00–4.30 pm. You’re welcome to join us and learn more, and you can register here


If you can’t make it, no fear: this blog will upload a transcript and the key points of what was discussed. Either way, we appreciate your support. :)

© 2020 ILLUMINATE SINGAPORE

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