• Illuminate Singapore

Our Migrant Workers in a Post-COVID Singapore

The article below is an opinion piece by the writer exploring the future for migrant workers in Singapore in light of the global anti-racism movements and COVID-19.

A blazing inferno of protests and calls for equality has spread around the globe rapidly after the spark in Minneapolis on May 25th – the day George Floyd was murdered.

“I can’t breathe” is now a unifying anthem echoed by people of all ethnicities and minority groups in major cities worldwide: protests have broken out across all 50 states in the USA and have also taken place in at least 40 countries around the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic that had been plaguing us has taken a backseat to prioritise an important issue we face – racism and xenophobia.

In such times, most of us as Singaporeans are probably sitting comfortably in our cushioned chairs, watching the news, and with feelings of horror and bleakness, wondering what has happened to the world. Since we have collectively taken an oath to observe peace and harmony despite differences in language, race or religion, we believe we are the lucky ones, untouched by the burning fire. We continue on with our lives after retweeting a post related to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and forget the discrimination that exists in our own backyard.

I believe there are faint traces of that flame in Singapore, just a slightly different one that chants “Minorities’ Lives Matter” instead of “Black Lives Matter”.

Though there are many different subgroups and people we may consider as minorities in Singapore, the rights of one minority group in our society have always been repressed – our migrant workers.

COVID-19 opened a Pandora's box of the conditions of migrant workers living in Singapore and revealed it to us. As a nation, we greatly sympathised with our migrant workers and actively donated to organisations aiding them. Coming to terms with our earlier perceptions, we were able to take this time to acknowledge the past prejudices in our treatment of the migrant workers.

IlluminateSG’s previous articles had also shed light on how our migrant workers are not just in the background of Singapore but are actual people playing a critical role in laying the foundation of our country for us. They are not a separate entity from us but are very much part of the Singapore story as well.

However, now that we are able to see the cracks in our illusions, the critical question is: Will we do something about it? As part of the Singaporean youth, I see two different ways this could possibly go down.

The first one is an optimistic perspective where we, having figured out the points of inequality in our treatment towards migrant workers rush to fix the problems. This would require a change in our attitudes to accept migrant workers as one of us; an integral part of our societal fabric. The government has already proposed to enforce and stricten new regulations for the dormitories of the migrant workers and place greater penalties on dormitory operators should they flout the regulations, but it remains to be seen if real change will be enacted. This would be the ideal situation where the gaps in our society are sufficiently closed.

However, now that we are able to see the cracks in our illusions, the critical question is: Will we do something about it?

The second path, which I fear would happen instead, would be a situation where we comprehend all the problems presented in front of us during this period of rapid increase of COVID-19 cases, but as soon as we enter the post-COVID era, it fades from our memory. As the novelty effect fades off, media outlets will inevitably shift to the next biggest sensation, diverting our attention from the problems that have yet to be addressed. It would be easy to forget as well, seeing that we are not able to conduct large-scale, intense protests like the ones taking place worldwide. There is then a possibility that the xenophobia might remain.

People may be apprehensive of interacting with migrant workers, cautious of whether they may still get infected by COVID-19. Moreover, returning to certain normalcy may result in all the progress made to better treat the migrant workers taking a backseat, such that our migrant workers once again become invisible to us.

These are just two of the many possible outcomes due to COVID-19 but the future of our migrant workers depends on us right now and the steps we take to embrace wholeheartedly this aspect of Singapore.

With the world showing signs of extreme frustration with racism and xenophobia, I think that it is also the time for us to look at the diverse minorities in Singapore, especially our migrant workers. Ensuring that the basic needs and rights of others are met is the best way to preserve our humanity. It is now the time for our dreams of creating a just society and fair world to materialise into our reality.

As contributions by Singaporeans to migrant workers are coordinated by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), to donate and aid our migrant workers through these tough times, please visit https://www.giving.sg/sgunited for more information.

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

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