• Illuminate SG

Who to blame? Migrant & Domestic Workers Caught in the Blame Game

This article is the last in the series chronicling the lives of FDWs during COVID-19. It is an opinion piece by the writer on xenophobia in Singapore towards migrant and domestic workers.



Back in March, schools were still open and places all around Singapore were as crowded as ever. However, within one month, the tables turned on the nation that had been prided for having coronavirus under control. Of course, this was an unexpected turn of events. COVID-19 cases which were teetering within a single-digit daily increase, shot up to triple-digit daily increases, alarming the whole nation.


Unfortunately, that was not the only thing that increased. Prejudice, suspicion and racism increased together with the COVID-19 cases, forming a new infection of its own.


The drastic rise in COVID-19 cases was attributed to the many clusters formed within migrant worker dormitories. This was when cracks in the facade of courage, competence, and tolerance among Singaporeans started widening and brought up a darker side of Singapore – xenophobia.


Though I know I shouldn’t be surprised at this, with countless incidents of racism and rudeness towards migrant workers that have taken place in the past, I was truly astounded with what cropped up due to COVID-19.


In one instance, a controversial forum letter was published in Singapore’s most widely read Chinese-language newspaper, Lianhe Zaobao. It stated that the rapid spread of COVID-19 in migrant worker dormitories was due to their lack of personal hygiene and that the government should not be blamed for the spike. The letter did not mention that the overly crowded and cramped living conditions posed limits to the hygiene standards in dormitories. Instead, it pointed fingers at the ethnicity of the migrant workers for having poor hygiene.


Similarly, a widely-circulated Whatsapp message claimed that foreign domestic workers meeting up with the other migrant workers from the dormitories would escalate the number of COVID-19 cases in Singapore by infecting their employers. This fearmongering message had no substantial evidence.Though it must be noted that there were people who were appalled at this racism towards the migrant workers, there were also many people who thought that these views were actually reasonable.


Even the government’s measures can be viewed as discriminatory towards migrant workers with the separate classification of the cases in Singapore as ‘community outbreaks’ and ‘dormitory outbreaks’. Though this classification was put in place to show how measures to contain the outbreak differed between the two communities, it can further encourage engendered the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mindset that was to festering among Singaporeans.


Furthermore, apprehension and stress from COVID-19 can perpetuate this mindset. This could promote a sense of in-group favouritism where they favour the local community more, and a sense of out-group discrimination as they attribute the shortcomings of the migrant community to their personalities and their beliefs instead of acknowledging the situation that they are in.


It was seen as an unfair accusation directed towards the domestic workers who have been mandated to stay at home except to run necessary errands. Moreover, at the time of the message, only 17 domestic workers were infected, with most of them being infected by their employers. This was a clear indication that people viewed the foreigners in Singapore as irresponsible people who would endanger the Singaporeans.


Migrant workers often live in cramped conditions where social distancing is impossible to uphold.


Although it must be noted that there were people who were appalled at this racism towards the migrant workers, there were also many who thought these views were reasonable.


Even the government's measures can be viewed as discriminatory towards migrant workers with the separate classification of the cases in Singapore as ‘community outbreaks’ and ‘dormitory outbreaks’. Though this classification was put in place to show how measures to contain the outbreak differed between the two communities, it can further encourage the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mindset to fester among Singaporeans.


Furthermore, apprehension and stress from COVID-19 can perpetuate this mindset. This could promote a sense of in-group favouritism where they favour the local community more, and a sense of out-group discrimination as they attribute the shortcomings of the migrant community to their personalities and their beliefs instead of acknowledging the situation that they are in.


Though this classification was put in place to show how measures to contain the outbreak differed between the two communities, it can further encourage the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mindset to fester among Singaporeans.

I would like to think that these incidents are not one-off acts of xenophobia but are acts that echo a deeper perception that most Singaporeans appear completely fine with.


At the end of the day, the migrant workers in Singapore are just like you and me. We were once migrants in this land and we too toiled like our FDWs to turn Singapore into the economic powerhouse that she is now. How can we blame the people who have helped us every step of the way for spreading a virus that affects everyone equally?


Our migrant and foreign domestic workers are a part of our social fabric and play a vital role in it. It is time to stop the blame game and think about how we can create a Singapore equitable to all.


Written by Samihah Niquat Safeel

© 2020 ILLUMINATE SINGAPORE

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