Since the start of April 2020, a rather disturbing trend started emerging in Singapore’s daily Covid-19 updates: a steady rise in the number of “foreign worker” cases, and in particular of ones that live in specially-built foreign worker dormitories capable of housing over 10,000 workers at any single point in time. 13 April 2020 marked the inflection point, however: as Singapore began regularly reporting over 300 new infections, the health ministry felt it necessary to include the caveat that ‘the vast majority are Work Permit holders in the dormitories’.
Since then, a clear bifurcation has made its way into the government’s daily reports: a distinction was made between the number of “community spread” cases and “Work Permit holder”2 ones. Graphical representations, such as Figure 1.3 from the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) 26 April status report (Source: MOH) , as well as descriptive statements of each category’s infection trend, further reinforce this distinction by tracking these cases, showing the peaks and troughs of every category.
With a trending rise in infections amongst Work Permit holders and an overall decline in the number of community cases, authorities have since reified this distinction by claiming that Singapore is effectively dealing with two separate infections.
Such a distinction is, arguably, understandable from a public health, safety and containment policy perspective: whilst community spread remains relatively stable (if not declining), the sharp increase in foreign worker infections mean that, should the numbers not be disaggregated, this could lead to panic amongst the population, and thus bring about all its attendant issues such as panic buying and overcrowding of various shopping spots, ironically increasing the risk of infection amongst the community.
This move, however, also contributes to the othering of foreign workers in Singapore. By considering their plight a “separate infection”, and by distinguishing the dormitory infections (and even the ones not living in dormitories) from the wider “community spread”, the government effectively peddles the narrative that these foreign workers do not have a place in Singapore’s community in the first place, despite the ironic reality that much of Singapore’s society is propped up by this under-swell of low-paid, foreign-sourced workers. This ultimately came to a head when an opinion piece was published in Singapore’s Chinese daily circular, the Lianhe Zaobao, titled “No need for pointless criticism during a pandemic” on 13 April: a Li Shiwan argued that backlash against the government for allowing the Covid-19 outbreak in the dormitories to spiral out of control was counterproductive.3
Rather, foreign workers themselves are complicit in facilitating this outbreak, particularly because ‘have [they,] living in the dormitory[,] done their part? Is their personal hygiene adequate?’ , effectively blaming and typecasting the foreign workers as necessarily filthy and irresponsible because of their country of origin. Although what followed was an all-round rejection and condemnation ranging from social media to top politicians, it became clear that there was something deeper at stake: an otherness defined by race, nationality and class.
It is important, then, to realise that the spectre of the “foreign worker” is as much a social as it is a political construct: the government distinguishes between what it deems a “foreign talent”4 from “foreign workers”: the former are warmly welcomed into Singaporean society, taking up high-paying, white-collar jobs, and encouraged to become a bona fide Singaporean in the long term. In contrast, foreign workers occupy the other end of the spectrum, taking up blue-collared, low-paying jobs that Singaporeans deign to do, such as construction, cleaning and the like. Furthermore, foreign workers are not allowed to even entertain the thought of becoming Singaporean citizens, having to request for permission from the government to marry a Singaporean or a Permanent Resident.
Similarly, Singaporeans harbour sentiments akin to the ones opined by Li in Zaobao: a local online publication, Kopi, notes the prevalence of NIMBYism (“not in my backyard”) amongst Singaporeans as early as 2008, where residents of Serangoon Gardens protested against building a dormitory behind their houses as they feared ‘“half-naked men” hanging around their neighbourhood, that the safety of the young and the elderly would be compromised, and that the value of their properties would see a drop’. Foreign workers might be necessary for Singaporeans’ standard of living, but they themselves are not to be accorded a similar treatment.
That foreign workers are not to be seen as equal was fuelled by 2013, when a riot broke out in Little India, conveniently the congregation spot of choice for many foreign workers due. Singapore’s first riot in 40 years, 300 foreign workers protested against what they saw was an unrighteous death of an Indian national, who was run over by a bus after drunkenly trying to get on. The illusion that Singapore was a place of racial harmony was shattered; calls were made by the public and politicians to rein in the foreign workers. To many, the perception of the foreign worker as a filthy, dangerous, undesirable individual has emerged from merely ‘the racist imagination’ into reality.
To prevent another potential flashing point, it was deemed necessary to create mega-dormitories: spaces which can house enough foreign workers that economies of scale would allow for a profitable operation of canteens, provision shops and remittance services all in one area, thus further limiting the need for foreign workers to be out and about in Singapore, and thus further away – both physically and mentally – from Singaporeans. This was enshrined in law with the passing of the Foreign Employees Dormitories Act in 2015, where licenses to operate dormitories that can house over 1,000 individuals were made legal. Although provisions were to be made ‘in the event of an infectious disease outbreak’, critics have argued that enforcement of the Act has been slack, with only one recorded instance of its use.
This ultimately brings us to today, where dormitory operators have squeezed the maximum number of workers into a (legal) minimum amount of space, leading to 8 to 12 workers living in a tightly cramped room, without any possibility of practising social distancing, proving to be a highly fertile ground for Covid-19 to spread. And while various ground-up efforts have emerged in response to this crisis, and the government has stepped up its response, promising structural change in the future, that the initial impulse of the general public is to blame the spread on the workers themselves rather than larger structural issues unveils the myth of racial harmony in Singapore, that it is something only afforded to Singaporeans and those that can keep up with the lifestyles of Singaporeans.
Perhaps a better term, then, would be racial tolerance, but even then it is one that hangs tenuously by a thread: foreign workers are tolerated only because they are necessary for Singapore to continue functioning. Most recently, a gaffe by an ex-Minister of Communications and Information further points to this reluctant tolerance; although he clarified eventually that it merely a poor choice of words on his part, it is not difficult to see how, coupled with the other actions of the government prior to the outbreak, the government conceptualises and treats foreign workers: as a cog in the machine that requires only the barest of necessities.
On 23 April, a Facebook profile going by the name Critical Spectator published a post that read “Singaporean dorms are not a disaster but a success” , arguing that the conditions the foreign workers are in are a result of their own conscious choices, rather than the government forcing their hand. More insidiously, the post suggests that bettering the conditions of the foreign workers is a zero-sum game against improving Singapore’s economy. Rather despairingly, out of the 2,500 interactions on the post, 2,200 liked it, suggesting that ultimately, many Singaporeans still think the outbreak in the dormitories are a result of the workers’ own choices.
Singaporeans like to think of themselves as a paradigm of harmony, where different races live together in relative harmony, void of conflict. Yet, as Covid-19 continues to wreck havoc within the foreign worker dormitories, their reactions and (lack of) concern reveals a racially- and nationally-tinted reality: that racial harmony is at best a limited concept bounded by nationality and class, and at worst nothing but a facade to soothe our inherent intolerance at people who live different lives and realities from us.
- The government has since used the term “work permit holders”. This piece shall therefore use both permutations interchangeably.
- This is then further broken down into Work Permit holders living in dormitories, and those living outside dormitories.
- A translation of the article can be found here.
- In the case of the daily Covid-19 reports, they are classified as “Work Pass holders” and counted in community transmission cases.
- This article was originally written as coursework for GY438 Cities and Social Change at LSE in spring 2020.
About the author
Woon Wei is currently working for Singapore’s Housing and Development Board. He had recently completed his MSc in City Design and Social Science, and had previously majored in a BA in Urban Studies in Yale-NUS College. His research interests include studying homelessness in Singapore, as well as Singapore’s public housing system. He would also like to stress that this blog piece, produced as part of the Cities and Social Change in East Asia course in the LSE, are his own opinions and do not represent the agency that he works for, nor the government of Singapore.