Overreaction? Or under-reaction on issues that matter?

Keeping foreign workers ‘out-of-sight’ and ‘out-of-mind’ is not a ‘sustainable’ solution for an inclusive city, so why do we keep kidding ourselves?

In 2008, when the Serangoon Gardens housing saga peaked, I was asked, by an Internet TV reporter, if I could propose a ‘sustainable model for a self-contained township’. I was quite perplexed – mostly by the assumption that segregation via self-containment was a ‘sustainable’ solution, much less the solution.

Today, I read that some residents may have ‘overreacted’ to the dormitory being built in their midst. [See here.] This is because concerns have been unfounded – the foreign workers have been mostly ‘out of sight’. In response to resident’s concerns, “the dormitory was fenced up and the exit to Serangoon Gardens estate was sealed. A 400m slip road, which cost $2 million, was also built to allow vehicles direct access to the dormitory from the Central Expressway”. It also seems that workers living in the dormitory “had been told by the dormitory operator not to loiter around the estate”.

The latter part of the article addresses some workers’ complaints: about the long trek to the dorm entrance and living conditions, which are bare and cramped.

At this point, a siren begins to blare in my head. “Would you like it if the government built a foreign worker dormitory just next to where you live?” I imagine a cohort of disgruntled residents pointing their fingers at me, demanding an answer – no ifs or buts, or ‘depends on X, Y, Z’…YES OR NO? Answer me!

And because it is generally assumed that most Singaporeans would, in all honesty, object, this seems to seal the discussion. “You see? You are just as prejudiced as I am, so how dare you criticize us and belittle our concerns?”

So the debate reaches a state of paralysis, and the eventual ‘compromise’ of a dormitory with a changed ethnic and gender make-up, smaller number of workers, sealed exits and rules for residents, is hailed as a ‘successful’ way of managing the grassroots outcry.

But as I read through articles from 2008 about the issue, I find old questions resurfacing. Like this one, posed by Lydia Lim, a correspondent from The Straits Times:

We as a society need to ask ourselves if that is an acceptable way to treat fellow human beings.

Why do we feel we have a right to deny foreign workers the good things we ourselves enjoy, including a chance to walk about freely and mingle with others?

Imagine if you or your son or daughter were to go to another country to work and be at the receiving end of such treatment. How would you feel?

Such questions have not been debated and answered with sufficient reflection and depth. Far from ‘overreaction’, I feel that as a community, we have under-reacted to what Serangoon Gardens presented.

It was an opportunity to address the underlying racism and prejudice that bubbled under comments about increased crime, the safety of women folk in the area, the danger of ‘riots’ and the ‘dirtiness’ of foreign workers, often ascribed to being a cultural attribute of theirs by virtue of being from a ‘Third World country’.

It was an opportunity to address a key and pressing issue: the shortage of suitable housing for foreign workers in Singapore, despite exponential increases in their population. In 2006, there were a reported 580,000 low-wage foreign workers;[1] as of December 2009, the number of work permit holders had risen to 856,000[2] – this averages out to an increase of approximately 92,000 new low-wage foreign workers each year over three years. Imagine, an average of 7666 new foreign workers arriving each month to a high-density city state where housing problems are already causing the local population, particularly those in low and middle-income groups, to cry out in aggravation. Where did the authorities, employers, industry spokespersons, recruitment agents think all these men and women were going to rest their heads at the end of a long day’s work?

It was an opportunity to demand greater accountability – why were such plans not made public until after key decisions were already made? Why was that particular site chosen in the first place?

I don’t really believe any of those issues were truly addressed.

The ‘solution’ was to allay residents concerns by diminishing workers’ convenience and mobility. By adjusting the numbers of workers and which ‘sectors’ they are from, the government was also, in not so many ways, assuring residents that there will be less men, and less men from ethnic populations they were not so comfortable with.

Success, it then seems, is measured by just how ‘non-disruptive’ life continues to be for residents – how the presence of foreign workers is not seen, heard or felt.

Invisibility. It appears that this is the most successful way for low-income foreign workers to ‘integrate’.

How realistic is this? In a city where 78 percent of the 1.1 million non-resident workforce is made up of foreign workers?[3] (No, not the ‘wealthy’ and ‘highly educated’ foreign talent the government is spending millions to socialize, but the poorly remunerated ones who lay our MRT tracks, clean our public toilets, prune the trees along expressways, build our casinos, sweep our estates).

How is it that, on the one hand, we agree that foreign workers are needed for the jobs local Singaporeans do not wish to perform or are unable to fill, yet are so cavalier about the real, everyday needs of a significant and growing population in our midst?

And what does it indicate about us, as a society, when we unthinkingly accept that the best way to accept people we are fearful of is to control, segregate and keep them ‘out of sight’.

I have lived in Perth, Western Australia, for the last six years. It is a popular destination for Singaporeans, many of whom have either relocated or bought property there. I detect Singaporean accents in local supermarkets and eating places, and also at my university.

While I have since moved back to Singapore, I was still an international student in Australia when the Serangoon Gardens saga broke out in 2008. Like Lydia Lim, I have often wondered too, how Singaporeans would respond if the Australian government determined that, because of the ways in which Singaporeans do not ‘acculturate’ themselves to the Australian way of life – because they cook dishes that ‘smell funny’, artificially inflate property prices, complain too much about unextended shopping hours, offend locals by buying up shared public spaces to build condominiums etc. – they will only be allowed to live (and shop and invest) in designated remote areas and are warned not to enter or exit freely to common spaces shared with other Australians.

So, no, I will not sign a petition to oust a foreign worker dormitory if one was earmarked to be built in my residential area. I would much rather sign a petition to stop any more natural spaces from being stripped away to build a new shopping mall.

I am protective of my living space and I want it to be safe, comfortable, and as uncongested as possible. I do not associate foreign workers with such problems – I have, in my years living abroad, encountered Singaporeans who can be extremely shoddy in housekeeping and cleanliness. These are attributes which are not monopolized by any one race or cultural group. If there are incidents that are disruptive and distressing to me, as a resident, I will make the necessary complaints – this will happen no matter who moves next door.

Congestion is a frustrating problem in a land-scarce city. I am equally dismayed by the sense of claustrophobia I get with the building frenzy this nation has gotten itself into. The idea of any building development housing a few thousand persons coming up right next to where I live fills me with dread.

But it is another thing to allow our general displeasure with ‘infrastructural problems’ to legitimize generating further hardships for a population in Singapore that is already marginalized. We can campaign for better, more inclusive urban planning sensitive to the needs of a diverse population, rather than encourage segregation and oppressive regulations in a panic.

It is, in simple terms, a matter of treating ‘Others’ as we ourselves wish to be treated – with respect and some empathy.

For those who are complaining that even local Singaporeans are not accorded respect and empathy, well, you’ve just identified another problem.

Stephanie Chok

[1] Brenda Yeoh, “Singapore: Hungry for Foreign Workers at All Skill Levels”, Migration Information Source, January 2007,  http://www.migrationinformation.org/Profiles/display.cfm?ID=570.

[2] Francis Chan, “Foreign worker levy to increase over 3 years”, The Straits Times, 23 February 2010.

[3] This calculation is based on December 2009 figures compiled from the following Straits Times articles: Cassandra Chew, “Employers want more foreign workers”, The Straits Times, 9 December 2009; Francis Chan, “Foreign worker levy to increase over 3 years”, The Straits Times, 23 February 2010.


TOC’s earlier video of the area in question:

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