The Editor-in-Chief of Singapore Policy Journal Yong Han Poh took to her Facebook page on Monday (13 April) to express her exasperation upon reading the article published by Lianhe Zaobao about migrant workers’ living condition.
The article was written in Chinese and titled, “We Shouldn’t Engage In Needless Finger-Pointing During This Pandemic” which was translated by Ms Yong, who is also senior at Harvard College studying Social Anthropology and East Asian Studies.
The article was believed to be written by a columnist of Zaobao, speaking in support of the government’s efforts while assuming migrant workers do not practice good personal hygiene which resulted in their bad living conditions.
As translated by Ms Yong, the columnist cited their own experience of cultivating personal habits since young, implying that the migrant workers already practice their current lifestyle habits in their home country before they came to Singapore.
“They leave their hometowns to find a living far away, but their lifestyle habits will accompany them – such as the practice of using their hands to eat, resting under the trees or on fields, or gathering with their friends to drink beet and chat, etc.”
“Those who live in the countryside may see insects such as lizards and cockroaches as normal; city people will scream when they see such a sight,” the columnist wrote, translated by Ms Yong.
The columnist, also refuted a claim about the Singapore government treating migrant workers as third world countries, which is something that was said by “a former high ranking official” on Facebook.
It appears that the columnist was responding to veteran diplomat, Prof Koh who chastised the Singapore government over its unfair and “disgraceful” treatment towards the foreign workers after a COVID-19 infection cluster emerged among the migrant workers.
Prof Koh in his Facebook last Monday (6 April) said, “The way Singapore treats its foreign workers is not First World but Third World,” while expressing his anger when he saw foreign workers sitting on the ground eating to eat their lunch and rest.
The columnist then claimed that it is a “habit” for the migrant workers who sit together to have a meal or just rest on a piece of cardboard, and even polluting the environment as some of them just put aside leave their food there after meals.
Stressing the government’s effort on improving the living conditions of migrant workers, the Zaobao columnist said that the government has provided all the basic needs for migrant worker with newly built dorms featuring new furniture that complies with regulatory standards.
It also added that customer service center and volunteers are there to help the workers address their problems while cleaners are hired to maintain the dormitories’ hygiene.
Hence, the columnist said, according to Ms Yong, “The crux is, did the workers in these dormitories do their part? Is their personal hygiene up to standard? Did they clear up after themselves after they used the kitchen? Did they keep the toilet clean after using it? If it’s just a matter of relying on cleaners to keep it clean, the dorms will never be clean.”
“If personal hygiene efforts don’t improve, things will remain the same where ever they go,” the columnist added.
The columnist further commented that migrant workers would also need to take responsibility for the surging cases of COVID-19 in the workers’ dormitories.
The columnist wrote, “Instead of blaming the government, why not assume some personal responsibility. There is no government that can have a perfect pandemic management policy, and the Singaporean government has already done a very good job,” as translated by Ms Yong.
Responding to the article, Ms Yong said, “Forget disappointment—I am incredibly angry. I leave you to sit with this article. I am too tired to make any further critiques at this point, but I feel like the article speaks for itself.”
Earlier, after government gazetted several foreign worker’s dormitories as isolation areas due to a spike of COVID-19 cases among migrant workers that stayed in the said dorms, there was a lot of media coverage about these workers living in bad conditions including dorms that are unclean, cramped, and have poor hygiene standards, drawing attention and criticism from various organisations and netizens as well.
Stressing that it is important to address the issue of raising dormitories’ standard, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, however, noted that the Ministry will first focus on the “enormous task” of containing the transmission of the COVID-19 virus at the dormitories before dealing with the living conditions in a dedicated way.
“We are talking about 200,000 workers spread out in 43 dorms. My team is already working round-the-clock. They are on the frontlines dealing with sometimes very tense conditions. Please do not demoralise them with finger-pointing. They deserve better,” she noted.
Ms Teo further asserted, “Let us cross this important hurdle during this “circuit breaker”, and then we can deal with this issue in a dedicated way. You have my word.”