No true justice to any group’s issues if they can’t speak their own truths, organise themselves and take collective action

by Kokila Annamalai
In a chat group with a few migrant worker friends, and this was a message just shared on the heels of the government press release on the record-breaking number of cases today (15 April), the majority of which are in dorms;

Please don’t panic about the number of new cases today.
In the meanwhile, please protect yourselves by washing your hands regularly and maintaining personal hygiene.
Stay Safe.

Every day, they share stories, photos and videos of how thoroughly they’re cleaning their dorms (on top of what dorm-employed cleaners are doing), the resources they are mobilising for fellow workers by coordinating with community groups, their large and small acts of caring for each other, and the creative ways they’re finding to exercise and keep their spirits up in impossibly small spaces.
They also talk candidly about how carelessly and callously they’ve been treated, their confusion and helplessness when crucial information doesn’t reach them, the greatly varying quality of food, their fears about whether they’ll get medical care. Singapore has to learn from this, they say. Things have to change for us after this pandemic is over, they say. But will it?
What’s clear to me is that if migrant workers could speak freely, instead of having all of us — those who stand with them and those who don’t — speak for them, debate and argue and commiserate on their behalf, we will all quickly come to understand a very different Singapore. Theoretical or ideological discussions will become immediate, urgent, unavoidable. It will change us, and maybe that is what those who silence them are afraid of.
We can never truly do justice to any group’s issues as long as they can’t speak their own truths, organise themselves and take collective action. Most other marginalised groups in Singapore have more civil liberties than migrant workers, and are able to represent themselves to different degrees. Migrant workers too deserve civil liberties. They survive in Singapore not because of the conditions we create for them, but despite them.
And that survival is precarious, it is easily stolen.
What are the conditions for their survival, during and beyond this pandemic? If we let them, they can tell us. They should be part of the taskforce making decisions about each dorm. We can do much more, much faster, if we invited their skills, experience, creativity and wisdom into crisis management and recovery.
What Ministry of Manpower or Ministry of Health might require simulations to understand, they understand experimentally. Civil rights are not just an abstract ideal, they have much practical and material power. When we deny them to a group, we deny ourselves of their strength.
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