Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam has in a video conference with reporters on 29 April raised concerns about falsehoods being circulated online to create fear and panic among the foreign worker community in Singapore.
In particular, he cited the use of old photographs of food given to migrant workers to give the impression that the migrant workers are being given bad quality food and stressed that the food quality has “improved tremendously” since Minister for Manpower, Josephine Teo intervened.
While the use of videos and images to incite violence is a definite no no, it cannot be disputed that poor food quality has been an ongoing issue within the migrant worker community for some time now.
This situation was only brought to mainstream consciousness as a result of the corona virus outbreak. In that vein, even if the photographs are old, it does deserve the air time it is finally getting. Besides, it is worth examining if this situation would have brought in ministerial intervention if such photographs were not circulated in the first place.
If the quality of the food remains “tremendously improved” for a sustained period of time henceforth, the rush to share and view photographs of poor food will die down naturally. For now however, there is no guarantee that food quality will remain good if it does not remain under public and governmental scrutiny.
It is also important to note that the government is not able to keep tabs on everything and it is only from circulated (and re circulated) photographs such as these that information may filter to the top in order for action to be taken.
Furthermore, why is he not also addressing messages being spread in social media about how ungrateful the workers are for throwing away their food, with the same images used again and again?
In view of this, Shanmugam may want to reconsider his comments on the “deliberate” re circulation of old photographs. Wanting to hammer home a point with the use of an image is not necessarily a malicious act. It is a reminder of something that has happened that should never happen again. Isn’t that why people erect war memorials and mark anniversaries of wars?
For example, Shanmugam would not for one second suggest that the Jewish people by circulating and re circulating photographs of the holocaust are “deliberately” and “maliciously” re circulating old images.
It would probably be fair to say that migrant worker rights were not an issue of great mainstream coverage prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. For many Singaporeans therefore, it would be an eye opener to have it laid bare for them to see just how different migrant worker lives are from their own even as we enjoy the beautiful buildings that they have built in return for low wages, cramped housing, racism from certain parts of society and now, to bear the brunt of COVID-19 to boot.
The government has every right to clarify actions and address fake news but migrant worker rights are finally having their day in the sun and it is perhaps too soon to clamp down on supposed “fake news”.
It was perhaps an inability or unwillingness on our parts to face up to just how bad conditions are in migrant worker quarters that caused inaction among the government when cases among them were first reported in February.
As journalist and activist Kirsten Han points out in her Facebook post:
“Those of us who are reporting and documenting during this difficult, messy time try the best we can to verify what we’re sent and told, and to make judgment calls about what to share based on our experience and understanding of the issue. The goal is to raise awareness and advocate for improvements, to make things better for the migrant workers who are now having an incredibly stressful, anxious time, and to work towards long-term changes that will help us do better even after COVID-19.It would be a pity for these efforts to be dismissed as “fake news”, because it was this attitude that led to NGO warnings about the risk of outbreaks in dorms falling on deaf ears in the first place.“
Sometimes, it isn’t just about what is being said. It is the sentiment behind why something is being said.
Maybe, the government needs to try and understand the sentiments before being so quick to assume maliciousness or label people as trying to “create panic…create unhappiness, anger and hopefully violence”.
They could just be trying to bring a very real issue to the consciousness of the nation.