An article published on TODAY, gave an overview of the history of migrant workers in Singapore. Among other things, the article traced the chronology of how their accommodation changed over time. The numbers of migrant workers in Singapore coincided with Singapore’s economic growth — in particular in the years of rapid boom when Singapore was still a developing country.
In the early years, our construction workers lived in privately rented accommodation. The concept of dormitory living only came about in the 1990s when there was such a demand for migrant construction labour that shortages in the private rental sectors provided impetus for the government to grant land for employers to construct their own purpose built dormitories.
Up till 2006 though, there were still migrant workers renting premises privately. It was only when the Housing Development Board (HDB) banned people from renting HDB flats to migrant workers that migrant workers came to live solely in dormitories.
Putting arguments of racism aside, the complaints concerning HDB flats being let to migrant workers were mostly rooted in the side effects of overcrowding. Neighbours had complained of too many people staying in one flat and noise. This is where the possible lack of foresight on the part of the government comes in.
Instead of tackling the issue of having too many migrant workers in such a small piece of land (Singapore) or dealing with the effects of an over reliance on construction projects built on the unsustainable and exploitative cheap labour provided by the migrant workers, the government chose instead to focus on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures. They chose to delay having to deal with overcrowding there and then — reactively banning HDB flat rentals to migrant workers instead.
By putting all migrant workers in overcrowded dormitories away from the rest of the population was just a short term solution. Lest we forget, we are a geographically small country. Eventually everything will come to a head and here we are now.
In all things, there has to be a balance and the government chose to put GDP figures above all else. What we have now may well be the product of that imbalanced focus. High GDP does not mean high standard of living. Our GDP figures have increased but has this growth led to improved human welfare per capita? Has it accounted for the costs of inequality, environmental damage and inflation?
As the World Economic Forum has observed : “The real economy – including all things that support human well-being – is much larger than the market economy estimated by GDP. GDP was never designed as a measure of overall societal well-being and its continued misuse for that purpose needs to stop.” GDP is not an accurate measure of meaningful or real economic growth.
Singapore has a small land space. There is no getting away from that. Even as we tried to build self contained dormitories to create a parallel universe, everything will still spill over. The corona virus has more than demonstrated this. There is no such thing as out of sight, out of mind — not long term anyway. In its relentless drive to achieve GDP increment at all cost, we are simply sowing the seeds that we have planted.
However, even as Singapore got more and more crowded, the government still religiously followed the formula of boosting the GDP figures as we did when we were a developing country, even though this model of growth is far less suited to the developed country we have become.
Our government does not have the luxury of blaming this migrant worker overcrowding issue on a previous government. The Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) led government is the only government we have ever had since independence. So, have they displayed foresight? Have they been proactive? Or, has their continuity simply been a series of reactionary measures?