Singapore’s response to COVID-19 is guided by science and the nation’s best understanding of the disease, said Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States Ashok Mirpuri in a letter dated 21 May to the editor of American news publication Foreign Policy published on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.
The letter also claimed that journalist Kirsten Han presented a “distorted view” of Singapore’s response to the outbreak among migrant workers in an article she wrote for the news site on 6 May titled, “Singapore is tryng to forget migrant workers are people”.
Ambassador Mirpuri’s letter was published on the MFA website on 27 May after Foreign Policy “refused to publish Ambassador Mirpuri’s letter to the editor despite previously carrying letters to the editor from Ambassadors accredited to the United States and spokespersons from various Ministries of Foreign Affairs in 2019,” said MFA.
In her article, Ms Han said that “Singapore still struggles with seeing migrant workers as equally valuable members of the community.”
“While it makes sense to adopt different approaches to take into account the different ways COVID-19 affects different groups, Singaporean utilitarianism doesn’t see the struggles faced by work permit holders as real issues hurting a marginalized group of people. In fact, it barely sees them as people at all. Instead, it views the problem through the lens of “Now, how will this inconvenience us?”
“It’s this attitude that got Singapore into this situation in the first place; for years, warnings and criticism from rights groups were brushed off as complaints, noise, and bleeding heart idealism.”
Responding to the criticisms in this article, Ambassador Mirpuri stated that Ms Han’s “grim picture” is belief by the many migrant workers who continue to work in Singapore well beyond their first contracts, with some having stayed in the country for as long as two decade instead of finding work elsewhere.
“Their revealed preference shows the reality of the migrant worker experience in Singapore,” said the ambassador. “They reflect what the government and Singaporeans have done to care for the migrant workers in our midst.”
Singapore has been aggressive in testing its migrant worker population
In his letter, Ambassador Mirpuri first explained Singapore’s three-pronged strategy in managing the outbreak in migrant worker dormitories, starting with implementing social distancing measures to slow the spread of the virus.
The second prong was deploying medical posts to the dormitories and the third is an aggressive testing regime. The ambassador said that one in 15 workers have been tested so far, that’s about 20,000 workers. At the time of writing, 30,995 workers in dormitories have been tested positive.
Ambassador Mirpuri said that the country is aiming to eventually test all workers.
He said, “Few other countries have tested their migrant populations this intensively. Indeed, more than half of the migrant workers who tested positive for COVID-19 had not presented themselves with any symptoms at the point of test, and probably would not have been tested at all in other countries.”
The scale of effort to care for migrant workers reflects the gov’t responsibility to them
Moving on, the ambassador then asserted that the government of Singapore has been caring for the welfare of migrant workers, with those infected receiving free treatment just as anyone else.
He also noted that meals are being catered for these workers under quarantine in dormitories as well as internet access and entertainment.
“Most crucially, we provide support to employers so that they can continue paying their workers. We have also made arrangements for workers to remit money to their families,” stressed the ambassador.
He went on to note that caring for these some 400,000 migrant workers “requires a massive mobilisation of the public and private sectors, as well as civil society”
Ambassador Mirpuri states that the government deployed 3,000 public officers to support dormitory operators and employers on top of the many Singaporeans who have volunteered to lend a helping hand.
“The scope and scale of our efforts reflects the responsibility we feel for our migrant workers,” he said.
He went on to note that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has also publicly committed Singapore to caring for this group just as it cares for citizens.
“We recognise their personal sacrifices and their many contributions to Singapore. We want them all to go home to their families safe and well,” he said.
Dormitories are the “best option” for housing much needed migrant workers
Moving on to the issue of living conditions are dormitories and housing migrant workers, Ambassador Mirpuri said that ageing Singapore will “always need migrant workers” and that housing them in dormitories is the “best option” on the land-scare island.
He said, ‘We have progressively raised the required standards of worker dormitories. In 2015, the Government passed legislation to require larger dormitories to provide recreational and health facilities, alongside amenities like grocery shops.”
“Dormitories provide communal living, allowing workers to socialize and relax together, cook and eat together, and pray together. Workers far away from home need social and emotional support, and the design of dormitories took this into consideration.”
The ambassador then said that all communal living spaces are at risk of an infectious disease outbreak, adding that the country had already instructed dorm operators in January to limit communal interactions, step up cleaning, require temperature checks, and distribute hand sanitizers among other measures to stem the spread of the virus.
“These measures were more stringent than those required of the general population,” he emphasised.
He continued, “When cases grew sharply despite the precautionary measures, we mobilised a massive effort to secure the health and well-being of our migrant workers. “
Going forward, Ambassador Mirpuri acknowledged that Singapore’s response could have been better.
He said, “Our response has not been perfect, and there certainly are areas we can improve. We are determined to learn from this episode and will do a thorough review after the crisis is over.”
Kirsten Han: “After 20 years we will still treat them only as “transient” in our country”
Penning her response via her Facebook page, Ms Han wrote: “The ambassador’s point was that migrant workers are happy to stay for that long in Singapore, so they can’t be treated as unfairly as I say. I have never denied that there are migrant workers who have and continue to have good (or relatively good) experiences in Singapore, but the main thrust of my Foreign Policy piece wasn’t just about the exploitation of migrant workers, but also about segregation — our continued practice of treating migrant workers as distinct from the rest of the population in Singapore (including other migrants).”
She pointed out that there are migrant workers who have been in Singapore for as long as 20 years.
“But as work permit holders, they are *systemically* banned from residency and citizenship. Migrants under other visa categories (short-term visit passes, long-term visit passes, employment passes, etc.) might apply and be rejected, perhaps, but work permit holders aren’t allowed to apply.” wrote Ms Han.
“Work permit holders — even *former* work permit holders — aren’t even allowed to marry Singaporeans or permanent residents of Singapore without the permission of the Singapore government. In 2014, The New Paper reported that a Chinese woman, who previously held a work permit in Singapore, was served an entry ban for failing to ask permission from the Ministry of Manpower before marrying a Singaporean, requiring the Singaporean spouse to quit his job to care for their child. TNP’s article included MOM’s position that “work-permit holders, as transient workers, ought to come to Singapore only for work.”
Ms Han further pointed out that this is different from expatriates those who hold S-Pass and E-Pass who are allowed to marry whoever they like (as long as they are heterosexuals), then apply for spousal visas, or apply to become a Permanent Resident and citizenship.
She asked, “What is the reasoning behind denying work permit holders a path to residency and citizenship in Singapore, if they’ve been working here long enough and wish to apply? What does it say about who is or isn’t allowed to integrate and become part of the Singapore community?”
“So yes, some migrant workers want to continue living and working in Singapore. But even after 20 years we won’t grant them a more secure status than a work permit that their employer could cancel at any time. After 20 years we will still treat them only as “transient” in our country. Because we don’t treat them as part of our community, and we don’t want to.”