Singaporeans Are Upset About Covid Restrictions. Will They Notice Migrant Workers?

Singaporeans Are Upset About Covid Restrictions. Will They Notice Migrant Workers?
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

There are likely more people upset about being blocked from going to a restaurant or a gym, because of their vaccination status, than people upset about the prolonged and unfair confinement of tens of thousands of men regardless of their vaccination status.

Singapore has now introduced differentiated rules based on one’s vaccination status, and there are people who aren’t happy about it.

Under the current rules, people who are fully vaccinated — generally defined as having passed at least 14 days since the second injection — have more freedom to dine out, go to the gym, or attend events like live performances. Those who are unvaccinated face more inconveniences; for instance, unless they can produce a recent negative Covid-19 test from an approved provider, they aren’t allowed to dine in restaurants, and can only eat in open-air hawker centers and coffee shops with no more than one other person.

Such measures are admittedly inconvenient. Planning a gathering requires checking on people’s vaccination status, and if you can’t prove that it’s been a couple of weeks since your final jab, you’re going to be denied service at eateries (although you’ll still be allowed takeout).

Restaurants, already hurting from a year-and-a-half of varying restrictions, have reported customers getting angry and hurling abuse at staff when they try to enforce the government’s rules. Online, on social media platforms and Telegram chat groups, many Singaporeans have criticized this approach as discriminatory, divisive, and unfair — a Change.org petition entitled “Do not let vaccination status divide us.” has, at the time of writing, amassed almost 11,500 signatures. Some, including opposition politicians, have gone as far as likening the situation to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, drawing rebukes from both the Israeli and German embassies.

Outside of these more hyperbolic and divisive claims, though, are some valid concerns about Singapore’s current rules. There are some who are concerned that such distinctions between vaccinated and unvaccinated people might expand beyond what’s strictly needed in the interests of public health. There are also those who might justifiably feel like they’re being unfairly penalized by this differentiated approach — for instance, those who can’t be vaccinated, due to medical or health reasons, or because access to vaccines have not yet been made available to them. Short-term pass holders, for instance, have until very recently been excluded from the national vaccination program. From August 18 on, the government will be progressively contacting those who have been in Singapore for some time on continually renewed short-term visas and offering them vaccines. Until then, they’ll just have to put up with the restrictions.

But the outcry about being treated like “second-class citizens” stands in stark contrast to the general acceptance of an earlier differentiated approach that emerged in pandemic Singapore: the treatment of migrant workers in dormitories.

It’s been over a year since the government put migrant worker dormitories on lockdown following a serious outbreak of Covid-19 in those crowded, poorly ventilated accommodations. In December 2020, it was reported that nearly half the migrant workers — over 150,000 men — living in those dormitories have had Covid-19. In July this year, the government said that the vaccination rate within the dorms was “very high.” But, apart from being ferried to work on construction sites and shipyards, the men continue to be largely confined to their dormitories. These are measures that would never have been used against Singaporeans.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Residents of a public housing estate queue up for their mandatory Covid-19 swab tests after some residents were tested positive for the virus, in Singapore May 21, 2021.

Of course, migrant workers don’t get to complain about being “second-class citizens” because they aren’t citizens at all, and their very presence in Singapore, with work permits that can be canceled at any time, leaves them in precarious positions that make it very costly to speak out critically. But the double standards of Singaporean society show themselves when anger about not being able to eat in a restaurant seems to gain more purchase with the public than outrage over the injustice of keeping hundreds of thousands of lowly paid workers locked up in substandard living conditions, so long after any possible justification for such draconian measures can be made.

Over the past year-and-a-half, we’ve all had to put up with extraordinary measures that would normally have been unthinkable. Lockdowns and limits on social gatherings are all measures that might, in a different context, be considered breaches of fundamental human rights. In the context of Covid-19, though, it makes sense that we have to make allowances and adjustments in the interests of protecting ourselves and others from illness, the risk of long Covid effects, or even death. What’s key is that the regulations are clearly justified, targeted, and limited in scope to stated goals, with proper oversight and accountability processes in place to ensure that they aren’t abused by those in power for other agendas or purposes.

Even if we take all that into account, there are no perfect measures. There are ethical issues for which there are no clear cut right-or-wrong answers; experts in Singapore have acknowledged as much. Even the most competent government task force can only work with the data and research that they currently have at hand. It’s inevitable that there will be criticism, and that people will be upset about this or that strategy. What people get upset about, though, can tell us as much about the sort of society we live in as it does about the issues with any government policy.

I’m not saying that one can’t criticize Singapore’s different treatment of vaccinated and unvaccinated people without first being an activist for migrant workers’ rights. But a sense of perspective is needed. Right now, there are likely more people upset about being blocked from going to a restaurant or a gym, because of their vaccination status, than people upset about the prolonged and unfair confinement of tens of thousands of men regardless of their vaccination status. And that says something about us.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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