I’m starting to forget what it’s like to not be on lockdown. For over a month, the most outdoorsy thing I’ve done is harvesting fruits on my Animal Crossing island. Activities that I used to take for granted — taking public transport, attending meetings, eating out — now feel increasingly distant from my daily lived existence. I’m usually pretty happy to remain a housebound introvert, but even I have started to occasionally fantasize about attending large gatherings and being surrounded by loud, raucous friends.

Yet I’m reminded every day of how privileged I am that these are my main gripes during this pandemic. As I write this, thousands of migrant men are confined to dormitories across Singapore, spending hours in stuffy, cramped rooms as hundreds of migrant workers test positive for Covid-19 each day. My restlessness is nothing compared to the horrors they are confronting.

Activists have been saying for years that the crowded conditions of the migrant worker dormitories were a disaster waiting to happen, but nobody wanted to be proven right like this. The vast majority of coronavirus cases in Singapore are migrant workers, and workers I’ve spoken to tell me about the immense anxiety of being cooped up, wondering if they’ll get infected, or worse — if they’re already infected.

It’s become clear that things need to change once the worst of Covid-19 is over. Even the Minister for National Development has said that we need to relook the way we house workers. By rights, this should be a big wake-up call, a push towards a “great reset.” There is no better time to reflect on the fundamentals, examine our values, and plan for bold changes.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Migrant workers pray in their dormitory during the holy month of Ramadan, amid Covid-19 outbreak, in Singapore May 8, 2020.

But as I sit at home, my social media feeds inundated by news of the virus and how it’s plunged us into uncertainty, I find myself much more worried about how things won’t change, rather than how they will.

While much of the public attention is now focused on living standards within dormitories, they aren’t the only problem. It’s also about other systemic and structural factors that leave migrant workers vulnerable — the low wages, the tying of work permits to specific employers (who can cancel them any time), the agent fees and kickbacks that make debt bondage all too real.

Changing the design of dormitories won’t be enough; what we need, coming out of the pandemic, is a rethink about the entire exploitative structure underlying much of our economy. This shouldn’t apply to just Singapore, but many countries around the world where inequality has exacerbated the outbreak and exacted unequal costs on different communities.

I’m not particularly optimistic that this will happen. Instead, I’m seeing familiar patterns of defensiveness and denial and demonization. People who have been critical of Singapore’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak — activists, writers, and academics I respect, as well as myself— have been accused of serving a foreign agenda, of making Singapore look bad, and undermining the country. Instead of engaging with our arguments in good faith to broaden public discourse, we’re branded traitors and foreign agents.

Within this formulation, the act of asking questions itself has become taboo: after an activist and I co-wrote a piece pointing out a lack of clarity into how deaths are determined to be related to Covid-19, some unhappy commenters even took issue with the fact that we’d sent questions to the Ministry of Health (which had gone unanswered), claiming that we were wasting the authorities’ time and hurting the national outbreak response.

Even without going as far as these extreme accusations, other old arguments surface. How much more are Singaporeans willing to pay to allow migrant workers better conditions? We’re already treating migrant workers much better than some other countries — just look at what’s happening in the Gulf! These workers chose to come to Singapore anyway, so they can’t find the conditions as bad as you say.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

View of a dormitory room for migrant workers who have recovered from the coronavirus disease, amid the outbreak in Singapore May 15, 2020.

I can’t think of the right English word or phrase to describe exactly how I feel about this, but there’s a Hokkien term I’ve heard growing up that hits the nail on the head: kek sim (激心). It’s a provocation of the heart that contains not just disappointment and sadness, but anxiety and frustration, an urgent cry to which there’s no answer.

If even Covid-19 won’t get us to soul-search on a deeper level than ever before, what will? If our devotion to making sure that Singapore “saves face” is stronger than our commitment to justice, will we learn anything from this pandemic at all?

But it isn’t over yet; these responses are only one aspect of the story. Elsewhere, I’ve seen increased interest and awareness of the issues that migrant workers face, and an upsurge in people willing to volunteer to or donate as a show of solidarity and support at a difficult time. NGOs — regardless of whether they’ve been allowed to work in coordination with the government — have also been inspiring in their commitment to being there for those who need them most.

Apart from the migrant workers, there has also been a heartening amount of kindness going around. Mutual aid spreadsheets and successful crowdfunding drives show Singaporeans at our best — when we’re willing to reach out and lend a hand to complete strangers, without suspicion, conditions, or second-guessing.

This gives cause for hope. It’s a signal that denial and defensiveness isn’t all there is to our response to the ways we’ve dropped the ball. For activists who have worked so hard for so long, it’s acknowledgement of their efforts, and fuel to keep going. Members of Singapore civil society are no stranger to the lesson that change comes slowly — sometimes, painfully so — and this is no different. Covid-19 might not turn out to be the turbocharged catalyst that we would like it to be, but it’s also shown us people’s capacity to be the best versions of themselves. And that’s something we can work with.

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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