The two frontline ministers in the battle against Covid-19 are supposed to be National Development Minister Lawrence Wong and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong. And they still are, as co-chair of the Multi-Ministry Task Force. But the minister in the real hot seat today is Manpower Minister Josephine Teo. Into her lap has fallen the herculean task of sorting out a mess that we now know has been caused by a combination of hesitation, possible oversight and hubris – the coronavirus pandemic still raging through the migrant workers’ dormitories. If the MRT was once Khaw Boon Wan’s nightmare, the dormitories are now hers. Is she up to the task of solving the problem?
Before we get to that question, let’s do a quick look back at a couple of the previous Manpower ministers and also a bit about how the ministry has evolved. Before 1998, the ministry was Labour. Lee Boon Yang (current SPH chairman) was the first to head the renamed Manpower Ministry. Lim Swee Say, known for his catchy slogans (Upturn the Downturn and Better, Betterer and Betterest), was Minister Teo’s predecessor. Previously, the ministry’s principal function has been to oversee Singapore’s manpower needs and development and to work together with the NTUC labour movement and employers as part of a win-win cooperative tripartism, a kind of we are all on the same side arrangement. Straightforward enough.
In the early years, demand for foreign labour to do the hard slog work that Singaporeans shunned or were simply not interested in was largely met by two arrangements. First, there were the Malaysians, mostly from Johor. Second, there were the foreign workers brought in for a specific project. For example, South Korean workers were the ones who built Raffles City. They returned home after the project was completed. Their numbers were manageable. No need for massive, packed dormitories.
But, as Singapore started to take off and urban transformation got into full swing, manpower needs got more complex and grew in magnitude. Hundreds of thousands of workers from both traditional and non-traditional sources were practically flooding the local landscape. Public outcry over sardine-packed trains and buses led to a tightening of the immigration floodgate and to an attempt at better distribution of foreign workers to accommodation situated nearer their worksites. Purpose-built dormitories spread across the island saw migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh and southern India with a smattering of others, being reduced to an army of almost invisible people. That seemed to suit everyone.
It is in this context that the dormitories debacle must be seen. The government took its cue from the general population. The workers were necessary but low priority in the scheme of things. In large numbers, they became a domestic political liability, their presence in the heartlands a distraction in the fight for votes. So, out of sight, out of the social conscience. The overall attitude has been: we do what we can but….
Somehow, when Covid-19 struck, the dormitories and the 323,000 migrant workers were overlooked. It seemed incredible that the commercial operators who were not expected to run the dorms as social enterprises could be regarded as equipped to look after the workers’ healthcare to the degree which not even country-scale efforts could marshall. The high daily counts of dormitory-relate virus cases clearly and loudly say so.
And so the spotlight is on Josephine Teo.
When the dorms first hit the headlines, the Manpower Minister came in hesitantly as what those in the media business would call a side box where an issue would be explained in a concise manner so as not to spoil the flow of the main story. The narrative then was the proudly declared calibrated Singapore way of solving problems: Quote PM Lee Hsien Loong – “If any country can see this through, it is Singapore.” That was on April 3.
Since then, Ms Teo could not afford to be just a side show because the dormitories have been making the rounds in world media, with Singapore being seen as a cautionary tale of having blindspots when dealing with a smart, lethal virus.
The Manpower Minister has stepped up, to her credit. She told BBC: “Yes, we took some safe distancing measures within the dormitories and if we were to be able to rewind the clock, one could say that these safe distancing measures needed to go much further.”
And also, replying to a reporter’s question in a separate press conference after a PM Lee nation-wide address on Tuesday April 21, she said that it would not have been easy to advise workers – before the announcement of circuit breaker measures which committed the government to taking care of their livelihood as well as welfare – to stop working for the sole reason of wanting to “protect” them.
What she has failed to address so far is: Why did it have to take the Covid-19 pandemic for the ministry to finally realise that the migrant workers guest workers have always been part of this country’s social fabric, and not apart from? This is not a hindsight observation. It exposes a stubborn refusal to listen to concerned voices outside a group-think world.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company. /TISG