Is the dormitories mess-up a replay of MRT’s Saw Phaik Hwa and Lui Tuck Yew situation? Whether the answer is yes or no or even not sure, there is, unfortunately for Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, a historical precedent for an almost politically inevitable conclusion.
Former SMRT CEO Saw Phaik Hwa quit in 2011 in the face of public outcry over the state of the MRT system. To cut a long and old story short, Wikipedia summed it up this way: “Saw was accused of under-investing in maintenance of trains and tracks. This led to a culmination of train breakdowns, especially in 2015, causing delays to hundreds of thousands of commuters.” That meant the effect of her misjudgements or wrong prioritisation continued even after her resignation. That was how deep the cockup was.
Lui Tuck Yew became the Transport Minister in 2011, after having served as Second Transport Minister. I think he did his best with a rotten lemon handed him by his predecessors. Press pictures of him taking rides with suffering commuters in the packed peak-hour trains showed a determination to solve the train delays, breakdowns and overcrowded-ness. But, in the end, he gave up: “In politics, you need a tender heart and a thick skin, not a hard heart and thin skin.” There was much more to his resignation than that. We will come to this later.
The whole MRT fiasco was finally solved (I hope) after a couple of major management and structural readjustments. Struggling new CEO Desmond Kwek came and left. The technical expertise (getting people who actually know what a linear displacement variable transducer looks like) was buffed up. Targets were set. Khaw Boon Wan is still around (maybe until the next General Elections).
The big difference between the MRT and the dormitories is the train foul-up was very visible, it affected Singaporeans in real time as it took place. If not for the coronavirus, the dormitories issue would probably not have seen such daylight. The purpose-built dormitories were specifically designed to allow for socialising among the migrant workers themselves, based on feedback that these workers did not have friends or relatives in Singapore and nowhere else to go. There they were tucked away out of sight. They served their purpose. Whether the food, hygiene and maintenance standards were always, on paper, what they were supposed to be remains to be investigated should there be an inquiry into the conduct of the operators. I will be disappointed if Parliament does not collectively demand such an inquiry.
If not for the dormitories, Singapore would likely be touted – first by a triumphant 4G-led administration and then by admirers around the world – as one of the benchmark examples of how best to deal with the virus. Instead, the Covid-19 figures, as they stood as of Saturday afternoon, were a whopping 31,000 cases, 23 deaths and 13,000 patients discharged. With stepped up tests, the daily tallies may continue to be high for a while.
The dormitories problem will, therefore, not disappear overnight, not by a long shot. According to a published record, “of Singapore’s 725,200 non-domestic migrant workers, 200,000 reside in purpose-built dormitories and 120,000 in factory-converted dormitories. The remaining workers live in temporary housing on construction sites and shipyards, and in residential premises rented on the open market”. More than the usually mentioned number of 323,000 migrant workers live on this tight island together with locals.
It must be a given that Singaporeans cannot continue to ignore the contribution that these workers have made and will make to the country. They have to allow the government to err on the side of generosity in taking better care of the migrant workers, to put things right, to do something which should have been done long ago.
We cannot insist on living a fairy tale.
My lockdown life since April 7 has consisted of, among other things, watching CNA replays in the lazy afternoons. I just caught one on Jewel Changi on Friday. The programme took a look at the “ordinary” people – the happy botanist, gardener, PR guys – who worked very hard to help bring the project to fruition. Footage of the spectacular waterfall and lush foliage in an air-con paradise of shopping, dining and picture-taking mania portrayed, perhaps, Singapore at its best. An oasis – but in a world of squalor.
What the TV show did not do was to talk to the armies of construction workers and cleaners behind the Jewel project. Indeed, transposed onto the larger picture of overlooking those who have also made everything possible, this lack of empathy for such workers has been pretty much part of a whole array of hard truths and self-denialisms which must be confronted – if Singapore is ever going to be a genuine First World society.
Imagine. Just one solitary error of judgement in handling the Covid-19 pandemic is enough to expose the flaws and weaknesses in the Singapore success story. So much time wasted and such a huge amount of resources has to be directed at containing the result of the lapse of focus. So much impact on the economy and livelihoods. And how it has shattered our international image. Covid-19 will be a make-or-break issue for the 4G leaders in the forthcoming GE.
The signs are not good for Manpower Minister Josephine Teo. I sent this note to a friend who is usually pro-establishment and in touch with their thinking: “Re Donald Liew: The minister has also offered to assist our client with his personal circumstances. – lawyer for Liew.” For those who have not been following the news, Donald Liew was one of two persons who had to apologise to the minister for wrongfully alleging corruption involving her and her husband. He was supposed also to donate $1,000 to the Migrant Workers’ Assistance Fund. He could not because of financial problems. The minister waived that demand.
I expected my friend to reply: “Good for her.” Instead I got this: “Grasping at straws.”
Does my pro-estab kaki know something I do not? Lui Tuck Yew resigned, it was speculated at that time, not because his heart was not on his job but because he did not want to be the lightning rod for anti-government votes. Honourable, indeed.
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.