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Migrant workers in the dormitories: Do we want to be the Dubai of Asia?

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah




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Do we want to be the Dubai of Asia? Interesting and very important question posed by Ho Kwon Ping in an opinion piece written for The Straits Times May 2 (A questioning of inequities: The legacy of Covid-19).

The founding chairman of the Singapore Management University and Banyan Tree Holdings aptly described Singapore as being Stuck Between Third And First Worlds. He wrote: “Covid-19 has been an existential awakening – that a futuristic, smart city with world-class infrastructure and award-winning environmentally progressive urban features has been built on the foundation of a structurally permanent albeit individually transient pool of about 300,000 low-skilled, low-cost migrant workers in construction and related sectors, living in and working with Third World conditions and practices.

“We like to be compared with Denmark, Norway, Finland and other developed countries with similar populations, egalitarian values and inclusive social safety nets, but Singapore cannot truly be First World in a broader societal context until this issue is resolved. Or we will increasingly be known only as the Dubai of Asia, which is not a particularly inspiring model.”

Dubai? I quote Wikipedia: “Human rights organisations have complained about violations of human rights in Dubai. Most notably, some of the 250,000 foreign labourers in the city have been alleged to live in conditions described by Human Rights Watch as being ‘less than humane’. The mistreatment of foreign workers was a subject of the disputed 2009 documentary, Slaves of Dubai.” No, of course, we don’t want to go anywhere near there, do we?

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Not only should we not want to be like Dubai, we should also stop trying to be a lot more other things. And in so doing, Singaporeans truly have to resolve many inter-racial, inter-class, inter-civilisational issues even it means confronting awkward questions about who we are – personally and as a citizen of a multi-racial country located in a non-Chinese region pretty far away from what the majority have been brainwashed to believe is their “hinterland”.

Josephine Teo and other 4Gers aided by a senior 3Ger are finally doing what Ho Kwon Ping and the redoubtable Professor (not the Professor in the hit Netflix series, Money Heist, but ex-diplomat Professor Tommy Koh) have been hot and bothered about – stop pretending that we can have the cake and eat it. Shaken out of its complacency, the government is bringing the migrant guest workers out of the woodwork and making sure they are well taken care of, knowing that the eyes of the world media are on its efforts.

That is what the government is doing. Better late than never.

What about Singaporeans themselves? Are they ready to move from Nimby to Wimby? From Not In My Backyard to NMP Anthea Ong’s heroic Welcome In My Backyard campaign. They are ready to accept dormitories and their occupants as a natural part of their landscape – whether in Tampines, Bishan, Holland V, Serangoon Garden, Nassim Road or Sixth Avenue?

If they are unhappy that there are cardboard uncles and aunties around, they should be just as disturbed that there are social, if not outrightly physical, ghettoes in their midst.

First of all, Singaporeans must start getting out of their own mental ghettoes or comfort zones. Try to mix around with people other than from your own race or religion. Try to speak languages other than your so-called mother tongue. In particular, pick up dialects or languages closer to home in Singapore – Chinese dialects which are more widely spoken than Mandarin in the region and Bahasa or Tamil. Continue to excel in English which is the main inter-racial communication bridge and world language without the command of which all talk about surviving and succeeding would be hollow.

If Singaporeans are one-dimensional, they will continue to be blind to the existence or plight of the migrant workers, whatever the government is doing for them.

Let me put it another way. Do Singaporeans enjoy being treated as inconsequential? Because the current government has been doing precisely that to ordinary Singaporeans. They become equally irrelevant everytime the F1 circus is brought to town to cater to the rich and famous. As much as we do not wish to be the invisible and suffering backdrop of an insulting hedonistic extravaganza, likewise we should change our attitude towards the migrant workers. They are here to do the work we don’t or can’t do. They are not to be ignored.

Use this Covid-19 pandemic to say NO to being the Dubai of Asia – and mean it. And maybe to the F1 too.

Hari Raya home-based businesses: Don’t let knee-jerk reactions kill a culture

Never mind what unthinking Masagos Zulkifli said when he lashed out at individuals for pressuring the government to allow Hari Raya home-based businesses to operate during the Circuit Breaker period. He called them “irresponsible”. That was sadly knee-jerk.

Well, President Halimah Yacob said it right when she pointed out: “These businesses also provide diversity in food and convenience to working women…I feel that it’s become an intrinsic part of our food culture.”

Like her, many Singaporeans also look forward to the cookies. To atone, should the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources order a truckful (out of his own pocket) and send them to the dormitories?


Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer of The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.Follow us on Social Media

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