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Millennials speak up on government’s handling of the dormitories issue

TISG speaks to university students to get their perspective on how the government has handled the crisis among foreign workers

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In recent weeks, foreign workers living in have made up most of Singapore’s newly reported cases. On 22 April, 967 out of 1016 confirmed cases were foreign workers living in dormitories – that’s 95%. The government has blundered the handling of COVID-19 cases in the dormitories on a reactive and structural level, especially at its initial stage. But it has the authority to make it right too.
The outbreak of COVID-19 in dormitories has exposed structural problems about how foreign workers live, which only the government has the power to change from their position of authority.

Now that these issues are coming into the spotlight and Singaporeans are speaking up about the living conditions in dormitories, it’s time for the government to address these structural issues once and for all. So while the government may have blundered the handling of the outbreak of COVID-19 in foreign worker dormitories, it can do right by leading positive change from now on. – 3rd Year NUS Undergrad studying Social Sciences

News has been coming out and about on the conditions our have been living in; how cramped the living space is, how employers have been treating these workers, even about the lack of quality basic amenities such as their bathrooms and sanitation.

The outlets from which information are disseminated have also been criticised for their categorization of the ‘community’ and ; an ‘us versus them’ type of approach that seemed somewhat neutral but when you look into it, you realise how unbecoming the treatment of these workers have turned out to be. There are no two outbreaks, there is just one. The Singapore image we have been trying to build has been shattered because underneath all the feel-good stories, there lie our migrant workers who worked hard building the landscape of Singapore who is given less or even no protection here. – Adlina Mazlan, 3rd Year SIM Undergrad studying Science (International Relations)

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Hindsight is always 20/20, and when it comes to the issue of foreign worker dormitories in Singapore, that can also be said of the general public’s critique of how the government has handled this crisis. My opinion is that there were several missteps made in the run-up to the dormitory outbreaks – in this sense the government has committed a huge blunder. The ensuing containment measures undertaken to remedy the situation have, however, been exemplary.

In the initial days of the COVID-19 outbreak when ‘soft measures’ were announced, it is mind boggling that foreign worker dormitories could have been so easily susceptible to oversight.

That said, what kind of measures could the government have implemented? It could have inspected and mandated better social distancing measures that had been advised for the general populace. It could have put a pause on construction activities and mandated that companies place their workers on leave. Perhaps the intent was to allow the economy to carry on normally as planned, in that case, it could have been proactive in stepping up testing or preventive measures. Instead, however, the government blundered on this front and it is now paying the price for it.

Nevertheless, the decisive action to lockdown dormitories and carry out mass testing was a masterstroke. If there is anything that might redeem the initial incompetence in identifying the high risk inherent in foreign worker dormitories, it is this moment. – Postgrad Student at London Business School, reading for Masters in Financial Analysis

Personally, I feel like that the government could have handled the dormitory issue better. Migrant rights groups have long been heralding the squalid conditions these workers have been living in and even though the government had the necessary resources required to alleviate their living conditions, they didn’t prioritize it, leading to the massive COVID-19 numbers we see today. I remember seeing the photos of the food served as well as their living quarters circulating on Facebook as early as in 2017, with calls for change, and yet it was only after this pandemic that the government properly stepped in.

However, we should definitely not discount the government’s efforts to alleviate their living conditions following the outbreak. In my opinion, the outbreak of COVID-19 infections in these dormitories brought the pitiful conditions these migrant workers were living into the national spotlight and I can only hope that the Singapore government takes solid actions to help ease their stay here. We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Has it made us so lacking in everything else? I hope not. – 3rd Year Undergrad at NTU studying Science in Mathematics and Economics

Initially, Singapore was applauded for being a coronavirus success story, with quick actions taken to distribute masks, normalize social distancing and giving out free COVID-19 tests in hospitals. However, this success only applies to the majority of the Singaporean citizens and neglects the marginalised, which are the foreign migrant workers.

This triumph was short-lived as the government has made a blunder in ensuring their safety. With re-iterations that migrant workers “only have mild symptoms” and that they are “generally young” and hence less likely to be seriously ill. But what the government has failed to account, is the lack of preparation and oversight for these workers.

As Tommy Koh wrote on his Facebook earlier this month, “The way Singapore treats its foreign workers is not First World but Third World.” It is thus sad to say that it took the government a worldwide pandemic and public health crisis to bring their attention to the “hidden backbone” of Singapore’s pride and glorious skyscrapers and housings. What worries me is that this issue might only serve to fuel the underlying discrimination and xenophobia against these migrant foreign workers, and I hope that the government will take necessary action and precautions to prevent this in the near future. – 3rd-year Undergrad at NUS studying Social Science with a Major in Global Studies

Minister for Manpower Mrs Josephine Teo had shared reasons why the government did not move foreign workers out of their dorms earlier and cited two main reasons for it.
Firstly, it was the costs of doing so; not just financial costs but also costs to the migrant workers’ livelihoods and daily lives. A stop in work would also not be effective if implemented without the complementary prevention of workers from leaving their houses and other measures that are what the circuit breaker now enforces.

However, to this argument, I believe that this is where the government has flawed – they only take action when something happens – which is a mistake that should not be made in such times of crisis. Hence, this is a case of the government being “pennywise, pound foolish”, for if they did decide to relocate foreign workers out of their clustered dorms earlier, it could have prevented the impact on the rest of Singapore.

I would thus say that the government made a blunder not because they did not consider the migrant worker dormitories, but because they assumed that the operators would carry out the safety measures and failed to ensure that they were implemented. – 2nd Year Undergrad at NUS studying Global Studies with a Minor in Communications & New Media

I do not believe that the Singapore government has floundered in its approach to managing the migrant worker dormitories. In fact, I think that the government should be applauded for its efforts in battling the invisible monster, even if these efforts aren’t perfect.
Granted, much can be done better. Issues of unsanitary and cramped living conditions in the dormitories have plagued the migrant worker community since time could tell. Yet, these issues are only brought into the limelight now, when the surge of foreign worker infections threaten to overwhelm our healthcare system or spillover into the local community.

But why are we so quick to push the blame to the government, when a vast majority of us turned a blind eye to all these issues even as they existed several years ago?

We need to stop engaging in hypocritical, “feel good” antics that serve no ultimate purpose other than making us feel like we are riding the high horse while mocking the government for its inability to deliver, when we are in fact not much better.

As the saying goes, empty vessels make the most noise. Netizens who mistakenly believe that blindly taking to the Internet to chastise the government while lounging in the comfort of their own homes, indulging in their feelings of “righteousness” while not lifting a finger to help improve situations themselves, should take a firm look in the mirror.

Instead of pointing fingers at what could be done better, perhaps we should be focusing on what is being done now, and support our government and frontline workers by embodying the true spirit of #SGUnited. – 3rd-year Undergrad at NUS, studying Arts and Political Science

*Answers have been edited for length and clarity

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