Singapore — When a country is being criticised, the reactions from its citizens can be very different.
On Thursday (Dec 17), the New York Times (NYT) published an article with the headline “As Singapore Ventures Back Out, Migrant Workers Are Kept In”. It said that as Singaporeans looked forward to more restrictions being eased with Phase 3 of the country’s reopening on Dec 28, its migrant workers would remain, for the most part, confined to their dormitories.
The writer, Jennifer Jett, quoted Mr Alex Au, the vice-president of Transient Workers Count Too, as pointing out that since almost half of the migrant workers were already showing immunity to the virus, based on the Ministry of Health update on Dec 14, they could be said to be safer than the rest of the population and that tighter restrictions on their movement made no sense.
He said: “The new infection rate is no different from the general population, so why are they still being confined at a terrible cost to their mental health?”
However, in a Facebook post on Friday (Dec 18), retired diplomat and academic Bilahari Kausikan was none too pleased with the NYT story, calling it “sanctimonious” and that it “really misses the point”.
Mr Kausikan said that, while Singapore “initially dropped the ball on these workers”, the response to the widespread infections among migrant workers living in dormitories has been nothing short of exemplary.
He said: “We quickly picked the ball up in a way no other country did or could — ensuring that they were paid while not working, among other things — and that’s why the infections both among the workers and the community dropped rapidly.”
Mr Kausikan pointed out that Singapore has had one of the lowest number of Covid-19 deaths in the world. He asked: “Now what does this armchair critic expect?” He also wondered whether the writer, if she lived in the country, or Mr Au would take the migrant workers into their homes.
He said: “The trouble with the sanctimonious and the armchair critics is that they do not realise that not all desirable objectives are compatible or simultaneously realisable. Trade-offs are inevitable and it would be an irresponsible government that put abstract principle above the welfare of its citizens.”
One the other hand, entrepreneur and former Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng, who is known for his pro-government stance, took another approach to the issue, suggesting a Covid tax that might compensate for the “pain and suffering” of the migrant workers.
He said: “The first thing we have to do is to ACKNOWLEDGE that keeping the workers segregated and limiting their freedom is TRUE.”
And, like Mr Kausikan, he acknowledged that this had been, in effect, a trade-off meant to keep the rest of Singapore safe.
But, going one step further, Mr Cheng seemed to suggest that something must be done to make up for the restrictions placed on the migrant workers.
“If we accept that this situation has to continue for a while, then we defend it, but make things better for the FWs.
“Yes we can offer words of appreciation, care packages etc but nothing helps more than cold, hard cash.”