Singapore’s Migrant Worker Debate: Advocacy Amid a Pandemic

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Singapore’s Migrant Worker Debate: Advocacy Amid a Pandemic

What a migrant worker dormitory debate revealed about the relationship between Singapore’s government, citizens, and NGOs.

Singapore’s Migrant Worker Debate: Advocacy Amid a Pandemic

A foreign worker talks on the phone outside his room at the WestLite Toh Guan dormitory after it was declared an isolation area under the Infectious Diseases Act, following a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in several foreign worker dormitories in Singapore, April 10, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Yong Teck Lim

Last week, the Singapore government gazetted two dormitories housing more than 20,000 foreign workers as isolation areas, after new clusters of COVID-19 appeared in migrant worker dormitories.

However, reports about the poor conditions of some of these dormitories quickly emerged: workers reported seeing cockroaches and smelling urine. The reports led to much public outrage. Various NGOs and activists were also quick to condemn the government for its failure to act earlier, particularly as dormitories were always a “ticking time bomb” for the spread of the new coronavirus.

What can this episode show us about Singapore’s governance model, and in particular, the relationships between the state, civil society, and citizenry?

In the immediate aftermath of the scandal, the government was quick to react, issuing public statements on the crisis.

Within hours of media reports circulating, the minister of manpower, Josephine Teo, issued a statement on her Facebook Page, acknowledging the government’s oversight and committing to improving the situation in dorms. MP Louis Ng also posted a widely shared Facebook post pledging to speak up about the dorm issue in Parliament.

Teo committed to improving dormitory conditions, and as promised the state has already started converting the Expo and Exhibition hall into isolation wards, and moved affected migrant workers into these temporary spaces. The Migrant Workers Center, affiliated with the state, also committed to distributing free masks and sanitizer to 350,000 workers in all dormitories. It has even deployed personnel from the Singapore Armed Forces and Singapore Police Force to provide free medical services and help distribute food to those under government-gazetted quarantine. To coordinate everything, the state also set up an interagency task force to provide support to foreign workers and dormitory operators.

All of this is remarkable, and testifies to Singapore’s state capacity in responding swiftly and efficiently, particularly in times of crisis.

The government’s swift response also suggests that Singapore’s feedback mechanisms are working, however wonky they may be. The effectiveness of these feedback mechanisms, however, is dependent on a healthy civil society and citizenry. The government may have been responsive, but credit must also be given to civil society and citizens for compelling the government into action.

Within hours of the damning news reports, many actors — NGOs, activists, public intellectuals, and concerned citizens — were quick to express their discontent about the situation, mobilizing together to produce recommendations and crowdsource information on mutual aid resources. A spreadsheet compiling resources for the migrant worker dormitory quickly spread, and NGOs themselves collaborated to form a COVID Migrant Support coalition. Project Chulia Street, an initiative that aims to distribute care packs to quarantined migrant workers, raised more than $34,000 in donations in just a few days.

The quick mobilization of NGOs and civil society was arguably instrumental in putting pressure on the government, and in monitoring the situation as it continuously developed. When a viral photo of poor quality food being delivered to migrant workers surfaced, the government was similarly quick to apologize and provide reassurance that it would work with caterers to improve food quality for migrant workers.

The success of civil society in catalyzing the government into action was also dependent on citizens’ support, particularly in signaling their discontent. Articles detailing the poor conditions of dormitories quickly went viral, and many people took to the internet to express anger about the situation.

“I think that if anything, I want to keep people’s attention that we can have wins, that citizens have power and public pressure matters,” Kokila, a local activist, said. “… It’s never going to be enough if scattered activists, journalists, and academics are occasionally bringing attention and speaking up about it. It’s only going to create a sense of urgency for the state if there is a collective voice.”

Kokila’s words suggest that for feedback mechanisms to work, and for the state to take action, pressure from civil society is necessary but insufficient. NGOs were advocating for similar changes long before the crisis; they have also been urging the government to pre-empt the possibility of local transmission among the migrant worker community, to no avail.

Instead, ordinary citizens have a part to play in urging the government to act. Such pressure can be useful, even if those articulating their discontent are only a (vocal) minority.

Kokila observed, “There is a pattern to what the government will respond to. Even if it’s cursory or placatory, the government will respond when there is a critical mass of people who are unhappy.” For pressure to be exerted, it is not necessary to convince a majority — merely to ensure that a critical mass is achieved.

Singapore’s woeful neglect of the migrant population is deeply regrettable. But perhaps it is not time to give up hope yet, for the state has shown itself willing to listen and act. For what it’s worth, the fact that we turn to the state to rectify its own oversights suggests a bitter paradox — where, despite our disappointments, we continue to rely on the state, rather than circumvent it altogether.

This is not to say that the government is perfect. It is not — no government is. But in other countries like the United States, the government’s incompetence in managing the crisis has produced far worse outcomes — for both citizens and noncitizens alike. In Singapore, the state’s swift response has highlighted the parts of our governance model that work: quick mobilization facilitated by strong state capacity and the presence of feedback mechanisms that work.

For these mechanisms to work, however, ordinary citizens need to actively make their voices heard, not just rely on ad hoc efforts by civil society. As pointed out earlier, the effectiveness of civil society is only as strong as its citizenry.

Going forward, citizens and civil society should continue holding the state accountable to ensure that their pledges are not simply empty promises. If we want lasting change, we need to keep making our voices heard, not merely during this pandemic.

Yong Han Poh is a senior at Harvard College studying Anthropology. She has written for The Diplomat, Southeast Asia Globe, Rice Media, and Singapore Policy Journal.