An expert's point of view on a current event.

Singapore Is Trying to Forget Migrant Workers Are People

The outbreak in crowded dorms has brought out the city-state’s prejudices.

Pastor Samuel Gift Stephen, the founder of the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach, checks in with a security guard at a factory-converted dormitory as he distributes meals for Muslim migrant workers in Singapore on April 24.
Pastor Samuel Gift Stephen, the founder of the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach, checks in with a security guard at a factory-converted dormitory as he distributes meals for Muslim migrant workers in Singapore on April 24. Ore Huiying/Getty Images

In the evening of April 25, residential blocks in Singapore burst into coordinated cacophony as people participated in “Sing Together Singapore!”—an initiative aimed at expressing support for the country’s front-line and migrant workers.

In the evening of April 25, residential blocks in Singapore burst into coordinated cacophony as people participated in “Sing Together Singapore!”—an initiative aimed at expressing support for the country’s front-line and migrant workers.

The song of choice was “Home,” a popular patriotic song with poignant verses that seem particularly relevant at a difficult time: “When there are troubles to go through / We’ll find a way to start anew / There is comfort in the knowledge / That home’s about its people too.”

But who is included in the “people” that “home” is about? While Singapore might be willing to organize a singalong as a show of #SGUnited solidarity, actual solidarity is in limited supply when it comes to the thousands of migrant workers now stuck in their dormitories as a second outbreak ravages the city-state that once prided itself on its success against the coronavirus. Instead, policy and public discussions clearly segregate—both physically and rhetorically—migrant workers from the rest of the population.

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in migrant worker dormitories—where men from India, Bangladesh, and China live in cramped rooms of about 12 to 20 inhabitants, making social distancing impossible—the government adopted the strategy of treating the situation as one of “two separate infections,” one affecting migrant workers in dormitories and another circulating within “our own community” in Singapore, as relayed by National Development Minister Lawrence Wong. Since then, daily reports have disaggregated case numbers into the following categories: imported, community cases (referring to citizens, permanent residents, and expatriates on work visas), work permit holders not residing in dorms, and dorm residents.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

This separation of migrant workers from the rest of the community is nothing new. Low-wage migrant workers have long existed in an underclass of their own: Unlike other immigrants who receive employment passes, migrant workers are given work permits that preclude any possibility of one day obtaining long-term residency status in Singapore. Such is the determination to block their path to potential citizenship that work permit holders are banned from marrying Singaporean citizens or permanent residents unless they receive permission from the government.

Most workers incur significant amounts of debt to pay the agent fees that allow them to come to Singapore to fill the roles that most locals are unwilling to take on at that low rate of pay: domestic workers, construction workers, shipyard workers, cleaners, etc. While female migrant domestic workers live in their employers’ homes, as required by law, male workers are put up in large purpose-built dormitories, former industrial buildings, on-site lodgings, or privately rented accommodation. Their work permits are also tied to their specific employers, who have the power to cancel the permit and repatriate them.

To handle community cases, Singapore is now in the middle of a partial lockdown the government prefers to call a “circuit breaker.” During this period, classes have shifted online, nonessential workplaces are shut, and anyone found breaching social distancing measures can be fined. Originally meant to end on May 4, the partial lockdown has been extended to June 1.

For the purpose-built and factory-converted dormitories that house 323,000 migrant men, much harsher measures have been imposed—and here the government does use the word “lockdown.” More than 20 dormitories have been listed under the Infectious Diseases Act as “isolation areas.” Thousands of migrant workers have been confined into rooms of varying standards; while some say they’re bored but otherwise doing all right, others have told me that their rooms are unbearably hot and stuffy as the tropical island sees temperatures that can go up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Bangladeshi workers fasting for Ramadan have also reported issues with the quantity and quality of the catered food that they must now eat in their rooms.

Among the general population, the idea is still to flatten the curve; in the dormitories, though, that curve may have bent far out of control. As of May 6, 17,758 dormitory residents have tested positive for the virus, forming 88 percent of all the cases in Singapore. In some dormitories, COVID-19 has spread so far that anyone diagnosed with a respiratory illness is automatically deemed to have the coronavirus and isolated. For now, these cases aren’t included in the daily situation report, which provides only the number of confirmed infections.

As of May 6, 17,758 dormitory residents have tested positive for the virus, forming 88 percent of all the cases in Singapore.

The focus of Singapore’s approach is to ring-fence the virus within these dormitories, so as to prevent infections from spilling out into the wider population. This might make sense to those of us who are outside and alarmed by the increasing number of reported cases, but it’s cold comfort to the workers currently feeling trapped in their rooms.

While Singaporeans are urged—with limited success—to download apps like TraceTogether to aid in contact tracing efforts, within the crowded dorms it can feel much more like an exercise of “getting infected together.” When I spoke to workers over the phone about their confinement, they described an atmosphere of anxiety and fear that comes from not being able to practice social distancing properly even as they wonder if they, or those near them, have already been infected.

Ultimately, the government’s response to the outbreak within the migrant worker population is a demonstration of Singaporean utilitarianism. Despite their large numbers—there are close to 1 million work permit holders in Singapore—migrant workers are viewed only as digits on a spreadsheet of menial labor, to be deployed as resources when necessary and kept out of sight when not.

Even before COVID-19 hit the dormitories hard, migrant labor rights groups were urging the government to come up with measures to address conditions, such as overcrowding and sanitation issues, that leave workers vulnerable to outbreaks of disease. The government has since taken steps to reduce density in the dormitories—but with a priority on moving out workers in essential services, such as those who clean public housing estates or maintain the broadband networks that allow everyone else to work, study, and socialize from home.

This utilitarian, dehumanizing approach has been heartily embraced by the mainstream discourse. Salma Khalik, a senior health correspondent for the Straits Times (Singapore’s only English-language general news broadsheet), has argued that “the exact numbers of [migrant workers in dormitories] getting infected each day are not of critical importance in terms of policy decisions” since the workers are isolated and “the virus has been contained within this group.” The numbers will only become important again, she says, when Singapore begins to lift lockdown measures, because there would then be the potential of unidentified cases among these workers spreading COVID-19 to the rest of the population. Within this formulation, the suffering among the migrant workers themselves is of no interest.

Even among cases in the community, distinctions are being made. First, there are citizens, permanent residents, and the white-collar expatriates with employment passes. Then there are the work permit holders who don’t live in dormitories. It’s obvious, Khalik says, why the number of COVID-19 cases in the first category are important, but she reminds the reader to pay attention to the second category since “it includes domestic workers living with local families, as well as workers living in Housing Board flats and shophouses.”

While it makes sense to adopt different approaches to take into account the different ways COVID-19 affects different groups, Singaporean utilitarianism doesn’t see the struggles faced by work permit holders as real issues hurting a marginalized group of people. In fact, it barely sees them as people at all. Instead, it views the problem through the lens of “Now, how will this inconvenience us?”

In 2010, Yeo Guat Kwang, the chairman of the Migrant Workers’ Centre, an initiative by Singapore’s labor movement and the national federation of employers, told China Labour Bulletin: “When we look at the migrant workers’ issue, we are not looking at it from the perspective of human rights. We are looking at it on a need basis. … Like it or not, we need to sustain and grow an economy that is able to generate an annual per capita [GDP] of US$35,000. At the end of the day, whatever factors would be able to help us to sustain the growth of the economy for the benefit of our countrymen, for the benefit of our country; we will definitely go for it.”

It’s this attitude that got Singapore into this situation in the first place; for years, warnings and criticism from rights groups were brushed off as complaints, noise, and bleeding heart idealism. While the government insists that migrant workers were on its radar from the beginning of the outbreak, it has also revealed that about 20 dormitory operators and an average of 1,200 employers are penalized each year for flouting licensing laws—which suggests that substandard living conditions are not only a long-standing problem but one that has not been effectively addressed. Now that activists have been proved right in the most miserable way, Singapore still struggles with seeing migrant workers as equally valuable members of the community.

This posture throughout the COVID-19 outbreak will not only hamper efforts for systemic change post-pandemic but places migrant workers in an even more vulnerable position in society. As the establishment continues to assure Singaporeans that there are two separate infections, and that only the outbreak among migrant workers is bad, some Singaporeans are already blaming the workers for destroying Singapore’s “gold standard” response. Other online comments berate workers who raise issues with the quality of their food, telling them to be “grateful” that Singapore is providing them with food in the first place.

Already stigmatized as dirty and threats to public order (when it comes to the mostly South Asian construction laborers), or potential homewreckers who need to be carefully watched (for the female migrant domestic workers), the singling out of work permit holders in Singapore’s COVID-19 discourse perpetuates the notion of them as vectors of disease, further feeding the twin beasts of racism and xenophobia. This problem can’t be solved with singalongs, but a unified chorus might turn out to be as far as Singapore is prepared to go.

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean freelance journalist and activist, covering politics, human rights, and social justice. Her work has been published in the Guardian, Asia Times, Southeast Asia Globe, and the Diplomat, among others. Twitter: @kixes

More from Foreign Policy


The World After the Coronavirus

We asked 12 leading thinkers to predict what happens in 2021 and beyond.

Protesters prepare to burn an effigy of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an anti-China protest in Siliguri, India, on June 17, 2020.

Why Attempts to Build a New Anti-China Alliance Will Fail

The big strategic game in Asia isn’t military but economic.


China Is Building Entire Villages in Another Country’s Territory

Since 2015, a previously unnoticed network of roads, buildings, and military outposts has been constructed deep in a sacred valley in Bhutan.