The second surge of COVID-19 in Singapore started in the dormitories of foreign workers. These facilities are full of migrants who constitute a form of racialized labor class from developing neighboring states. These workers have historically been from India and Bangladesh but recently, also from China.
Many of the migrant workers in Singapore are hired from India and Bangladesh. It is workers like this man who helped turn Singapore into the sparkling city-state that it is now. But early in the country’s anti-COVID efforts, migrant laborers were not even on the priority list when the government distributed face masks.
The Singapore state, helmed by the People’s Action Party (PAP) since 1959, uses thes workers to build the country, while paying them slave wages. Along with their dismal pay, they face a whole host of human rights abuses despite the fact that Singapore is entirely dependent on them for the manual labor that has built the city, including the high-rise buildings and glittering skyline that the city-state is renowned for. These workers are habitually housed in unsanitary and unsafe conditions and do work that often puts them at a high level of personal risk. They are a permanent underclass in a country rife with racism.
When the first wave seemed to threaten Singapore, these workers — who were already living in cramped quarters — were crowded into rooms like animals in cages. They were housed in small lodgings with bunk beds, sometimes with up to 20 people in a room. They were isolated and trapped in these poorly ventilated spaces, leading to the fast spread of the virus. Yet even then, the state, which has long seen them as nothing but disposable tools in the Singaporean economic marvel, did not seem to care that they might get sick or die. It refused to extend paid leave or healthcare to them. It only cared that the migrant workers not infect the local population.
Alex Au, vice president of the human-rights group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), has accused the government of ignoring the plight of these workers, as the state decided to give masks and hand sanitizers only to Singaporean households. TWC2 had foreseen the second wave, and warned the state that these workers were highly vulnerable, but this was disregarded by the Singapore government.
The workers themselves are afraid to speak up, worried about paying off the huge debt incurred to be able to come and work in Singapore. They are not even in any position to fight for better workplace rights for themselves.
There are common stories of being promised wages much higher than what they actually receive and threats of being extradited, as their migration status is often used in workplace negotiations. Dr. Nicholas Harrigan, a senior lecturer in sociology at Australia’s Macquarie University, does extensive research on thousands of migrant workers in Singapore. He says, “Over 60% of workers who had a conflict with employers were threatened with deportation. This included workers who were not paid their salaries or who had workplace injuries.”
There are other reasons why migrant workers — and many others in Singapore — are afraid to voice dissent. There is no free press, and citizens are afraid to criticize the government. Making a Facebook post in support of persecuted activists is enough to be charged and fined. Singapore has often curtailed rights to speech and press freedoms, citing its multi-racial population as a tinderbox that could go off should any speech incite unhappiness. These laws against free speech have been used to stifle political dissent as well, with the state often suing both political opponents and international news media for unfavorable press.
The advent of the internet, however, made it difficult for the state to control what its citizens were reading, and neither was it able to stifle discontent from spreading online. To preserve its stranglehold on the population, the state introduced the fake news law in 2019.
The law’s precise name is the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA). It grants any minister the authority to issue corrections and he or she could dictate how the correction must be phrased. Government ministers can also demand that internet service providers or platforms block access to content, which they have since done with Facebook. POFMA has already been used nine times since it was adopted in October 2019. Facebook was forced to add an addendum to a post by The Temasek Review — an anti-government website — that the post contains false information. This information was only visible to those living in Singapore.
POFMA as a weapon
Civil-society activists have long campaigned against POFMA, considering the law a death knell for an already restricted space for dissent. It now appears that they were correct in how the law would be used against anyone critical of the state, but the Singapore government has brushed this assertion off, saying that the targeting of opposition politicians was a “coincidence.”
The law is also being used against people who speak about the abuses of migrant workers. When videos of South Asian workers’ mistreatment and possible suicide spread online, the government claimed they were from other countries, and that anyone saying differently would be in danger of disseminating “fake news.” Pictures of the poor-quality food fed to these workers, an issue that has been previously documented, was also challenged as a falsehood and those sharing the photos were warned of being charged under POFMA. Initially non-committal about paying the confined workers during the quarantine period, the government later stated that it would, and then Asian workers remodel timber boardwalk at shore of Singapore sea. Slope-adjustable pedestal used for paver, bearer support instead of bedding sand/brick/concrete/metal pier. Construction background.
Dormitories housing migrant workers have been dubbed tinderboxes for coronavirus. Before the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit Singapore, workers like these men were living in cramped quarters like animals in cages. They had small lodgings with bunk beds, sometimes with up to 20 people in a room. (Photo: “Bilal’s House – Image gallery on Vimeo by Farah James” by rob_obrien is licensed under CC BY 2.0)
The Singapore state values its good international public relations. This global propaganda is how it has managed to be severely repressive within its borders, while being an international darling that is rarely held to human rights benchmarks like other countries. It basked in its original worldwide adulation with its handling of the crisis, but the second wave meant it could not keep its mistreatment of migrant workers a secret anymore. Its scramble to use the Fake News Law against any bit of information or opinion that is even slightly critical of its handling of the crisis must be seen in the larger context of how it wants to be viewed by the world.
Dormitories housing migrant workers have been dubbed tinderboxes for coronavirus.
The state hopes that if it cracks down hard enough, its previously glowing reputation might remain intact. But instead of being remembered as a state that won against the crisis, it is now seen as the state that left its underclass to perish until it could afford to ignore them no longer.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many of the fault lines within Southeast Asian states. It has paid no heed to class or race. It showed that treating everyone humanely, regardless of who they are, was the best way to stop its spread and keep people safe. Singapore’s refusal to do this ruined its first win against the virus, and led to the second wave.
There is a lesson for all unequal societies here. One may think that the pain of the marginalized will never touch them, but historic events like a pandemic show that we are all in this together. A substantial commitment to human rights, equality, and dignity is the best defense against another pandemic. ●
Sangeetha Thanapal is a Singaporean social critic and activist who is currently based in Australia.