How Singaporeans Indirectly Caused the COVID-19 Spread in Dormitories

The last week has seen much debate about migrant workers and their place in Singapore. With the number of confirmed COVID-19 migrant patients increasing day by day, fingers are being pointed at the government and the dormitory operators for filthy conditions and a lack of oversight. In fact, looking at the situation now, it seems irrational to confine such large groups of people in these mega-dormataries. While there is obviously legitimacy to these claims, there is also another major driving factor for these decisions that you haven’t considered. 

Yourself.

Singaporeans’ mindsets and attitudes towards migrant workers have indirectly shaped where and how these workers stay. So much so that we as a society might have to take on some of the blame for the recent mishaps. In today’s explained, we look at why this might be the case, and explore a general history of workers’ accommodations in Singapore.  

Not in my backyard

The infamous Serangoon Gardens dormitory. (Source)

There is a long prevailing mindset that Singaporeans have had with regards to foreign workers. Singaporeans are fine with their presence and appreciate their contributions, but they rather not have them in their backyard. In other words, due to perceived reasons like disharmony, invasion of privacy, littering and crime, Singaporeans are mostly against dormitories being built near housing estates. 

This was seen in 2008, when residents of the upper-middle class Serangoon Gardens estate resisted plans to convert an old school into a dormitory for foreign workers. Almost 1,400 households in the area signed a petition demanding the government change its mind and about 250 people turned up at a town hall organised by MPs. They argued that they didn’t want to see “half-naked men” hanging around their neighbourhood, that the safety of the eldery and young would be compromised, and that the value of their properties would see a drop. These attitudes have led to foreign workers being located far from residential areas, hidden from sight.

Separation and distancing have been so successful that it is not in dormitories where the workers’ presence is felt. It’s the weekend enclaves like Little India, Lucky Plaza, and Golden Mile Complex that are shared simultaneously by Singaporeans and migrant workers alike. Scholars argue that recreational spaces like these are crucial for foreign workers as they provide a “backstage” that affords them a bit of privacy and personal freedom. They are free to engage in the social activities that they like, without being watched over by their employers. This gives them a sense of empowerment and fulfillment in an otherwise foreign country. 

However, even in these recreational spots, migrant workers were generally not tolerated by locals. Many complain of congestion, noise, litter and of increased crime (even if this might not be the case). Now, enclaves too have become part of Singaporeans’ backyard, with the public urging the government to provide foreign workers with alternative recreational sites. 

These already present views were only emboldened by the Little India Riot in 2013.

The Little India Riot 

The Little India Riots of 2013 fundamentally changed the way migrant workers were housed in Singapore. (Source)

In Singapore’s first riot in 40 years, 300 migrant workers rioted following the death of an Indian national. In the end, 54 responding officers and 8 civilians were injured, while 23 emergency vehicles were damaged. Considering the abnormality of such public disorder in Singapore, both authorities and the general public were convinced of the need for the change.

In the Committee of Inquiry’s (COI) report on the incident, it was estimated that over 100,000 South Asian migrants visited Little India each Sunday, with infrastructure (payments, roads) unable to keep up with the large concentrations of pedestrians. Residents who testified to the COI also expressed concerns about the foreign workers “congregating at their housing block void decks to eat and drink, and were unhappy that the workers would litter, vomit, urinate, and sleep in their walkways and staircases.” Thus, while the COI noted that Little India and other congregation areas play an important role as social meeting points, it stressed that the “the size and density of the crowds in these areas” needs to be reduced. 

A major reason for the massive footfall in Little India was errand-running. Goods and services offered in Little India were much cheaper than the alternatives offered elsewhere. Thus in order to reduce the need for errant-running in Little India, the COI recommended that the government work with dormitory operators to bring in vendors that provide similarly priced services into their dormitories. “Dormitory-based provision shops, especially if reasonably priced, could also encourage some workers to stay at their dormitory rather than travel out to a congregation area,” the COI report said.  In a similar vein, it made sense to shift some of these recreational facilities (restaurants, cinemas etc) to dorms to minimise congestion and disgruntled locals in Little India.

There was an issue though. For these facilities and shops to be shifted, there needed to be a critical mass of people in the dorms. Think about it, if you are a supermarket or restaurant operator, it would make no sense for you to set up shop in a dormitory that has only 50 or 60 people. You probably won’t make enough money to recover your rent and other fixed costs. You needed dorms with high concentrations of people in order to make a profit. 

The birth of the Mega-Dorm

Tuas South Dormitory, one of many Purpose Built Dormitories built after 2013. (Source)

In response to the COI’s suggestions and the mounting pressure from the public, the government did a few things. Firstly, it commissioned the building of new Purpose Built Dormitories (PBD) with minimarts, beer gardens, food courts, cinemas and cricket fields. In order for these facilities to make financial sense, the dormitories also started housing more and more people. Take the recently quarantined S11 dormitory for example. Built as part of the government’s efforts to increase the number of PBDs, the dormitory houses well over 13,000 residents. These PBDs are designed to simultaneously fulfill the roles of the weekend enclave, while also acting as accommodation. By doing this, it was hoped that migrant workers would be “prevented from affecting Singapore’s delicate social fabric”.

Secondly, the government also passed the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act 2015 (FEDA). As part of the act, a licensing regime for PBDs housing over 1,000 people was implemented. In order for operators to gain or retain their licence, they had to adhere to certain guidelines set by the government. These guidelines cover public health and safety, security and public order, and the provision and maintenance of social and commercial facilities and services. In fact, when introducing the bill, then acting manpower minister Tan Chuan-Jin remarked that the bill forces operators to “develop quarantine plans, in the event of an infectious disease outbreak, and provide sufficient sick bay facilities, based on guidelines set by the Ministry of Health.” It is unknown whether these plans were actually drawn up by the dormitories now quarantined or whether they were of use. Regardless, by having these guidelines in place, the government hoped to have control over the standards of accommodation (although critics point out that enforcement has been rather lax).  

By formally setting out what was required from dormitories and actively encouraging the construction of new Purpose Built Dormitories, the government managed to get more players to join the industry. As of today, there are 44 dormitories registered under FEDA, 5 of which have been quarantined due to the spread of COVID-19. 

Conclusion

Singaporeans have long sought to benefit from workers’ labour without actually having to endure their physical presence. First, it started off by pushing migrant worker accommodation to the fringes of the island, far from local residential estates. Next, to further minimise contact, migrant workers were encouraged to stay in Purpose Built Dormitories rather than inhabit shared spaces and weekend enclaves. In other words, we created a need for these mega-dorms. The very same places that have led to the accelerated COVID-19 spread in Singapore. 

Yes, while there might be validity to claims such as overcongustion and some social discomfort when dealing with communities that are underexposed to us, it is important for Singaporeans to not only hold the government and organisations accountable. We also have to hold ourselves and our values accountable. For these migrants aren’t chips in a political game – reasons for us to praise or critique authorities – they are real people with real lives, much like you and me.

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