Surprisingly, PM Lee Has Gained a Fan Following Amongst Workers on Facebook

The debate around foreign workers and their place in Singapore has only intensified over the past few weeks. On one side, activists and prominent figures have been criticising the government for neglecting the basic human rights of workers. Tommy Koh, Singapore’s former representative to the United Nations, has described conditions in the dorms as being “a time bomb waiting to explode” and has called the treatment of foreign workers “disgraceful.” On the other hand, the government and its supporters argue that there has been a comprehensive response. Authorities have quarantined dormitories, deployed officers from the army, police and the Ministry of Manpower, and have improved migrant worker welfare — better food, internet access and essential toiletries have been given out. 

With the debate dominated by people who think they know what’s best for the workers, sometimes it’s easy to forget the most important stakeholders in this debate: the workers themselves. Yes, we have the odd interview that CNA and the Straits Times conducts with people in quarantine dorms. But considering that most expressed positive views about the government’s actions, it made us question whether workers would even want to be critical in national television or newspapers. Employers still hold considerable control over migrant worker contracts and during this uncertain period, workers might not want to risk dissenting or losing their livelihoods. So we decided to look at one place where they might be a bit more honest: on social media pages and posts. 

What we found was rather surprising. 

Migrant Workers’ Social Media

In our analysis, we scoured through hundreds of public posts that were geo-tagged at the dormitories with clusters. Some of these dormitories include the S11 Dormitory at Punggol, the Sungei Tengah Lodge, CDPL Dormitory and Tuas View Dormitory. Popular migrant worker pages like Singapore to Dhaka (a page with more than 17,000 likes) and Singa Tamilan (7,000 likes) were also looked at to gauge migrant worker reactions. There were three recurring themes that were spotted.  

1. Appreciative of the improvements 

In general, workers seem appreciative of the improvements that have been made over the last week. Many have been posting daily pictures of their food and tagging people in other dorms to see what they have been getting. This act of sharing and comparing is almost reminiscent of what we saw when Singaporean students returned home to their 14 day stay-at-home notices. 

When compared to the initial photos of food that were published, portions and quality seems to have been substantially improved. Some have even gotten pizzas and chicken wings from Pizza Hut (although it is unclear whether this was from the government or members of the public). Apart from these meals, there are also other snacks being distributed — fruits, peanut crackers, biscuits and even chocolates have reached workers. 

Secondly, a care package of sorts has been distributed across the various dormitories on the island. The package consists of hygiene essentials (soap, toilet paper, toothpaste etc), personal protective equipment (masks, thermometers, hand sanitisers etc), sim cards (most received 50GB, 30 days SingTel prepaid cards) and even luxuries like cigarettes. Yet again, it is unknown who provided these items — it could be the government, volunteer organisations or even members of the public. However, considering the ubiquity of most of these items across the various dorms, it was probably the authorities that distributed these items. The free WiFi that has been set-up in dorms also seems to be appreciated, with a couple of users posting about it. 

2. PM Lee has developed a fan following

Appreciation for these improvements has been directed towards Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Many migrant workers are changing either their display pictures or their cover pictures to ones of the Prime Minister. There are also several viral forward messages praising the PM, and most of them seem to revolve around the Bangladeshi national who recently recovered after spending two months in the ICU. They are grateful that much money has been spent on the worker, and argue that he would not be able to get this type of attention back home in Bangladesh. Here is one of the forward messages, translated to english:

Our expatriates had a well-established idea about Singapore that Singapore means only work and work. There is no humanity in this city of brick stone. However, the Singapore government has proven this idea to be untrue, and has proven that it’s the most humane country in the world. The government will always be remembered by every human for its handling of the situation.

The current Prime Minister of Singapore is Mr. Lee Hsien Loong… The more I see, the more I am fascinated by his great activities. We all live in Singapore and should support this country and support the government. Every rule declared should be followed with our respect.

Singapore is the country which has spent more than $1 million in two months (note: this number is unverifiable) for the treatment of a Bangladeshi worker. That is $1 crore in bengali rupees. Thousands of Bangladeshi people are still treated in Singapore.

Mr. Lee Hsien Loong is like the name of a great state hero. It is the one of a man who uploaded a video for our Bangladeshi people on his Facebook (referring to a translated version of PM’s address to the nation on 10 April), separately spoke to Bangladeshi people, and often became emotional for Bangladeshi people in the video… 

If you write about Singapore’s humanity, no one will find its end.

This forward message has been shared multiple times by different organic accounts. Assurances of care and welfare made in both PM Lee’s address to the nation on 10 April, and on Minister Josephine Teo’s Tamil New Year address to workers seems to have resonated well, with many sharing those videos as well.  

3. Fears and anxiety

Even though workers seem satisfied with the government response, being locked up in a room with 5-12 people can really take its toll on you. An uncertain situation combined with a lack of personal space has led to talk about anxieties and headaches. There is also some annoyance with the fact that personal movement is being restricted:  

How long will I stay in a room like this? The limits of patience are being exceeded.

May Allah have mercy on me.

During the initial days of the outbreak, there might have also been miscommunication or a lack of communication in the dorms. One post remarks:

Really we don’t know what is going on. PRAY FOR US & forgive me if I did any wrong (by you). 

This entire ordeal – the feelings of being hopeless in a foreign country – might have caused some migrants to reconsider the underlying logic behind going overseas. While looking through these posts, we came across this poem written in tamil:

“If we still breathe, return home we shall,

If that stops, write this down;

The youth of lands abroad say, 

Our next generation should never go overseas”

Explaining the reactions

It is extremely important to note that the migrant community is not monolithic. Considering the discrepancy between early reports about bad conditions in dorms and this overly pro-government rhetoric on Facebook, we can assume that not all workers feel this way.

This discrepancy can be probably be explained due to a few reasons: 

  1. Our analysis consisted of posts from dormitories that were geo-tagged on Facebook. These are mostly the newly built mega-dorms that are better maintained. They are also better regulated because of the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act (you can read our explainer about FEDA here). The people who are probably suffering the most right now are in smaller, less regulated dorms. These migrants might be harder to reach on Facebook considering the lack of geo-tags.
  1. As stated in the introduction, employers still hold considerable control over migrant worker contracts and during this uncertain period, migrant workers might not want to risk dissenting or losing their livelihoods. Thus workers who have encountered negative experiences might not want to speak up.
  1. Due to Facebook’s privacy policies, our analysis of the situation only covered public accounts. Private accounts might have included more dissenting voices. 

Even with that in mind however, there seems to be genuine widespread appreciation for the response. If that weren’t the case, the large migrant Facebook groups would not be praising the government or changing their profile pictures to ones of the Prime Minister without encountering resistance in the comments. Largely, this respect seems to be built on a sense of context.  Migrant workers in Singapore are well connected to the ones in other countries and see what is going on in there. Qatar for example has expelled Nepali workers for ‘illegal, illicit activity’ after telling them that they were being taken for COVID-19 testing, and has withheld the wages of many in this period. While the conditions in Singapore aren’t ideal in any sense of the word, they are comparatively better than the ones abroad. Workers are also tuned in to their respective country’s handling of the situation. They concede that more is being done here — with free and widespread screening, adequate healthcare and welfare provisions. Both these recurring sentiments were present in many posts. 

Overall, while morale seems to have increased over the past week or so, together with the standards of welfare being provided, it is important to note that this isn’t the end of the road. It’s encouraging that many Singaporeans have started to care about how these workers are being treated and have started contributing to NGOs like Transient Workers Matter Too, Healthserve and It’s Raining Raincoats. However, it is imperative that we don’t pat ourselves on the back after this and continue as per normal. 

Fair treatment of our fellow human beings should not be contingent on a global pandemic, it should be the norm.

In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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