“I can’t wait for things to go back to normal” is the cry of our hearts this season. As we remain cooped up in our homes, binge watching on the latest Netflix shows, we long for the days when we could freely meet with friends or travel the world without being stalked by an invisible virus.
Yes, the circuit breaker is painful. And yes, it is necessary. But if there is one silver lining to this whole coronavirus crisis, it’s that deep-seated issues that have been festering in Singapore for years are finally exposed.
The coronavirus has laid bare the vulnerabilities of Singapore’s economy. But it is not the empty streets of Orchard Road or Raffles Place but the packed dormitories of migrant workers that send the most damning message yet.
Singapore has for decades, relied on cheap migrant workers from places like India and Bangladesh to build and maintain our infrastructure and handle the jobs Singaporeans wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. But while migrant workers have been the backbone of Singapore’s development, they have also been the most marginalized and mistreated demographic in Singapore.
From condescending stares on public transport, to stereotypical remarks, migrant workers are often on the receiving end of subliminal racism. Migrant workers have been subjected to STOMPers, who snap photos of exhausted workers taking a nap in void decks. Shopping malls ban migrant workers from using their toilets because it “spoils the image of the mall”.
Institutionally, our politicians have normalized such attitudes towards migrant workers whether through public gaffes like calling large congregants of migrant workers “walking time bombs”, or the sheer ignorance towards the plight of migrant workers.
For years, dormitories were overcrowded, lacked proper sanitation, and were ridden with disease-carrying pests. Whenever concerns were raised with the authorities, little was done because of opposition from employers. Wages were used as a blackmailing tool to silence would-be whistleblowers ; fall in line or your contract is revoked and what happens to your family back home then?
As a society, we tried to explain away these problems with half-baked excuses like “these workers can live like kings once they send their salaries back to India” or “these workers weren’t forced to come to Singapore, they chose this path”.
We were content with living in our privileged bubbles, far-removed from the plight of migrant workers. Now the hour of reckoning has arrived in the form of super clusters of coronavirus cases. The deep-seated problems that were long ignored have now returned with a vengeance. And this time, their externalities can no longer be ignored.
Every new case of coronavirus from a migrant worker cluster brings our healthcare system closer to the breaking point. Once the breaking point is passed, it’s not long before we start to see scenes like Northern Italy and Spain where overwhelmed hospitals are forced to make the painful choice of who gets life-saving treatment. Suddenly, the health, safety, and rights of migrant workers concern all of us.
The explosion of coronavirus cases among the migrant worker community is a painful lesson for us all. Our society is only as evolved as the way we treat the least among us. Judging from the way migrant workers have been treated for years, Singapore, in the words of Tommy Koh, is still a third-world country.
For now, we can only mitigate the coronavirus spread and hope for the best. But when the outbreak is contained and coronavirus fades away, Singapore cannot return to “normal”, because “normal” means being ok with the way things were. China after SARS failed to clamp down on the wildlife markets that have been the breeding ground for deadly diseases. Now the whole world is paying the price. Nothing short of social and public policy overhaul is needed in Singapore, lest the mistakes of the past sow the seeds of future problems to come.