Transplanting BLM into Singapore: Racism and Migrant Workers

Hashtag Trends

My heart ached when I read about George Floyd’s death and the protests in the United States under the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement.

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Some people in Singapore joined in the unintentionally detrimental act of posting black squares on social media. Some criticize others’ silence on social media as complicity in racism.

I think it would be philosophically and practically untenable to impose a moral duty on everyone to (i) frequently monitor social media trends and/or current affairs; (ii) read and understand all sides of the issues; and (iii) post things that many people are posting on those issues.

(Imagine all the inane memes and food photos one would have to scroll through each day to get to these posts!)

Take for instance the Yemen civil war (read e.g. Geneva Academy page and war report 2017, ICJ briefing paper) or the Israel-Palestine conflict. These are complex issues that cannot be compressed into a trending hashtag.

That is of course all apart from the question of whether and how such a moral duty would lead to greater virtue in that person, virtuous conduct in relation to others, or improved well being of others.

Moreover, I wonder how much of the reflexive response is from an impulse to ease one’s guilt and virtue signal than to actually understand the situation and be in solidarity with the people who are crying out for justice. What they want is to express their frustration and tell their stories.

To then jump onto the bandwagon and post your own stuff riding on the movement when you are not one of them is to hijack their moment. It’s like you are telling your friend about your family problem and instead of listening, your friend starts to wax lyrical about sociological theories of social structures he learnt from Sociology 101 in school.

If social media platform + silence = complicity in racism (or any other social injustice), then we will not only be morally doomed, mentally exhausted, and emotionally spent. We will also probably be unable to live, whether attempting a virtuous life or not. To be clear, I am not suggesting indifference in the face of injustice. But silence on social media is not indifference. It means just that, silence on, or infrequent use or posting of, social media.

This must be an unprecedented blip in time. And I’m not talking about COVID-19. It must be unprecedented that a person’s virtue is determined by what one posts on a World Wide Web-connected account. There is no equivalence to anything before.

In the past, if a man is beaten up right before one’s eyes, and one does absolutely nothing about it, there are good grounds to question the person’s lack of virtue or complicity in the wrong deed.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan assumed precisely this proximity of neighbourliness. The Levite, the Priest and the Samaritan all came into such proximity to the victim that they could make a clear moral choice: go over to assist the person or not.

Today, the very same compassionate Samaritan would be publicly castigated in the market square and treated as pariah for omitting to say something many other people want him to say about events happening in places he had not prior to dreamt of.

If Mother Teresa were around today, she too would likely not go unscathed–”why did you not speak up about the plight of the Rohingyas?” And if her answer was I did not know (enough or otherwise), that would be deemed entirely unsatisfactory. (And for full disclosure: I knew nothing about Blackout Tuesday until a few days later.)

The hyperconnectivity of the world wide web mediated through social media platforms that deploy algorithms which segregate demographics of people into their echo chambers and social bubbles give rise to philosophical impossibilities uncritically accepted as legitimate grounds for shaming, bullying and harassment. The online social justice warriors (SJWs) guilty of such behaviour would deny any such labels of course since they claim the moral high horse. But this is a very unruly horse. And they could well be trampled under next.

That said, the deed has been done. Some SJWs in Singapore have made Floyd and BLM about themselves and race issues in Singapore. So we should now consider what is being said as a result of that. Yet, before doing so, some background information of BLM would be beneficial.


The BLM movement higlights how racial discrimination against black people in the US is a grave issue.

BLM began in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a mixed-race person whose parents were White and Afro-Peruvian, for fatally shooting an unarmed 17-year-old African-American or black high school student Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was apparently a neighbourhood watch coordinator for his gated community. Martin was apparently wearing a hoodie.

In 2014, a black person Michael Brown was shot dead by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson (with allegedly 12 shots). That sparked BLM protests in Ferguson. When a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, further protests started.

Then in Minnesota in May 2020, a black person George Floyd was arrested for allegedly using fake money. As he was being arrested, Derek Chauvin, a White police officer kept his knee on the side of Floyd’s neck for almost 9 minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down. He apparently cried out several times “I can’t breathe … mama”. Floyd died of asphyxiation. The Floyd incident sparked protests in various cities in the US and elsewhere.

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To be clear, there is also racial discrimination against coloured people and recently in the light of COVID-19, against Asian Americans in particular due to the (baseless and illogical) association with the disease.

In fact, there are so many complex issues in the aforesaid events. Police brutality. Use of unnecessary force (whether by the police or non-police persons). Police training and policies about use of force. Abuse of discretion. Free use of guns. Use of violence. The criminal justice system. The jury. Protest. Violent protest. Non-violent protest. Democratic change. Electoral politics. Federal, state and local governments in the US. History of slavery and violence.

The common denominator in these events is the unjustified attitude, and thus action, towards the Other, i.e. people different from themselves. It could be race, ethnicity, skin colour or nationality. It could be religion / no-religion or class or disability or gender or caste or some other distinguishing characteristic. People tend towards tribalism.

Not everyone is servile to tribalistic impulses. Critical self-reflection, examined beliefs and attitudes, actively listening to stories from others, and empathy generally, I think, work to break people out of tribalism.

What the BLM movement does is to draw attention to the injustice and violence experienced by African Americans in the US in this time in history.

For people like me in Singapore who cannot vote to change any government in the US, it would do us all good to listen to the stories being told from the movement.

We can critically examine ourselves and consider how we might have had unjustified negative feelings about black people whether from the US or otherwise, rational or otherwise.

We can talk to friends about the stories we have heard, and the stories of our own failings.

Yet, make no mistake about our own ability to bring change. Unless you’re a US citizen, you can bring as much change about the situation there as a seal in Alaska can solve your traffic woes in Punggol.

Racism in Singapore

Some people import the BLM into Singapore to raise race issues here. I think it is a little strange to do so because BLM is about African Americans’ experiences in the US. Apart from the fact that there is no or little equivalence, it could also be perceived as hijacking other people’s narratives and movements.

I understand that BLM raises issues about racism which is a global problem and can thus provoke a conversation about race in Singapore. To that extent, I agree. But anything more would be to ignore or simplistically reduce the complex social, economic and political problems intertwined with race in the US. In the same vein, it’s like saying the Israel-Palestine conflict should make us reflect on managing ethnic tensions. Hence, I think it would be beneficial to consider the transplant of the issues into Singapore critically.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) ran an article on how BLM provoked reflection on racism in some South-East Asian countries. It mentions how in Malaysia, there have been Indian individuals who have been killed while in police custody.

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Then it talked about Singapore and Chinese privilege. I’m a Chinese person who is very privileged. I have generally not been disadvantaged or mistreated because of my race. (I don’t count my many Malay and Indian friends in JC making endless jokes about how my Chinese penis must be smaller than theirs–this has never been scientifically verified by the way.)

Some people might say that I should therefore not say very much more beyond this point or that I should ‘check my privilege’. To be honest, I believe that would have a chilling effect. It probably does because I see it in myself. I generally dare not speak about certain topics. Yet, I cannot change my race. The important point I think is for people in positions of privilege to listen. And after listening, to act. It would not do us all any good for anyone to be daunted into silence.

There is certainly racism in Singapore. In my not so distant past, I’ve made racist comments that others have checked me for. I’ve listened to friends share about racist comments made about or to them. I’ve also made a documentary on ‘Chindians’, inspired by the experiences of bi-racial persons or Chindians (as they are colloquially known) friends and acquaintances. I was recently involved in a focus group listening to individuals from minority races in Singapore and partners in bicultural marriages share about the race-related experience they have had. These experiences are often not heard of by or among Chinese in Singapore. The recent IPS study also reveals that race is a live fault line that affects people’s work-related treatment and trust in a crisis. I regard race issues in Singapore to be very important. They must be properly and sensitively addressed.

We should listen to thoughtful people writing about race. One such person is Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib. He does not write a lot (probably because he thinks and reads a lot more than he talks–he has 5,000 books!). But when he does, it is well considered. Another is Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh. Someone has compiled a resource bank for understanding racism in Singapore.

Racial privilege, of course, is relative. Between different groups and communities. They’re always contextualised within social power structures.

So while I have tried to listen to stories of Singaporean racial minorities, there is one aspect about race issues in Singapore that I think is often left out of the conversation. And that is what I wish to talk about.

Racism Against Migrant Workers

That is the racial and/or ethnic discrimination against low-wage migrant workers in Singapore.

(There is some degree of racism against high-income foreigners as well, but I am not well acquainted with that.)

Why talk about migrant workers again? They’ve been the focus of our national conversation for the past few months. I think it’s because when I try and dissect the racial discrimination issues against African Americans in the US (to the extent that I know anything about it), I can’t help but keep coming back to migrant workers.

The common themes in stories of African Americans in the US is the pervasive fear that they carry with them everywhere (whether they are billionaires or paupers), the fear that others have of them, the unjust effect (intended or unintended) of laws, policies and exercise of discretion by people in authority on them, structural racism and its impact on well being, and the burying of their stories. From my experience with migrant workers in Singapore, these themes are also obviously present.

That is not to say that other racial minorities in Singapore do not experience racism or that theirs are any more or less serious. It is just that the conversation about racism in Singapore cannot be had without also talking about migrant workers; and this has not generally been the case.

Of course, migrant workers can speak up for themselves. And some have. However, many do not dare to. Because they fear they will lose their jobs and be repatriated and never be allowed to come back to Singapore to work or otherwise. How do I know this?

I am presently a practising lawyer. Apart from my commercial practice, I also advise various persons pro bono when I can. This includes, among others, low-income Singaporeans and also migrant workers. I started volunteering with HealthServe more than a decade ago even before I was called to the Bar. Since then, I’ve worked alongside H.O.M.E., TWC2, and more recently CMSC (Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition) in helping migrant workers where I can. Over the years, I have heard many stories from and about migrant workers. Some become my friends. I’ve researched and written on migrant worker and trafficking in persons issues, and engaged in government consultations and dialogues on the same. I’ve submitted legislative amendment proposals and contributed in strategic advocacy. (Most of this is private.)

Xenophobia and derogatory attitudes against migrant workers in Singapore: it is racism all the same.

Migrant workers hail from China, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Vietnam, etc. and are as much Chinese, Indian, and Others as any Singaporean could be. The CMIO racial categories we are familiar with are just as applicable, although neither the Government nor the public have appeared (as far as I know; don’t POFMA me) to accept this uncomfortable proposition. Not that one needs to accept the categories. Since genetic science tells us that race is not a biological trait.

That of course does not necessarily mean that race becomes immediately irrelevant. There may be little genetic differences between people in my family tree and yours, but that does not mean that my family means nothing to me.

What it does mean is that insofar as Singapore continues to treat race as relevant and race is used to distinguish groups of people, these same categories apply to every individual in Singapore, including migrant workers.

In an alternative hypothetical universe, if one’s great grand-parent had not migrated to Singapore, one could well be a migrant worker working in Singapore. They are distant cousins of sorts.

Of course there are cultural differences between Singaporean Chinese and PRC Chinese or Singaporean Tamils and Tamils from Tamil Nadu. There are cultural differences everywhere as long as there are different demographics. There would also be cultural differences between a Chinese person living in Sentosa Cove and her distant cousin’s family living in Circuit Road, albeit not as large as that of say a Chinese in rural China.

Addressing racism is not about embracing or denying cultural differences. Just as inter-religious understanding is not about declaring all religions or non-religions as one and the same.

So, what is racism as I understand it? In order that we may address it.

What is Racism?

Cambridge Dictionary Online defines racism as “the belief that people’s qualities are influenced by their race and that the members of other races are not as good as the members of your own, or the resulting unfair treatment of members of other races”.

Racism is a belief. A belief that results in action. A belief about a group of people based on their race alone.

Some expressions of racism are intentional. E.g. saying something about a certain race that is not true or justifiable, and making no attempt to verify the same–“people of race X are smelly/greedy/honest”. (Yes, I think even to suppose positive traits on the basis of race is contentious.)

Some are unintentional. E.g. a person performing a type of action, e.g. blackface, that is historically associated with racial discrimination but the person had absolutely no clue. If I may have made an unintentional mistake, I hope people would gently educate me, that I may apologise and learn, and we can all move on.

Some apparent expressions of racism are not actually racism. E.g. saying something that is misquoted and then misinterpreted as being about race when it was not intended as such. The onus is on the other person who might misquote and/or misinterpret to clarify his/her own assumptions and graciously engage the first person directly.

Intention and knowledge matters when it comes to judging individuals. Because racism is about beliefs. The inquiry should be on the alleged racist’s beliefs, intentions and knowledge.

However, it appears that today, the meaning of ‘racism’ has evolved into something trickier. Writing in the Atlantic, John McWhorter says in “Racist Is a Tough Little Word”: “Today, racist means not only burning a cross on someone’s lawn or even telling someone to go home, but also what feels unpleasant to someone of a race—as in what I as a person of that race don’t like. It has gone from being mean to someone to, also, what feels mean to me … an idea that the racist must accept the charge simply because she has offended a person of a race. And that definition of racist goes beyond what many even many level-headed people will feel is appropriate”.

The move from the objective to the subjective is dangerous and produces a chilling effect. Because nobody will ever know what is lurking in your mind or personal history which may trigger you. So everyone will just tiptoe around you all the time. And eventually, nobody would want to talk to or about you except in absolutely generic terms and only on an as necessary basis. Even a simple question like “would you like your tea hot or cold” could become a minefield–e.g. should it be “tea” or “teh” or “cha” or “chai”?

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I understand that unintentional racism stemming from ignorance is harmful. Yes, it offends and hurts people. Yet, should we respond to such behaviour in the same way or extent as we would to intentional racism? How many people have turned from unintentional racism, become ‘woke’, and more than that (because wokeness can be a mere mask of political correctness), have true humility and compassion, as a result of SJWs flaming them for unintentional racism?

So I think what would be helpful is to listen to and dialogue with one another graciously, giving the benefit of doubt, when talking about alleged racism.

Public Expressions of Racism by Singaporeans

When it comes to racism against migrant workers publicly expressed by some Singaporeans, there is however a full display of intention and unadulterated derogatory attitudes.

I will just take one point of reference to illustrate it. TODAY Online posted on Facebook its news coverage of the Government’s announcement about new standards in building dormitories for migrant workers. Some of the comments which ensued are revealing. Here are some examples.

If this comment was made about Singaporean Chinese or Malays or Indians, it would provoke a very different kind of response from other Singaporeans and likely the authorities.

Someone should check if he/she hangs his/her underwear over his/her balcony. Actually don’t many Singaporeans hang their underwear in their balconies?

I am genuinely clueless about what this person is implying about spot checking migrant workers. Suffice to say, this person thinks that migrant workers need to be spot checked for some wrongdoing. Imagine if the person had said Singaporeans of a certain race X need to be spot checked.

What this person needs is a MOB near him/her to spot check his grammar.

These two persons assume that all migrant workers do not understand or practise cleanliness or hygiene and are rowdy. This is as much a myth as Pontianaks cook great wanton mee. Again, imagine if the person had said Singaporeans of a certain race X must understand the importance of cleanliness and hygiene before he/she would be willing to be a neighbour.

This is ironic given that the Government has had to remind all Singaporeans to practise good hygiene and put up advertisements and publicity materials on proper handwashing in recent times.

Or maybe that is what the latter comment really meant–the “management” of the dorm referring to the Singaporean bosses who operate the dorm?

Okay, I’m tired of doing a commentary on every comment. You should get the drift.

As a point of information, apparently, official statistics from 2007 reveal that foreigners, including construction workers, commit proportionally fewer crimes when compared to Singapore residents. The arrest rate for work permit holders was even the lowest among the various groups of foreigners.

What is disturbing about the above comments is they are blatantly racist and they are public. There would, I think, be a very low tolerance for similar comments made about Singaporean racial minorities. However, when it comes to migrant workers, it appears to be a different standard both from other Singaporeans and from the authorities.

(Some) Policy Aspects Regarding Migrant Workers

What the BLM movement should make us consider is not just how individuals may express racist views or acts, but also how laws and policies create an environment which may intentionally or unintentionally result in unjustifiable and unfair treatment of a particular group of vulnerable persons, as well as shape society’s or individuals’ views about particular groups of people.

Migrant workers are vulnerable persons. It has been noted in academic literature and elsewhere that there are aspects of Singapore’s legislative and policy frameworks concerning migrant workers which exclude them in such a manner that exacerbates their vulnerabilities.

And what are their vulnerabilities?

As non-citizens, they will generally be excluded from political processes that produce decisions which affect them. Imagine living in a flat with other people who decide on how you should live without you having a say in it.

Language and cultural differences, and lack of knowledge of the state’s policies, laws and systems, create fear, anxiety and lack of access to rights and recourse. Imagine having to navigate through a courtroom and defend yourself in a court proceeding in Italy when you don’t know any Italian. Even if you were in the right, you probably wouldn’t know how to express it. Even if there is in fact help available to you, you probably wouldn’t know it exists.

Migrant workers are especially vulnerable because most of them lack fluency in English. It is not that anyone or the authorities deliberately set out to disadvantage them. They are simply disadvantaged already by this fact.

This affects e.g. in-principle approval letters, access to resources and healthcare, explaining themselves when dealing with law enforcement officers, miscommunication or meaning being lost in translation during police interrogations and statement taking. To be clear, this is not unique only to migrant workers. I have had Singaporean clients in both civil and criminal proceedings say that their statements were mistranslated or misinterpreted. But the problem is especially prevalent for migrant workers for obvious reasons.

The economic reality of migrant workers, together with the applicable laws and policies, then result in migrant workers being especially vulnerable to possible unfair treatment with little recourse.

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Most migrant workers have to pay a hefty recruitment fee or agent fee to secure a job in Singapore and actually come here. This fee has been observed to be as high as 1 to 2 years of wages.

This enchains migrant workers into fear of anything that threatens their job. That is why when I talk to some migrant workers, they expressly request I do not raise any problem they may have with their employers. They are afraid that if the employer smells any hint of trouble, the employer will simply terminate their employment. And many of such workers suffer psychological distress.

That is why migrant workers are especially vulnerable and prone to be silent about any injustice or poor treatment they face.

That is unlike any non-naturalised Singapore citizen (who have fundamental rights to remain in Singapore, even if in jail or detention: see e.g. Banishment Act, Arts. 13, 129 and 134 of the Constitution; general consensus on international law is that it prohibits nations from stripping individuals of citizenship resulting in statelessness, and thus banishment or expulsion).

This is not to say that there are no migrant workers who commit wrongs or cause trouble or take advantage of their employers. There are always bad sheep everywhere regardless of race, ethnicity or nationality. However, we are talking about how systems intersecting with social reality result in an entire community of individuals being subject to unfair and unjustifiable treatment.

Justice assumes, if not requires, equality. Equality of opportunity to present one’s case to obtain what is right. Injustice, among other things, is when such opportunities are systematically limited or denied to a group of persons that they are unable to properly obtain what is right. That’s what I am talking about here.

From the many accounts of migrant workers, overseas agents tie up with Singapore employment agents to charge such recruitment fees or they do so independently. Sometimes the overseas agents include people from the migrant worker’s own village. In contrast, for Singaporeans, usually it would be the employer who pays the recruiter agent fees (if any).

A simplistic solution would be to prohibit excessive recruitment or agent fees. The Employment Agencies Act limits Singapore employment agents to a maximum of 2 months of the worker’s salary. Unfortunately, most of the recruitment fees are paid by the migrant worker to overseas agents.

Then Minister of Manpower Gan Kim Yong said in Parliament (12 January 2010): “the bulk of such fees may be paid to fellow countrymen in their home countries, beyond Singapore’s jurisdiction.  It is the responsibility of the foreign governments to enforce their laws and take action against the errant employment agencies in their own countries.”

I think he is correct. There is no practicable way (without offending international law and diplomatic ties) that Singapore can pass and enforce a law that criminalises foreigners residing in a foreign country for charging too much fees to foreigners in that country. (Imagine the US enforcing a law that criminalises Singaporeans in Singapore for selling iPhones at too low a price.) Even if Singapore passes such a law, it would be practically unenforceable–it would serve simply as a moral signal. New Zealand’s Immigration Advisers Licensing Act 2007 purports to regulate overseas immigration advisors, but my search through the tribunal decisions reveal that no offshore advisors have been convicted.

I think there’s no practicable legislative tool to solve this particular problem. It has to be a market solution. Something like a gigantic private company who can dominate the market and price out all these overseas agents and middlemen. Some years back, a group of people (including myself) explored this vis-a-vis a large Bangladeshi NGO but there were too many variables and questions about its feasibility. The other option is for private sector actors to hire migrant workers directly cutting out recruitment or agency fees, e.g. Capella Singapore. If all the Government-linked companies were to do the same, and require their subcontractors to do so, that would, I believe, make a large impact.

To aggravate things, some errant employers even charge kickbacks to renew migrant workers’ work passes (usually work permits). This has been made illegal since 2008. I’m not sure what the numbers are now, but it has not been eradicated. Recently in 2020, there was a company director charged for such wrongs.

When employers terminate the employment of migrant workers, the work pass would be cancelled.

Once the work pass is cancelled, it has immediate effect. The employer can repatriate immediately. By right, the employer cannot repatriate if there are outstanding claims by the worker (Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations 2012, Fourth Schedule, Part I, Regulation 23). But an errant employer can repatriate the worker on sudden notice, and then cancel the work pass before the worker has had a chance to file a claim.

If an employee has not been paid salary, she must first make a Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) mediation complaint and only if that fails, may she file a claim in the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT). The TADM mediation complaint can be done online by Singaporeans using Singpass. A migrant worker does not have Singpass. He cannot register for one. He has to make an appointment to file the complaint in person. The ECT portal allows for people who have no Singpass to register for an account to file a claim.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) says it will take action against employers who do such things by disqualifying them from future application of work permit for foreign workers if they deliberately send back workers to prevent them from pursuing their claims. (Minister Ng Eng Hen said this in Parliament on 3 May 2002). By right, migrant workers who are already repatriated can still lodge a written complaint with MOM. But in practice, this would involve multiple challenges for the worker who has been repatriated. First, they must even be aware of their rights and options for recourse. Second, they must access wifi or data from wherever they are at and prepare information and evidence on their mobile phones. Third, they must navigate websites in a language they are not adept in. Fourth, they probably do not have the relevant documents and evidence they need for their claim. Fifth, they would have difficulty communicating with any relevant person, e.g. MOM officer or a lawyer or a counterparty or an NGO staff or volunteer who may be able to assist.

(Purely for interest, as I was researching on the Parliament Hansard reports, I note that this issue has been raised in Parliament over the years: Simon Tay (Nominated Member of Parliament) on 4 September 1998; (now President, then backbencher Member of Parliament of the People’s Action Party) Mdm. Halimah Yacob on 3 May 2002; and Pritam Singh (Member of Parliament from the Workers’ Party) on 21 November 2011. There might have been others who have raised this issue in Parliament so please let me know if there are so that I can edit this and hopefully not be POFMA-ed.)

The vulnerability to swift repatriation means that employers wield a lot of power over migrant workers. In a 2013 survey, researchers found that 65% of injury- and salary-claim migrant workers surveyed reported having been threatened by their employers with premature repatriation. In another 2017 study, researchers also found reports of employers repatriating workers in order to avoid paying them their salary claims.

Hence, there is a drastic difference in outcomes between Singaporean workers having their employment terminated and that of migrant workers. Generally, once migrant workers are terminated, they risk being unable to stay in Singapore to seek recourse.

Even if the migrant worker remains in Singapore after termination of employment to seek recourse (whether for unpaid salary or for compensation for work injuries under the Work Injury Compensation Act (which I have seen many cases of)), the migrant worker will be placed on a “special pass”. This means that he is not allowed to work. It is likely he continues to have a huge debt to repay in respect of the recruitment fee he incurred. And although by law, the employer must still pay for his maintenance and upkeep, it is practically infeasible to expect this when the employer is already being claimed against for payment of salary or compensation for work injuries. In contrast, a local whose employment is terminated may thereafter find alternative jobs, is likely not riddled with a huge debt (in multiples of his salary) and is likely to have some social or family support. Even very poor locals may be able to tap on government assistance like ComCare and CDC grants. Migrant workers may not.

By right, MOM may grant an exception and allow the migrant worker a change of employer while he is on special pass. “In such instances, MOM may allow these workers to change employers and continue to work here on a case-by-case basis if MOM determines that they have not committed any offence.  Foreign workers who are needed as prosecution witnesses would be issued special passes which will allow them to continue to stay in Singapore.  They are also allowed to be employed by another employer under the Temporary Job Scheme (TJS).” Minister Gan Kim Yong said in Parliament on 21 October 2008. Yet, it is not clear what considerations are taken into account for MOM to grant such exceptions. Must the existing employer consent?

Even if the migrant worker is able to access the possibility of seeking recourse, there are usually many challenges to stack the odds against him. Salary claim proceedings in the ECT and the preceding TADM mediation process require that parties have no lawyers to represent them. The idea is that lawyers would otherwise complicate and lengthen the process (which as a lawyer myself, I would say is probably true!). Unfortunately, this is especially challenging for the migrant worker because he would be disadvantaged by language disability, a lack of resources to obtain legal advice, a lack of documentation to support his claim, and a lack of witness corroboration. The mediator or tribunal is supposed to be a neutral third party so they can’t help him.

Migrant workers often lack documentation. I’ve seen many cases where migrant workers tell me they signed documents but were not given copies. I’ve handled a case where the worker was made to sign blank vouchers. The employer produced the vouchers in court with details filled in by her. Even so, the employer was so slipshod that she filled in details which were contradictory. So it was by sheer fortune that the worker still succeeded in the case.

The workers lack witnesses. It is likely that any relevant witnesses would be other migrant workers or employees who are afraid to testify against the employer.

Another problem is that workers were often paid their salary in cash. Some NGOs have long advocated for it to be made mandatory for salary payment to be by bank transfer to reduce the likelihood of disputes. Previously, there was a problem of local banks not willing to open bank accounts for workers since there would be low cash savings i.e. it’s actually a cost to maintain the accounts. There’s also the problem of the minimum daily account balance fee. However, now banks do open accounts for workers. Credit should be given to the NGOs who advocated for this and to MOM for working with the banks to facilitate this. However, it was still not mandatory.

Most recently, because of COVID-19, MOM mandated employers to pay workers in dormitories (i.e. not workers living outside of dormitories) salaries by bank transfer and to help their workers open bank accounts.

It took a pandemic of such a scale to make this happen. Why? I speculate that the problem is not that MOM / the Singapore Government does not want to do it. It may be that they have always wanted to do it. It is probably the Singaporean employers who resisted. But in a crisis like this, there are probably no good reasons for resisting.

And to put things into perspective, it’s not like out of the almost 1.2 million foreign workers who are Work Permit and S Pass holders here, 50% of them have salary disputes or work injuries every year. It has been reported by TADM that there were “4.45 salary claims per 1,000 foreign claimants [SIC, I think employees] [in 2018] and 4.41 in 2017. About 60 per cent came from workers in the construction sector, where claim numbers have been “high” over recent years but were exacerbated by weak growth in the sector, the report said”, that “[c]ases lodged by foreign workers were nearly three times more than that by locals … The typical duration of unpaid wage claims by foreign employees was about two to 6.5 months, compared with the 0.5 to 2 months for locals”.

We’re talking about 0.44% of foreign workers per year making salary claims.

As regards work injuries, there does not appear to be a breakdown of foreign vs local workers. The 2019 Workplace Safety and Health Report indicates 13,779 workplace injuries or 396 out of 100,000 (0.396%) in 2019. (However, I’ve previously done an internal research report suggesting that the true workplace injury numbers are likely more than reported because of the work injury reporting regulations under WICA prior to its amendment which only take effect September 2020. Long story, but it’s linked to a phenomenon relating to employers’ arrangements with private doctors as alluded to in this high profile disciplinary case involving Dr Wong Him Choon.) It would be safe to assume that a large proportion of these involve migrant workers since they are the predominant manual labour force involved in physically high risk work like construction and ship repair, etc.

Another point of interest is the dormitory issue. COVID-19 cast a spotlight on dormitories. Some have raised that the issue of migrant workers’ housing conditions has already been raised over the years prior to. Did the Government truly listen to the diverse voices from civil society and international organisations, and take action?

On this note, I should add that to focus on the private sector employers and dormitory operators profiting from this is to bark up the wrong tree. We should expect private actors to maximise profits within legal limits (and sometimes outside of legal limits, especially if there is weak enforcement and unclear legal rules). Reading comments online and in virtual panel discussions, I realised that many people assume that there are no standards at all–they call for the Government to introduce standards. But of course there are existing standards.

And if one were to trace the historical developments in policies on workers’ dormitories, one would realise that the Government has been trying to improve standards on dormitories over the years through many means, by way of legislation such as the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act and the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, guidelines (e.g. Singapore National Environment Agency – Code of Practice on Environmental Health, 2005 cited in this 2009 IFC/European Bank paper), regulatory codes of some legal force such as SCDF’s Fire Code, URA guidelines and more URA guidelines, standards on acceptable accommodation, BCA tender requirements, or building specifications. Just about more than 10 years ago, I visited a migrant workers’ dormitory and there were 3-bunk beds with 20 people in a room the size of an average room in a 3-4oom HDB flat. That was the norm. Today, one would be hard pressed to find workers in such a state. Can it be better? Of course it can be better. It’s a question of calculus: of costs, degree of market intervention, stakeholders’ pushback, and political will.

Relationship and Leadership

There are no easy answers to the many issues above. There are always policy trade-offs that must be made. A balance of interests. Giving migrant workers certain rights or better standards necessarily means certain costs. Some of these costs are not easily quantifiable. It’s not a question of whether to pay 50 cents more for our chicken rice at the coffee shop, which many Singaporeans already seem resistant to (while willing to pay multiple times more for other edibles; even so, addressing this issue is not simple at all, because you can’t legislate an increase of chicken rice price without various repercussions).

For instance, if the Singapore government were to permit migrant workers to stay in Singapore to find alternative employment and seek legal recourse if they have been terminated. How long should they be so permitted? Will there be enough accommodation for them? How many more dormitories and other housing options will need to be created? What will be the size of the increase in population in Singapore as a result? (Note that in December 2019, the total number of S Pass and Work Permit holders was close to 1.2 million.) If just 20% of these foreign workers stay on in Singapore beyond the termination of their employment, that would be 240,000 additional persons in Singapore. If they fall sick or get injured, do we have enough healthcare capacity for them? And if they are down and out, who is going to pay for their basic needs? NGOs relying on the charity of the nebulous general public? Taxpayers’ money? How much of taxpayers’ money has to be spent to increase the national capacity for such additional workers?

The government has to consider these questions not merely thinking about migrant workers’ well being, or what is right in principle, or what is practically feasible, but whether Singaporeans would object and register their objection at the electoral ballot box.

And that is where the public expressions of racism by Singaporeans come back in. How many Singaporeans see migrant workers as nothing but labourers here to do the work they don’t want their children to do? If this is all they see of migrant workers, it is little wonder why they would object to anything more for migrant workers.

Yet, what is facilitating such attitudes in the first place? Surely public policy and social segregation has a part to play in (intentionally or unintentionally) facilitating authentic relationships between Singaporeans and migrant workers, and conversely the prevention of such social integration.

It has been argued that the regulatory framework for migrant workers views them as mere economic actors, not social actors, creating the perception that they are here to work and nothing more. When they enter into shared public spaces, they are viewed with disdain.

Think about it. How many shared spaces are available for migrant workers and locals to mingle at? Before the Little India riots, apparently, 100,000 workers would flock there every Sunday. After the riots, a deliberate decision was made to create recreational spaces and plant service providers away into the dormitories.

Imagine that every person you share a flat with seeing one another simply by their use to one another (a transactional lens): the one who prepares me food, the one who pays the utility bills, etc., rather than family or friends (a relational lens). That can’t be good for co-existence. What if such a transactional view is modelled (unwittingly or otherwise) by the Government?

Photo by Tomas Andreopoulos from Pexels

Contrast this with race relations among Singaporeans. The Government has taken great pains to enforce and emphasise the need for the ethnic integration policy (EIP) in public housing. Let me quote directly this Government webpage explaining the importance of the policy:

“Once people of different ethnic groups live together, they are not just walking the corridors and taking the same elevator up and down, SM Tharman explained. ‘The kids go to the same kindergarten, the kids go to the same primary school, because all over the world young kids go to school very near to where they live, and they grow up together.’

The EIP has helped to maintain racial and social harmony in Singapore by providing opportunities for social mixing among Singaporeans of different races.”

That is not the case with migrant workers. They are mostly housed in dormitories located in industrial areas at the outskirts of heartland Singapore.

If the Government takes leadership in implementing the ethnic integration policy despite apparent racial preferences of Singaporeans which might have resulted in ethnic enclaves in the late 1980s, then why is it not taking leadership now with regard to migrant workers?

If it claims to exercise leadership by introducing a reserved Presidential Election to ensure minority races are in the running, or increasing GST even against the popular opinion, why would it not do so with a (I think) slightly less controversial policy of deliberately increasing integration between locals and migrants?

Just recently, the Government has announced improved standards in new dormitories to be built and Minister Lawrence Wong, when making the announcement, said “‘Some of these new dormitories will be built near residential areas’ … as he urged Singaporeans not to have a “not in my backyard” mentality towards these developments.”

This is one big step forward. And I believe there will be more.

Yet, this takes me back to where we first started on this topic. It was on the Facebook post sharing this news report that all the racist comments cited above were made.

What exactly are we as a nation building? Is our future one of bigger and better dormitories? Or is our future one of kind people hospitable to one and all, regardless of race, language or religion?

If what might counter fear and derogatory attitudes toward the Other is friendship and kindness (aided by technology and platforms like Nextdoor, which has an equivalent here in Singapore, GoodHoodsg or specifically for migrant workers, WePals under CMSC, which I helped to start), then where is that friendship and kindness to be found presently in the online discourse about race, BLM and the Other?

How can we become such kind and hospitable people if we cannot truly dialogue about race and social movements without shaming, bullying, and harassment? How can we build a nation by destroying ourselves?

How can we embrace the Other when we cannot even have gracious honest conversations with those like us?

Is this the future of our nation? If it is, then I am very afraid.


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