Bilahari Kausikan & Tommy Koh agree that Zaobao forum letter criticising migrant workers is xenophobic

Bilahari added that such a sentiment against migrant workers borders on racism.

Kayla Wong | Matthias Ang | April 17, 2020, 04:58 PM

Two people well-known among Singapore's diplomat community, Bilahari Kausikan and Tommy Koh, have agreed that a recent Lianhe Zaobao forum letter on the outbreak of Covid-19 in the dormitories of foreign workers struck a xenophobic note.

Singapore has xenophobia which borders on racism

In a Facebook post put up on Apr. 17, retired diplomat Bilahari criticised the letter as "silly" and noted that Singapore has its "own" xenophobia which borders on racism.

Bilahari's post also contained a link to a New York Times article on the rise of xenophobia and nationalism in China, now that the Covid-19 situation has stabilised.

Adding "that's not the way to go," Bilahari said that most foreign workers were invisible to most Singaporeans and that "We did drop the ball" on the matter.

Bilahari then described the moment that Singaporeans took notice of the foreign workers to be as such:

"When we do notice our FWs, the reaction, as exemplified in this letter, is one of cultural autism of such breathtaking magnitude, that it is only my innate politeness 😇 and the writer’s good intentions that prevents me from using the ‘R’ word."

Hoped that the letter does not reflect the readers' views

He then highlighted that the letter was a demonstration of good intentions being separated from "cultural empathy" or common sense, and questioned if the editor who published the letter shared the author's sentiment.

Subsequently, Ambassador-at-Large Koh commented on Bilahari's post, stating that he agreed with Bilahari and hoped that the letter was not reflective of the views of the newspaper's readers.

Here is the post in full, with Koh's comment below:

Screenshot from Bilahari Kausikan Facebook

Screenshot from Bilahari Kausikan Facebook

Zaobao publishes a letter rebutting original letter

In response to Koh's comment, another user further pointed out that Lianhe Zaobao had published a second letter in response to the first one, and that the first letter was unlikely to be a reflection of the paper's views, by virtue of the fact that the second one was published.

Koh acknowledged the reply.

Screenshot from Bilahari Kausikan Facebook

What did the second letter say?

Published on Apr. 16, the second letter was titled "Please do not use coloured lens to see the migrant workers" and was written by Shen Jia En.

In the letter, Shen stated that she had read the initial letter written by Li Shiwan titled "No need for pointless criticism during a pandemic" and noted that Li had criticised the hygiene habits of the workers as the cause of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Shen said that the comparison was unfounded as living in an HDB flat can't be compared to living in a dorm room of up to 12 people.

In some cases, over 160 people could stay in one dorm, with only one toilet per floor.

Shen added that stereotyping the entire community was "extremely irresponsible".

Shen also said that Covid-19 did not discriminate "against race, nationality, beliefs, or wealth" and called for Singaporeans not to treat migrant workers differently from anyone else.

Top image collage by Sulaiman Daud and via