Dear S'poreans, stop pointing fingers at the govt for the dormitory clusters. We're all responsible.

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | April 11, 2020, 03:11 PM

OPINION: Singaporeans should stop "pointing fingers" and start taking collective responsibility for the migrant worker dormitory clusters.

As the Covid-19 clusters involving foreign worker dormitories continue to grow, there has been a debate on how this could have been allowed to happen.

In this piece, Jeremy Lim & Michael Cheah explain what they think is needed and how Singaporeans can help:

  • Accusations of malign neglect, blame and finger pointing are unhelpful, and we need to stand together in times like these.
  • Singaporeans can help by trusting the leadership, contributing through organised channels and keeping morale high.
  • This painful episode needs to be a wake-up call for reforms in legislation, and for the working conditions of migrant workers to be re-examined.

Jeremy Lim is the chair of the medical services committee at HealthServe, a local non-governmental organisation that offers medical care, counselling, case work, social assistance, and other support to migrant workers in the community.

Michael Cheah is the Executive Director of Healthserve.

We reproduce the piece here:


By Jeremy Lim & Michael Cheah

It has been a week since Singaporeans woke up to the sobering news of multiple clusters amongst the migrant worker dormitories.

As of Apr. 10, hundreds of workers have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and close to 20,000 are locked down as their dormitories were gazetted ‘isolation areas’.

Even as the government scrambles to contain this crisis, a loud debate on- and offline has been raging about how this could have been allowed to happen and the larger issue of why Singapore closes her eyes to what veteran diplomat Professor Tommy Koh has described as ”disgraceful” -- the way we treat and allow migrant workers to be treated.

The reality is painful, but we as a country need to confront it, take responsibility and collectively rise to the challenge of moral leadership.

We need to stop pointing fingers, and start standing together

Accusations of malign neglect, blame and finger pointing are rife now but when the dust settles, we will realize that even as our index finger points outward, the other three point back at ourselves.

Policy-makers have justified regulations accepting sub-standard practices, saying costs will increase and Singaporeans don’t care or want to pay these costs; employers and dormitory operators bemoan tight budgets, defending their actions as the best that can be done with meagre resources, and we as Singaporeans as a whole have not cared enough for anyone to really bother.

Activists advocating for improved conditions have been ignored or even worse, vilified as trouble makers, and side-lined.

The time for recrimination will come but the immediate need in this crisis is to stand together as one people.

There are almost 1 million Work Permit holders and as the number of cases soars, it has to be ‘all hands on deck’.

The uniformed services have been mobilized, moving quickly to stabilize the situation, bringing in needed infrastructure, food supplies, cleaning services and the like. The health services have also ramped up the 3T’s: testing, tracking and treating.

It is heartening that the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have stepped up and even more heartening to see Singaporeans from all walks of life coming forward to help with cash, with skills and with time.

What specifically is needed and what can lay people do?

#1: Trust the leadership

First, trust the government to lead.

Yes, there is anger at this even happening, and a deep sense of schadenfreude but in a crisis of this scale, the government with all its resources has to be front and center, coordinating what every party does and doesn’t do.

#2: Contribute through organised channels

Second, contribute through organized channels. The NGOs are coordinating efforts and are in turn liaising with the dorm task force so as to target services and minimize duplications.

The world of migrant workers is a world largely unknown and unfamiliar to most Singaporeans; trust the NGOs, especially those with years of working with the migrant workers to know what the needs are.

For us in HealthServe, our focus is health and mental well-being, and in this crisis, our efforts are concentrated in two areas: ensuring the workers have easy access to accurate and timely health-related information in their native languages and ramping up our existing counselling service to meet the greatly expanded needs.

To this end, beyond financial contributions, we have put out a call for volunteers who can help in these areas- translators, counsellors and clinical services.

Other NGOs will serve different needs and will appeal for different skill sets.

#3: Keep spirits up

Third, uplift spirits and morale. Imagine your child or younger sibling in a foreign land, seeing his friends falling ill and being taken away.

Then being told at short notice that he could not leave his room for 14 days, running short of food and other essentials.

The situation has calmed down as manpower minister Josephine Teo has updated, but anxiety and fear will undoubtedly persist.

Let the migrant workers ‘locked down’ know you care, and that you appreciate the sacrifice they are making for our collective good.

Various NGOs are organizing for virtual and physical cards and other tokens of goodwill. Support them!

This crisis needs to be a wake-up call for us

Once this settles, and the sun comes out again for all of us, we hope we don’t “waste a good crisis”. This painful episode which we are living through now, needs to be a wake-up call and an enduring one.

We will need major reforms to legislation and standards to improve the living environment, dormitories will have to be revamped and working conditions will need to be re-examined.

These will cost money and we should accept the higher charges that will be passed to us as consumers.

Most importantly, however, is the change in us: are we ready to embrace the migrant worker and welcome him into our society?

On this point, we are encouraged. From HealthServe’s inception in 2006 to now, we have seen a decided uptick in volunteers, and were very heartened to hear from one university administrator that migrant worker-related charities were one of the most popular organizations students volunteered at.

Currently, HealthServe is focusing on tele-counselling services for distressed workers and on the provision of advice and information through this Covid-19 website. Migrant workers can also call this dedicated hotline (+65 31384443) if they need support.

Longstanding biases will take time to erase but Singapore is changing, one life at a time and one silver lining out of this is the rediscovery of our humanity.

Covid-19 has been likened to a war, and it is apt to remember the words of one of America’s greatest presidents, Franklin D Roosevelt, who led his people through the Second World War:

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

DISCLAIMER: All op-eds published on Mothership, including this one, are viewpoints expressed by the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of Mothership.

Top photo via MOM.