Shanmugam slams Zaobao forum letter on foreign workers as racist & xenophobic

He said he was disturbed when he received a transcript of the letter.

Belmont Lay | April 18, 2020, 07:28 PM

Home affairs and law minister K. Shanmugam has slammed a forum letter published in Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao that linked the Covid-19 outbreak in dormitories to foreign workers' personal hygiene and living habits.

The minister said the letter was xenophobic and that it would not be wrong for people to read it as racist speech.

He said the letter published on April 14 also showed "deep insensitivity" and a lack of understanding of why there has been Covid-19 transmission in Singapore's foreign worker population.

The letter was written in response to the number of cases in dormitories that has soared to the thousands and now forms the majority of new Covid-19 cases in Singapore.

This is in contrast to the average number of cases in the local community that has stayed low and stable in recent days.

Instead of pointing fingers, Shanmugam said, Singaporeans should be coming together to take care of the foreign workers here.

Shanmugam also cautioned Singaporeans against making sweeping statements about foreign workers.

"As Singaporeans, I would say, whether Chinese, Indian or Malay, or Eurasians, others, we are really kind, compassionate, generous people," he stated.

"We are bigger than the sentiments expressed in that letter."

Part of interview on Facebook video

In his lengthy exchanges with a Zaobao reporter, a portion of which on video was shared by the minister on Facebook, Shanmugam credited foreign workers for helping to build Singapore's Housing Board flats and infrastructure and keeping the country clean.

"Our duty as Singaporeans, really, is to show them empathy and take care of them," he said.

Shanmugam said at the start of the video where he called the letter "xenophobic":

When I received the translation, I found it quite disturbing.

The direct answer to your question -- I do find it xenophobic. The writer in essence says that it is the foreign workers' habits, background and poor hygiene are to blame for the rise of Covid-19 infections amongst them.

Then she says they eat under trees, they need to chat. Lots of people need to chat. They eat under trees because that's where they are working and they don't have a better place to sit and eat.

Let me put this bluntly. I think it shows deep insensitivity, the letter, and it also shows a lack of understanding of why we have this transmission of Covid-19 amongst our foreign worker population.

Also, I think the letter reveals some underlying racism. Because it typecasts an entire group several hundred thousands of them, as lacking in personal hygiene on the basis of their backgrounds, says they all come from backward countries.

It doesn't explicitly mention race, so one can argue that it is not racist because it doesn't talk about race, but lots of people interpret it as racist, because where do many of our foreign workers come from?

And then you say about backward countries, you're talking about their habits, people will read it as racist and I don't think they will be wrong to read it that way.

Communal style of living root of Covid-19 spread

Shanmugam said the communal style of living in dorms is the root of Covid-19's spread, and it is not a question of personal habits.

"Personal habits are extremely important: washing of hands, keeping yourself clean," Shanmugam told Zaobao.

"But when you put people together, when they sleep in the same room, they cook together and they are in close proximity over a long period of time, of course there will be high levels of transmission, just like we know (there are) also transmissions in households."

Singapore built by foreign workers

It is also because of foreign workers that 57 per cent of Singaporeans have been able to become professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMET) because of foreign workers, Shanmugam added.

"They clean Singapore, they build our HDB flats, they build our buildings, they handle our waste management, they form the base of our economy," Shanmugam said.

"And therefore they are helping us build our prosperity."

"I don't think this is the time to say it is their own fault," he added.

Shanmugam also said the Singapore community has mobilised to help foreign workers here.

The government has stepped in as well to ensure they continue to receive medical care and daily meals, besides their salaries.

"All of these gestures -- I'm not sure that many other countries are doing it -- are really to assure the foreign workers that they are not just locked down in their dorms and left there to fend for themselves without any idea of what's going to happen to them," he said.

"That's not the way."


The forum letter writer Lee Shiwan, who penned the inflammatory piece that has been called out by local minorities and those in authority, had insinuated by asking if foreign workers are responsible for the Covid-19 outbreak in the dormitories.

The writer, a woman, wrote that this was the case as they "like to gather and do not pay attention to personal hygiene".

She also wrote that many foreign workers brought with them habits came from backward countries, "such as eating with their hands and eating under trees".

Zaobao has said in a statement that its letters pages do not represent the newspaper's position and publish a diversity of views.

Zaobao's forum editor Yap Pheng Hui said the paper had run stories a day before the letter about the conditions of foreign worker dormitories here and highlighted that the workers are together in this fight against Covid-19.

Yap said: "The intention of Zaobao in publishing the (letter) was to present a differing opinion so readers would be able to appreciate the diversity of viewpoints in society."

Yap also revealed that most letters that Zaobao has received were against the position taken by Lee.

The original letter, he rationalised, had allowed for robust debates and allowed "a wider audience to reflect upon and understand the impact of the pandemic".