In 2013, Khaw Boon Wan suggested housing foreign workers on offshore islands

Khaw was the Minister for National Development at that time.

Matthias Ang | May 14, 2020, 04:55 PM

Healthy foreign workers are currently being re-homed in floating hotels in order to keep them Covid-19-free.

This move to relocate healthy migrant workers from cramped dormitories was first mentioned by Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong on April 9, in order to make the situation more manageable.

On Apr. 12, a Facebook update by Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan revealed that some of these hotels were docked at a restricted area in Tanjong Pagar Terminal.

Housing migrant workers offshore has been proposed prior to the Covid-19 outbreak

However, this is not the first time that the idea to house migrant workers offshore has been raised before.

A similar idea was mooted in Parliament on Apr. 8, 2013, by Khaw when he was the Minister for National Development at that time.

Khaw had said Singapore was "open to such an idea of housing some foreign workers at nearby offshore islands".

He further highlighted that Singapore had also hosted workers on Jurong Island Pulau Brani, at "different times, scales and duration".

Khaw gave a caveat, however, that this could not necessarily be done on all offshore islands, due to limited supporting infrastructural availability, such as sewers, and other planning considerations.

He then concluded:

"But we will continue to look for suitable opportunities to help us house the foreign workers properly and without causing too much inconvenience to them or to Singaporeans."

Idea suggested in wake of 2013 Little India riots

The idea surfaced in public again in the wake of the Little India riots on Dec. 8, 2013.

At that time, the riots had been sparked by an accident in which a 33-year-old worker from Chennai, India, was run over by a bus he had been chasing after while drunk.

The riots saw the driver of the bus threatened, along with the Singapore Civil Defence Force and Singapore Police Force officers arriving at the scene being attacked by the workers.

A total of 25 workers were subsequently charged, while 57 were deported and banned from returning to Singapore.

In the riot's aftermath, the South China Morning Post reported that a minority of Singaporeans came to support the idea previously put forward by Khaw, on the grounds that the workers would be in a safe environment and that they would be more disciplined with their spending.

However, there were also Singaporeans who criticised such a stance and called for migrant workers to be better integrated into society instead.

Committee of Inquiry into riot dismisses living conditions as root cause

A Committee of Inquiry (COI) launched to look into the incident concluded in July 2014 that dissatisfaction with employment and living conditions was not the root cause of the riot, according to The Straits Times.

Rather, the cause of the riot was due to a misperception of the accident, with alcohol being a major contributing factor though not a direct cause.

However, the report also stated that accommodation could still be improved, as part of its observations to the Ministry of Manpower.

It added that while "the housing available to foreign workers in Singapore ranks well in the world", the COI supported initiatives to improve foreign workers' accommodation facilities, "in terms of services, amenities, and recreation".

Top image collage from Khaw Boon Wan Facebook