In early April, my Instagram feed began to be flooded with stories of seaside hotel rooms, suites with oval balconies, and velvety desserts sent over by room service.
These were the updates from several of my Singaporean and expatriate friends, who had returned to Singapore from the United Kingdom and the United States. Upon landing, they were tested for COVID-19 and assigned these quarantine spots, despite testing negative. Many of them landed in such 5-star resorts, feeling more thrilled than frustrated at the prospect of self-isolating.
After all, they were being subjected to nothing less than luxury.
In the meantime, another community is being confined in circumstances vastly different from what is described above.
On April 6, 20,000 migrant workers in Singapore were quarantined in three dormitories. The move came after a surge in cases among workers. The government announced that the dormitories would be sealed off for a 14-day period, in order to ensure the safety of both the workers and the general public. Officials further stated that workers will continue to receive their salaries.
While in isolation, they will be given three meals per day, have their temperatures checked twice daily, and have access to masks and hand sanitisers.
But grave reports regarding this living situation soon surfaced. Some workers have stated that a single room may house up to 12 workers, making social distancing virtually impossible. Reports from the Straits Times, one of Singapore’s leading English dailies, reveal that the rooms are brimming with cockroaches, multiple toilets are overflowing, and workers are made to queue for food. According to some reports, there are no air conditioning units or WiFi.
For migrant workers confined in the dormitory clusters, neither hygiene nor personal health is ensured. The steep rise of cases across the island is emerging primarily within this community.
As of April 20, Singapore has a confirmed total of 6,588 cases. Over 90 percent of those cases are from those dormitories.
In response, local NGOs have begun urgent fundraising efforts, expressing their dismay and concern. Amnesty International issued a statement calling the situation a very probable “recipe for disaster, unless basic rights are respected”.
On April 16, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said that major adjustments are being made in order to minimise the number of cases in the dormitories. In a Facebook post, she wrote that there was “no question” that the migrants’ living conditions must be improved. According to official numbers, more than 200,000 migrants in Singapore are housed over 43 dormitories.
While the country has been widely applauded for its handling of the global pandemic, the treatment of migrant workers sheds light on an underlying social divide. COVID-19 continues to highlight socio-economic barriers globally, drawing attention to those with little access to healthcare and the inability to practice social distancing.
The situation in Singapore is no different. Privilege has never been more perceptible.
I recognize it in my own life now more than ever, as the daughter of a Singaporean expatriate and a permanent resident of the country. My parents frequently cite the healthcare system, standard of living, and government efficiency as reasons why they take pride in having raised their children here. It is painful, but pertinent, to admit that it took the global pandemic for me to sincerely acknowledge the inequalities of this city-state.
The people who built and continue to maintain the skyscrapers, pristine hotels, and glossy offices of Singapore are frequently and undeniably regarded as the subaltern. Dormitories and global circumstances aside, this particular group of people is vulnerable year-round. There are over a million foreign migrant workers in Singapore, from countries like India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. For years, groups like Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics have advocated for the empowerment and rights of these workers, who systematically face unpaid wages, unfair living conditions, lack of legal assistance and a number of other concerns.
But the disparity between being quarantined in sublime, serviced hotel rooms and dingy dormitories speaks to something larger. The daily circumstances of migrant workers have now put their lives in danger. It appears that the government adheres and further elevates the status of others while rendering migrant workers to be second-class citizens.
This is a significant flaw in Singapore’s society. A country that has garnered acclaim for its institutional excellence should be capable – and willing – to prove that it can prioritise the rights of all its inhabitants.
Perhaps the biggest irony of it all is that the very people who helped physically build these 5-star establishments are subjected to conditions that are so drastically different. There are no lavish menus for hand-delivered daily meals, seafront views for a dash of fresh air, or double beds for just one occupant.
It’s almost impossible to ignore that those migrant workers are not given even a fraction of that treatment.