Coronavirus pandemic

Activist's article in US magazine on dorms gives distorted view: Singapore ambassador

Some residents of the S11 Dormitory in Punggol on April 21, 2020.
Some residents of the S11 Dormitory in Punggol on April 21, 2020.PHOTO: ST FILE

An article in the American publication Foreign Policy (FP) on Covid-19 cases in migrant worker dormitories presents a "distorted view of Singapore's response" to the outbreak, said the Republic's Ambassador to the United States.

Singapore's response to Covid-19 is guided by science and its best understanding of the disease, and this applies to all segments of the population, Mr Ashok Kumar Mirpuri said in a letter.

Any approach to migrant workers' welfare must account for practical realities, he said, adding that the article's grim picture is belied by the vast majority who choose to continue working in Singapore well beyond their first contracts.

The May 6 article by Singaporean activist Kirsten Han - Singapore Is Trying To Forget Migrant Workers Are People - criticised what she described as the Government's "utilitarian, dehumanising approach". Mr Mirpuri sent his response on May 21 to FP's editor-in-chief Jonathan Tepperman. Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs made the letter public on its website yesterday, saying FP refused to publish it despite having carried letters from accredited ambassadors to the US and spokesmen from various foreign ministries last year.

FP did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Ms Han said policies and public discussions in Singapore segregated migrant workers "both physically and rhetorically" from the rest of the population. She cited how Government and daily reports treated migrant worker infections separately from "community" cases of citizens, permanent residents and expatriates.

Mr Mirpuri said Singapore's Government has taken a three-pronged strategy for migrant workers in dorms, including aggressive testing that has tested one of every 15 workers so far - with the aim to eventually test all workers. More than half the workers who tested positive had not had symptoms at the point of being tested, and probably would not have been tested at all in other countries, he said.

He added that the Government cares for the workers' welfare, giving free treatment to those who show symptoms "just like everyone else". Meals and Internet access are catered for workers at the dorms, he added, while support is also given to employers so workers can continue to get paid, with arrangements made for workers to remit money to their families.

Mr Mirpuri noted that 3,000 public officers have been deployed to support dorm operators and employers.

"The scope and scale of our efforts reflects the responsibility we feel."

Housing migrant workers in land-scarce Singapore can never be straightforward, he said. The Government met this challenge with dorms built to specified standards, that have been raised.

Any communal living space has risks in an infectious outbreak, Mr Mirpuri added.

Recognising the risks, the Government in January told dorm operators to take precautions, more stringent than those for the general population. When cases spiked, a massive effort was mobilised to take care of workers.

Noting that some workers had remained in Singapore for 20 years, he said: "Their revealed preference shows the reality of the migrant worker experience in Singapore. They reflect what the Government and Singaporeans have done to care for the migrant workers in our midst."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2020, with the headline 'Activist's article in US magazine on dorms gives distorted view: S'pore ambassador'. Print Edition | Subscribe