Singapore's purpose-built dormitories surpass international standards in all areas - from amenities to living space - and have always been a step ahead of those in other countries, a dorm operator told a public hearing into the Dec 8 riot in Little India yesterday.
From mandatory free Wi-Fi Internet to air-conditioned television rooms and gyms, standards that took effect in June last year for new dorm tenders are signs of how the Government has raised norms over the years, said Mr Willy Ng, who operates a 3,000-bed dorm in Kaki Bukit as well as one in Dubai.
The standards required of dorm operators here surpass those set by the World Bank for operators who want to secure a loan to build a dorm in a developing country, he added.
But he also agreed there was a severe shortage of dorm beds, which number about 200,000, for the 770,000 work permit holders living in Singapore.
Earlier in the hearing, representatives of migrant worker rights groups had raised the issue of working and living conditions as possible causes of worker unhappiness here.
"By all measures, even way back more than 10 years ago when dormitories started in Singapore, Singapore has always maintained a higher standard in terms of living conditions," said Mr Ng, adding that "other areas peg their standards to Singapore's".
Minimum standards for living space have also been raised over the years, said Mr Ng, who used his own dormitory as an example. Before 2008, there were 26 workers in each 72 sq m room in the dormitory, but this was reduced to 20 workers that year. For new dorms, standards that took effect last year allow only 16 workers to be housed in a room of that size.
A standards document presented by Mr Ng even detailed requirements for the type and number of trees to be planted, as well as different essentials such as rice, cooking oil and sugar, among others, to be sold at a built-in minimart, whose prices cannot exceed those of supermarkets here.
When asked how the Government ensured that older dormitories here met the new standards, Mr Ng said these were conditions that had to be met before landlords such as the Urban Redevelopment Authority or JTC Corporation would approve lease top-ups or intensifications of land use.
"Our Government has always stressed how productively the land should be put to use, and therefore how you intensify your property and you increase the standards is part of that requirement," he said.
But while purpose-built dormitories in Singapore are held to such standards, Mr Ng said the same may not hold true for other forms of worker housing, which include converted flats, shophouses and terraced houses.
He agreed with committee chairman G. Pannir Selvam that the ratio of dorm beds to foreign workers here showed "a terrible shortage".
"The number of available beds is never fixed because it depends on how the Government clamps down on illegal housing," said Mr Ng. Bed numbers would fall in a clampdown. He noted that land scarcity meant the Government has historically been reluctant to release land for long-term use as worker dormitories.
On Tuesday, a Ministry of Manpower representative told the committee there were 49 purpose-built dormitories here with over 200,000 beds, compared to about 770,000 work permit holders.