Forum: Culturally insensitive to refer to workers' eating habits as unhygienic

A resident at Westlite Papan Dormitory gets a swab test from medical personnel on April 21, 2020. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

I refer to the forum letter published in Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao last week that linked the Covid-19 outbreak in dormitories to foreign workers' personal hygiene and living habits.

The writer said the foreign workers, in particular those of South Asian origin, contributed to the spread of the coronavirus in their dormitories.

She alluded to the fact that these workers come from "backward countries" and have poor personal hygiene.

I am alarmed that the writer holds such sentiments and am saddened by her cultural insensitivity in implying that it is unhygienic for these workers to eat with their hands.

At first blush, that criticism appears just xenophobic.

But upon closer examination, the criticism is both culturally insensitive and racist in a multiracial and multicultural nation like ours.

The writer perhaps failed to consider that our Malay brethren in Singapore as well as others of South Asian origin eat with their hands too.

I am part Peranakan and have therefore eaten with my hands from time to time. For example, I frequently use my hands to eat South Indian curry - it is not only practical but somehow also more satisfying, or, in our local patois, "shiok".

Being of the Merdeka Generation, I grew up in a time when Singapore was a "backward country".

In the 1950s and 1960s, by First World standards, we in Singapore would have been regarded as an unhygienic people.

A frequent refrain of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was how he had to get Singaporeans, including a majority of Chinese residents, to stop their unfortunate habit of spitting.

Amid the current Covid-19 situation, Singaporeans must put aside their prejudices and join hands (properly washed, of course) to help fight this wretched disease, however we can.

Leslie Chew Kwee Hoe

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2020, with the headline Forum: Culturally insensitive to refer to workers' eating habits as unhygienic. Subscribe