COVID-19 SPECIAL

Campaign to make workers feel welcome in housing estates

Redhill resident Ethel Pang, 22, is a Wimby, or Welcome In My Backyard, ambassador. She has already engaged family members about workers in the estate and hopes to reach more via the grassroots network. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
Redhill resident Ethel Pang, 22, is a Wimby, or Welcome In My Backyard, ambassador. She has already engaged family members about workers in the estate and hopes to reach more via the grassroots network. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

A group of volunteers has launched a campaign to encourage Singaporeans to be more welcoming when migrant workers are relocated to housing estates in a bid to curtail the coronavirus.

The initiative - Welcome In My Backyard (Wimby) - is a direct response to concerns that people will adopt a "not in my backyard" (Nimby) stance at the prospect of workers turning up in their estates.

That prospect is a real one with Singapore embarking on an unprecedented effort to relocate healthy workers from the industrial peripheries of the island to alternative sites, including HDB blocks.

Nimbyism had reared its head in 2009, when residents of Serangoon Gardens objected vociferously to plans to build a foreign worker dormitory there.

They cited potential social problems and security issues, and suggested that vehicles fetching workers could cause traffic congestion.

Plans for the dorm went ahead but with a hefty concession - a 400m slip road to bypass the estate which cost $2 million to build. The 20 or so volunteers behind Wimby want to pre-empt a repeat of that.

The campaign, which kicked off last Friday, will involve local ambassadors living in communities that will house workers. They will try to debunk stereotypes and reframe narratives about foreign workers, and provide feedback on how locals are feeling.

Online engagement sessions where residents and workers can address questions or misconceptions will be held at least once a month from May, said the project's co-leader Nicholas Oh, who is an undergraduate at University College London.

Singaporeans will also be invited to pen notes of welcome to the workers on a website they can access. The messages will be translated where possible, and posters and notes welcoming them may also be put up in the surrounding blocks.

"We want to let the migrant workers understand that there are people out there who are supportive of their presence in the community," said Mr Oh, 24.

The campaign - which is supported by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth's Our Singapore Fund - will be piloted in Redhill Close, where 21 vacant blocks have been prepared for workers.

 
 
 

It can then be scaled up to other estates like Taman Jurong, where four blocks will be used to house healthy workers in essential services, said the campaign's adviser, Nominated MP Anthea Ong.

Ms Ethel Pang, 22, a student at Yale-NUS College, is one of the Redhill residents appointed as a Wimby ambassador.

She has already engaged family members about workers in the estate and hopes to reach more via the grassroots network.

"I have been trying to humanise the situation and explaining how the workers may be in a situation where they feel helpless and hopeless at the moment," she said.

"We have been talking more about how our community and our family can be supportive of this movement (for the migrant workers)."

Community groups will also be tapped to engage residents. In Redhill, Beyond Social Services and civic group My Community are partners of the campaign.

When the circuit breaker measures have been eased, Ms T. Ranganayaki, deputy executive director of Beyond Social Services, hopes to organise events where the community can interact with workers and find areas of common interest.

 
 

Redhill Close resident Eric Tan, 43, still has reservations about workers in the area despite assurances that they have been screened and assessed to be healthy.

"The area has now been barricaded and security guards have been stationed outside, so I am okay with the situation for now. But if the workers are moving around in the neighbourhood and shops, I would be worried," said Mr Tan, a freelance driver.

Polytechnic student Michella Lim, 20, has no issues with the relocated workers in her Taman Jurong estate. "I think it is important that we be open to the Government's measures as a majority of those testing positive are now workers living in the dormitories," she said

To find out more, go to Welcome In My Backyard

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2020, with the headline 'Campaign to make workers feel welcome in housing estates'. Print Edition | Subscribe