Community trust helped S'pore in Covid-19 crisis last year, but bond-building should have started earlier: Panel

Prepared meals being sorted out for foreign workers at a factory in Sungei Kadut on July 31, 2020. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Building up community trust - such as among neighbours and with migrant workers - is crucial in a crisis such as Covid-19, said panellists during a virtual forum on Wednesday (Jan 20).

Reflecting on his experience, executive director of the Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) Bernard Menon said trust and unity, as well as faith in Singapore's public institutions, underpinned the community response to help migrant workers in lockdown last year.

"The fact that our NGOs and people had this amazing ability to overlook where we disagree and stand together, I think that struck me through the whole experience as the, if I may use a bit of a cliche, secret weapon that we had," he said.

While public institutions like the Manpower Ministry, Home Team and the Singapore Armed Forces helped to ensure the workers' basic needs were met, the MWC worked with partners such as companies and the Temasek Foundation to bring in supplies such as masks, he said.

"On top of that, we had actually formed an ambassador network of migrant workers themselves, all living in the dormitories. We never knew how valuable they would become until the dormitories came under lockdown," he said, adding that they number about 5,000 and they still work with the MWC today.

Mr Menon, who is also director for the migrant workers segment at the National Trades Union Congress, was speaking during a session titled Community Responses To Covid-19.

The discussion was part of the inaugural Temasek Shophouse Conversations forum organised by the Temasek Foundation, held at the Temasek Shophouse at Dhoby Ghaut.

The panel included Associate Professor Ong Biauw Chi, chairman of the medical board at Sengkang General Hospital; Mr Wong Heang Fine, group chief executive of Surbana Jurong; and Ms Mae Tan, co-founder of Kampung Kakis, a community initiative to help connect needy seniors with helpful volunteers in the neighbourhood.

Ms Tan said the neighbourhood "buddy system" that she started allowed people in the community to build trust.

She said she was inspired to do her part for the community after recovering from Covid-19 early last year.

"What we've realised through Kampung Kakis is that by empowering the individual in the community, they can really step up, play a part and make a big difference in how we solve the socioeconomic impact of Covid-19," she said.

Mr Wong, who supervised the team that set up Singapore Expo as a community care facility on short notice in April last year (2020), said among the lessons he learnt was to understand the needs of the community that was being served.

The team was told that one of the biggest requirements for the facility was to have a very good Wi-Fi system, whereas they had been more concerned with issues such as fire safety, and whether there were enough showers and washing facilities.

"But Wi-Fi was never on top of mind. So we had to scramble to make sure that we had, in every hall, a very superb Wi-Fi system for them. Because that was one of the things that kept (the patients) engaged."

Prof Ong, who was on the ground as medical teams from her hospital were deployed to nearby migrant worker dormitories, said one of the things that struck her was how the bonds grew between those that helped out.

"The Fast (Forward Assurance and Support Teams) team at S11 (dormitory) - many of them volunteered to stay on, and they were so engaged and we knew each other so well that it became almost like a community, like a second home."

Asked what they would have done differently in hindsight, Mr Menon said that he would have spent more time and effort to build up the grassroots networks among the migrant workers.

"They've been invaluable to the entire national response. And I think if we had known we would be faced with something like Covid-19, we would have grown the network at a much quicker rate, to a much larger body of volunteers."

To encourage collaboration across different segments of the community, the Temasek Foundation announced the Youth Action for Pandemics initiative on Wednesday.

The initiative, open to those under 40, calls for ideas for projects that will either help the community to prepare for the next pandemic, or address the impact of Covid-19.

Organisations that have already pledged their support for the initiative include the National Youth Council and the Heartware Network.

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