Coronavirus: Letter on dorm cases xenophobic, says Shanmugam

He speaks out against views in letter that linked outbreak to workers' personal hygiene

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said foreign workers help build Singapore's prosperity and should be better appreciated.

A forum letter published in Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao that linked the Covid-19 outbreak in dormitories to foreign workers' personal hygiene and living habits showed racism and deep insensitivity, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

The letter, published on Tuesday, also showed a lack of understanding of why there has been Covid-19 transmission in Singapore's foreign worker population, he added.

While the average number of cases in the local community has stayed stable in recent days, the number of cases in dormitories has soared to the hundreds and now forms the majority of new cases.

This is primarily due to communal living and is not just a question of personal habits, Mr Shanmugam told Zaobao.

"Personal habits are extremely important: washing of hands, keeping yourself clean," he said.

"But when you put people together, when they sleep in the same room, they cook together and they are in close proximity over a long period of time, of course there will be high levels of transmission, just like we know (there are) also transmissions in households."

Instead of pointing fingers, Singaporeans should be coming together to take care of the foreign workers here, he added, as he credited them for helping to build Singapore's Housing Board flats and infrastructure and keeping the country clean.

"Our duty as Singaporeans, really, is to show them empathy and take care of them," he said. "I don't think this is the time to say it is their own fault."

He noted the Singapore community has mobilised to help foreign workers here, while the Government has stepped in to ensure they continue to receive their salaries, medical care and daily meals.

"All of these gestures - I'm not sure that many other countries are doing it - are really to assure the foreign workers that they are not just locked down in their dorms and left there to fend for themselves without any idea of what's going to happen to them," he said.

"That's not the way."

In the letter, forum writer Lee Shiwan had asked if foreign workers should not themselves be held responsible for the outbreak in the dormitories, given that they "like to gather and do not pay attention to personal hygiene".

Ms Lee had also said many foreign workers came from backward countries and brought with them "habits such as eating with their hands and eating under trees".

Lianhe Zaobao said in a statement that its letters pages publish a diversity of views, and the opinions of contributors do not represent the newspaper's position.

A day before publishing the letter, the newspaper ran stories about the conditions of foreign worker dormitories here and the need to include them in the battle against Covid-19, said Zaobao's forum editor Yap Pheng Hui.

"The intention of Zaobao in publishing the (letter) was to present a differing opinion so readers would be able to appreciate the diversity of viewpoints in society," he said.

Mr Yap noted that most of the letters the newspaper has received to date were against the position taken by Ms Lee, and have "provided well-reasoned rebuttals against the position put forth in the original article". The original letter had thus allowed for robust debates and allowed "a wider audience to reflect upon and understand the impact of the pandemic".

"Zaobao believes that it is through the diverse mediums of readers' letters, opinion pieces and investigative pieces by journalists that our society draws ever closer to the truth," he said.

Mr Shanmugam, who found the letter xenophobic, stressed it is possible for 57 per cent of Singaporeans to be professionals, managers, executives and technicians, or PMETs, because foreign workers form the base of the economy.

They, therefore, help build Singapore's prosperity and should be better appreciated, he said.

He also said Singaporeans are kind, compassionate and generous people. "We are bigger than the sentiments expressed in that letter."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: Letter on dorm cases xenophobic, says Shanmugam. Subscribe