Singapore ambassador to US rebuts Foreign Policy article on Covid-19 outbreak in dorms

Some residents of the S11 Dormitory in Punggol on April 21, 2020. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - An article in American publication Foreign Policy (FP) on the spate of coronavirus cases in foreign worker dormitories presents a "distorted view" of Singapore's response to the outbreak, the Republic's ambassador to Washington has said.

Singapore's response to Covid-19 is guided by science and its best understanding of the disease, and this applies to all segments of the population, Singapore's Ambassador to the United States Ashok Kumar Mirpuri said in a letter.

Any approach to the welfare of migrant workers must take into account practical realities, he said, adding that the article's grim picture is belied by the vast majority of migrant workers who choose to continue working in Singapore well beyond their first contracts.

The May 6 article by Singaporean activist and freelance journalist Kirsten Han was titled Singapore Is Trying To Forget Migrant Workers Are People, and criticised what she described as the Government's "utilitarian, dehumanising approach" to the issue.

She added that the singling out of migrant workers in Covid-19 discourse "perpetuates the notion of them as vectors of disease, further feeding the twin beasts of racism and xenophobia".

Mr Mirpuri sent his response last Thursday (May 21) in a letter to FP's editor-in-chief Jonathan Tepperman.

Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs made the letter public on its website on May 27, saying FP refused to publish it despite having carried letters from accredited ambassadors to the US and spokesmen for various foreign affairs ministries last year.

The Straits Times has contacted FP for comment.


In her piece, Ms Han argued that policies and public discussions in Singapore segregated migrant workers "both physically and rhetorically" from the rest of the population.

For example, she said the government and daily reports treated migrant worker infections separately from "community" cases of citizens, permanent residents and expatriates.

In his letter, Mr Mirpuri said Singapore's Government has taken a three-pronged strategy for migrant workers in dorms.

"As Ms Han acknowledged, it is sensible to adopt differentiated strategies for different areas of the outbreak," he said.

First, it implemented social distancing measures to slow down transmission in dorms; second, on-site medical posts for workers to get prompt, appropriate medical treatment; and third, an aggressive testing regime that has tested one of every 15 workers so far, with the aim to eventually test all the workers.

"As a result, we have detected many cases with mild or even no symptoms. Few other countries have tested their migrant populations this intensively," he said.

Over half of the workers who tested positive had not presented symptoms at the point of being tested, and probably would not have been tested at all in other countries, he added.


Ms Han said that while it makes sense to adopt different approaches for different groups, Singapore's approach does not see migrant workers as people, but an inconvenience.

She wrote: "Migrant workers are viewed only as digits on a spreadsheet of menial labour, to be deployed as resources when necessary and kept out of sight when not."

She added that conditions at dorms have varied, with workers reporting hot and stuffy rooms and issues with food quality and quantity, some of whom were Bangladeshis fasting during Ramadan.

Mr Mirpuri said the Government cares for the welfare of migrant workers, giving free treatment to workers who show symptoms "just like everyone else".

Meals and Internet access are catered for workers being quarantined at the dorms, and during Ramadan, Muslim workers got their meals before dawn so that they could perform their religious practices, he said.

Support is also given to employers so that workers can continue to get paid, and arrangements have been made for workers to remit money to their families.

Mr Mirpuri said 3,000 public officers have been deployed to support dormitory operators and employers, and many Singaporeans have volunteered time, effort and money to complement the Government's efforts.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has also publicly committed to caring for migrant workers like Singaporeans, he added. "The scope and scale of our efforts reflects the responsibility we feel for our migrant workers," Mr Mirpuri said.


In her piece, Ms Han said the fact that about 20 dorm operators and an average of 1,200 employers are penalised yearly for flouting licensing laws suggested substandard living conditions are a longstanding problem that has not been effectively addressed.

She noted that rights groups had urged the Government to address issues of overcrowding and sanitation even before the pandemic hit the dorms, but the concerns were brushed off.

"Now that activists have been proved right in the most miserable way, Singapore still struggles with seeing migrant workers as equally valuable members of the community," she wrote.

In his response, Mr Mirpuri said any approach to migrant worker welfare must take into account practical realities, like Singapore's ageing society, small indigenous workforce, and lack of a hinterland to draw additional workers from.

Housing migrant workers in land-scarce Singapore can never be straightforward, he said.

The Government decided to meet this challenge with dorms built to specified standards, which have been progressively raised, with laws passed in 2015 requiring large dorms to have recreational and health facilities, as well as some amenities.

While dorms allow workers to socialise and relax together, any communal living space comes with risks in an infectious outbreak, he added.

Recognising the risks, the Government in January told dorm operators to take several precautions, more stringent than those for the general population. When cases grew sharply despite the measures, a massive effort was mobilised to take care of the workers, he said.

Ms Han had also said that the current posture towards migrant workers will hamper efforts for systemic change after the pandemic, and places them in an even more vulnerable position in society.

Already stigmatised as dirty or threats to public order, they are now also blamed by some for the spike in Covid-19 cases or berated for not being grateful enough, she added.

Mr Mirpuri acknowledged that the Government's response has not been perfect. "There certainly are areas we can improve. We are determined to learn from this episode and will do a thorough review after the crisis is over."

He added that some migrant workers have been in Singapore for as long as 20 years.

"They have chosen to continue to live and work in Singapore, rather than go elsewhere or return to work in their home countries," he said.

"Their revealed preference shows the reality of the migrant worker experience in Singapore. They reflect what the Government and Singaporeans have done to care for the migrant workers in our midst."

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