Why public sees foreign workers as more helpful than locals

After a video circulated online showing foreign workers moving a car stuck on a flight of stairs at Waterway Point while Singaporeans looked on and snapped pictures, the foreigners were praised as being more helpful than Singaporeans.
After a video circulated online showing foreign workers moving a car stuck on a flight of stairs at Waterway Point while Singaporeans looked on and snapped pictures, the foreigners were praised as being more helpful than Singaporeans.PHOTO: COURTESY OF GARETT LIM

In September, a group of foreign workers were hailed for helping to move a car that had been stuck on a flight of stairs at Waterway Point in Punggol - while Singaporeans looked on and snapped pictures with their phones.

After the video circulated online, there was an outpouring of goodwill from Singaporeans, many of whom compared the foreign workers favourably against locals.

The workers, The Straits Times understands, had in fact been asked to move the car. But public response was telling, with many Singaporeans saying that foreign workers here are helpful and friendly - perhaps even more so than locals.

People ST spoke to suggested reasons that foreign workers are seen in such a positive light, although they were cautious not to generalise.

Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, from the National University of Singapore's department of sociology, said: "It could be that we tend to be generous in our views of people who are no threat to us. Here, we are speaking of foreign workers who perform the menial tasks that we avoid doing ourselves."

An unequal relationship of power could affect the way foreign workers interact with locals.

"Because the foreign workers see themselves as of lower status to middle-class Singaporeans, they may tend to display what could be deemed to be deferential, even subservient, behaviour, but manifested as friendly or helpful behaviour.

"Consequently, we may actually develop some positive stereotypes about them... along with some negative stereotypes. The latter could be activated should they, for instance, compete with us for public space or amenities," Prof Tan added.

Citing a famous 2012 study published in PNAS journal that showed that underprivileged people tend to be more generous and ethical, Singapore Management University sociology professor Nicholas Harrigan said: "It could be this trend that people are noticing with foreign workers, but I am hesitant to draw conclusions because there are so many other potential factors."

Mr John Gee, former president and current head of research at non-governmental organisation Transient Workers Count Too, said that Bangladeshi migrant workers here tend to come from rural areas in the neighbourhood of Dhaka.

In big cities like Singapore, people tend to mind their own business, he said. The sizeable Bangladeshi population here could also make it easier for the temporary migrantsto "perpetuate the tradition they brought from home".

Bangladeshi construction worker Mahbub Hasan Dipu, 30, who hails from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, said he has many friends from villages in Bangladesh.

He described these village communities as "one big family... They are all very helpful". But he said there could be another reason for such friendliness: "We need this job. We want to stay here. We are scared that if we are rude, bad things will happen."

Another Bangladeshi, Mr Belal Hassan, 29, who helps manage a stainless steel shop, said: "There are so many workers on MRT trains, buses who give up their seats." His desire to do good, he said, is driven by his Muslim values.

The upswelling of goodwill towards foreign workers, however, could be a reaction to some negative stereotypes that still persist.

Mr Gee noted that there are Singaporeans who think foreign workers are "dishonest", or subscribe to "the idea that South Asian workers may be sexual predators".

He hopes to see more open spaces and affordable cafes where locals and foreign workers can meet.

Meanwhile, Prof Tan said that aside from public education, there could be more opportunities for both groups to interact in "non-hierarchical, collaborative fun activities" such as games and sports.

Said Mr Belal: "Some people say we are smelly, sweaty, that we just come here for the money. But we also need your love, your appreciation because we are also human."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2017, with the headline 'Why public sees foreign workers as more helpful than locals'. Print Edition | Subscribe