The fingers began pointing rather quickly, as one can expect in Singapore, when domestic and international media began publishing the figures and graphs that indicated that COVID-19 was tearing through the migrant worker dormitories. What happened next was a foregone conclusion: citizens expressed disbelief and indignation; politicians recited the script. Months on, is Singapore entering another bout of social amnesia?
Previously, the Little India Riot, workplace-related deaths and other reports of malpractice were each touted as wake up calls for societal change. Those changes arguably did not come fast enough, and most were piecemeal, thus denuding them of far-reaching societal effects. But most importantly, the now predictable cycle of public outrage followed by insouciance warrants explanation.
Foreign workers play a key role in Singapore’s modern economic development. They build the HDB flats, rail lines and public amenities that others take for granted. In 2019, foreign workers accounted for 33.1% of Singapore’s total labour pool; that is 1,427,500 foreign workers, 999,000 of whom were low-paid work permit holders. At the height of the outbreak, the foreign worker dormitories housed 200,000 low-paid workers. By December 2020, 152,000 workers in the dormitories had become infected with COVID-19. Community infections were considerably lower.
It is no secret that inequality underpins these staggering infection rates. Prominent Singaporeans often implore their fellow citizens to consider the inequality that exists in society, but change is never forthcoming.
Singaporean citizens, permanent residents and white-collar foreigners armed with gold-plated work passes (‘mainstream Singapore’) live within a bubble in which social difference is normalised. The State engineers this difference in order to sustain an ethnically balanced vision of Singapore that is complicit with the State’s economic imperatives, in particular, wealth generation off the back of cheap labour and high-end industries. In order to have the former, the State needs to keep work permit holders in a situation of economic precarity and disenfranchisement, and at a clear remove from mainstream Singapore.
Meanwhile, mainstream Singapore enjoys the products of low-paid migrant labour as well as the full range of rights and benefits that attach to citizenship and PR status. Aihwa Ong characterises this phenomenon as ‘biopolitical disciplining’ of different groups within the borders of the one nation state according to their economic utility, which in Singapore is benchmarked against STEM and finance industries that attract the lucrative foreign direct investments.
In practical social terms, this translates into a divided society: on the one hand, a privileged class of Singaporeans, permanent residents and skilled and wealthy foreigners, whose work and social status is valued and hence protected by the State, compete for the coveted upmarket jobs and blue-ribbon lifestyles; on the other, low-paid migrant workers, whose work is devalued and considered undesirable, stomach Third World conditions in a First World city.
During the pandemic, one MP opined that there were ‘social cost[s] to (sic) having too many foreign workers’ in Singapore. The International Labour Organisation stated that Singapore was one of a group of South East Asian states wherein ‘considerable portions of the public hold negative perceptions towards migrant workers’.
In these circumstances, forgetting low-paid migrant workers becomes too easy. The result is a perverse ‘neoliberal morality’, a term coined by Youyenn Teo to denote a set of autochthonous worldviews that map on to institutional principles and mores. In a Singapore that sees individuals as economic units, ‘neoliberal morality’ signals the decline of civic virtues, as individuals view themselves as pitted in tooth and claw economic competition with fellow residents. In reality, there may not be anything ‘neoliberal’ about all of this at all; if anything, neoliberalism obscures the collusive yet legitimised relationship between State and capital. The ramifications are gross, but it is questionable whether neoliberalism is largely to blame for the certain shortcomings in Singapore’s collective morality when greater emphasis ought to be placed on the all-pervasive State that legitimises all social relationships. On a more fundamental level, Singaporeans are cognisant of the possible social costs they may need to bear if low-paid migrant workers were allowed to live side-by-side them.