On George Floyd: Doing the Right Thing

(Another 10 minutes read, apologies. Maybe my strong response goes beyond being edgy.)

Out of goodwill, I touched base with a few non-local friends who had opinions, or are affected by the sparks of protests ignited by George Floyd’s death. Deliberately leaving the questions open, I left it to my friends to develop their points on what they thought about George Floyd, and the types of issues that they describe. What did such a sampling result in?

Some of the topics that repeatedly came up include:

  • fights (and friends usually add the quantifier that it’s someone of a different race)
  • the feeling of being marginalised/oppressed
  • having to unfriend people recently because of supposedly “irreconciliable differences”
  • police brutality

The deliberate method of questioning employed suggests that most thoughts on such issues involving easily identifiable differences (in this case, race) is not guided so much by principle as it is by primeval responses.

I used George Floyd as a backdrop to transit to an ever-controversial issue in Singapore: the issue of migrant workers. Let me recast the problem as follows: given a set of migrant workers that help us with many jobs in Singapore, how do we optimise their distribution around the island? As a nation, we have not solved this problem well.
One incident that comes to mind is the Serangoon Gardens dormitory incident in 2008 (https://www.asiaone.com/News/AsiaOne%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20080906-86231.html). To briefly recap, about 1,400 residents in Serangoon Gardens signed a petition against the construction of a dormitory near their residences. Digging deeper, some of the concerns the petitioners claimed were:

  • fear of safety
  • fear of property prices dropping
  • fear of foreign habits pervading a “well-defined” Singapore way of life

I do not aim to validate or critique the reasons, neither do I aim to use this post to start a policy debate; these have been done for years and are still being done today in the public sphere vis a vis Lawrence Wong’s statement (https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/new-dorms-better-standards-be-built-100000-foreign-workers-coming-years-lawrence-wong). The debate has now extended to the question of use of public funds for “foreign housing” (note how the bias is deliberately structured).

What do these tell us? Our primeval responses have exhibited themselves right at home. When our way of life can be affected, it is convenient to pin the blame on an entity that looks different from us. In this case, residents in a housing estate can react adversely and blame “foreigners” for affecting how they live. It is a convenient target of blame analogous to how my friends claimed that people of a different race from them usually starts fights. (None of them thought of getting some statistics to support their causes in a free flow conversation, and many never got there, preferring instead to use their experiences to support their points.)

If the last paragraph looked convoluted, it can be summarised as the following:


As a Singaporean, I realised that almost all the work done to keep our lives running smoothly, to work towards allowing our dreams to take flight is done by a non-Singaporean. My HDB estate is cleaned by cleaners whose faces are displayed at my lift lobby. None of them are Singaporean except perhaps the cleaning supervisor. I have chatted with many bus drivers who drive us to wherever we need to go; many are Malaysians who describe their daily commute on odd hours by motorcycle, so that they can run the first trip at 5.30 am, or run the last trip at midnight. Considering the debate we have over fewer young people wanting to become hawkers, I expect my food to be served by a non-Singaporean with a higher probability as the years go by. Sales staff who assist me whenever I want to make a face-to-face purchase are likely not Singaporeans either. The list of examples goes to highlight just how dependent we are on migrant labour as a society today.

Many migrants arrive in Singapore for a better future owing to the higher wages in Singapore as compared to their host country. Their journey to Singapore is fraught with risk; an agent could cheat them, or that they may not assimilate to Singapore well. They may become homesick too. Many are also cognisant of their status as merely economic sojourners. At its fundamentals, many migrants view the exchange as a transaction that they can benefit from. They may never be able to earn as much as a local would earn or needs to earn. But their mission is clear — earn money, remit back to their families who eagerly await their progress, hoping that the risk of a foreign land is worthwhile.

What is the minimum we can do as Singaporeans? First, respect migrants for the work they do. For a start, ditch the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. The “out of sight, out of mind” mentality merely accentuates our self-centredness. Until magic becomes a reality, someone will have to upkeep the streets, drive the buses and repair the roads. If it happens to be a migrant that is doing it, we should respect them for their work and acknowledge their efforts. The same migrant will also have to live somewhere, eat somewhere and spend off-days somewhere. It would be selfish of us to balk at the idea of allowing migrants access to facilities that they helped build for us. Thankfully, as far as COVID-19 is concerned, I felt that the Government set a good example by taking responsibility for migrants on our land and spending state resources to nurse them back to health. The execution may be fraught with debatable complexities and constant frustration with changing advice, but Singapore has made a statement that it would take care of anyone that contributes to Singapore, in stark contrast to the fate of migrant workers in some other parts of the world (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-52655131). This is a strong statement of trust in the Singapore brand. Going forward, we should house migrant workers properly, and ensure that migrants can work alongside Singaporeans to build a better country.

To sum it up, we may not be able to influence how the George Floyd incident will reverberate through different societies. However, we can take the opportunity to right a long-standing wrong in Singapore. We can transcend beyond our primeval instincts to set a positive example on how different people can co-exist together and achieve win-win outcomes, fuelling the Singapore Dream in more ways than one. We can let dreams take flight, and also serve as the gateway for migrants to get out of the poverty trap without having to trade in their dignity.

P.S. This is not a policy piece, and will not cover other broad aspects of Singapore society. The intent, however, is to show how we can incrementally improve Singapore in relation to how we treat our migrants. After all, if we believe in the adage that “those in glass houses shall not throw stones”, let us harden our glass. We should still not throw stones, though.

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