When Singapore's government announced last week plans for 11 new sites to house foreign workers, residents of the middle-class Serangoon Gardens neighborhood were not happy. In a show of community activism, they submitted a petition to their local MPs, George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hua — the representatives have said they welcome debate. And bloggers are debating.
Minister of Foreign Affairs George Yeo recounts a dialogue session with Seragoon Gardens residents on A Writer's Blog:
It was lucky that the dialogue session was already scheduled. Many residents spoke up, some with great passion. As expected, the principal concern was security. The already difficult traffic flow would also be aggravated. It was good that everyone acknowledged the contributions of foreign workers to our economy.
But Gerald Giam of Singapore Patriot describes the meeting in a different tone. He lists residents’ grievances as much more hostile.
- They don't want “half-naked men” hanging around their neighbourhood;
- The neighbourhood will become unsafe for old people;
- Parents will worry about leaving their young children and aged parents at home when they go to work;
- Traffic congestion by lorries ferrying workers;
- The estimated 1,400 properties worth over $1 million each would see a drop in asset value.
Many of us fear that foreign workers will be a source of social problems. Let's put it this way: If you were earning $500 a month with an extended family of 12 back home depending on you, would you risk your livelihood by committing some silly crime and getting jailed, caned and deported? Foreign workers litter and dirty the place? Who are the ones who clear our rubbish, pick up our litter and sweep our roads?
Many bloggers write that this controversy speaks to the larger issue of Singapore's relationship to foreigners on the whole. A video post of the Serangoon Gardens neighborhood and vacant school that is to be converted by The Online Citizen sparked lively debate in comments. Podcasters at the mrbrownshow lampoon residents’ fear of “alien” Banglas.
Ng E-Jay of Sgpolitics.net says it's not about prejudice, though. He criticizes the government for not planning ahead to properly house the workers they bring in:
If the Government wants to import a large number of foreign workers to build our casinos and all the mega projects that are supposed to spur our economy on, ample preparations first have to be made to house them properly. That means providing living quarters for foreign workers in locations that would inconvenience local residents the least.
According to the Straits Times (via AsiaOne), the government is asking for residents’ understanding that they will be living near workers from India, Thailand and Bangladesh. But George Yeo announced that the government is now considering separate townships for the overflow of foreign workers.
Flying Low — an anonymous writer who identifies herself as a government servant — balks at this idea:
Isn’t there some HDB [Housing Development Board] race quota implemented so that there will be no racial enclaves in Singapore? But it is ok to build a foreign worker enclave. Yes, isolate these foreign workers from Singaporeans. This is the obviously best way to encourage “Singaporeans [to] open their hearts to them“.
It’s the same with Malaysia. But who brings in the foreign workers? Singapore should start building its own buildings (Malaysians too), and then we wouldn’t have “problems” with migrant workers.
I applaud Ms Lydia Lim for choosing not to sign the petition, as well as for her balanced and well-argued viewpoint in The Sunday Times on Sept 7.
So yes, foreign workers are human beings, no less than the rest of us. And since police statistics do no bear out the belief that foreigners are more prone to committing crime than Singaporeans, the arguments put forth by the petitioners look like sweeping statements that condemn everyone for the sins of a few black sheep.
In particular, I agree with Ms Lim’s closing statement, “All of us have neighbors whose habits do not exactly enthuse us. But we learn to live with them. That is also what I will need to do if some of the people who help build our homes and offices, and clean up after us, come to live in my estate.”
Finally, I sincerely hope we Singaporeans will remember that the majority of us are migrants or descendants of migrants. And that we ourselves might become workers in a foreign land at some point of our lives. How would we like it if the locals in the lands that we visit want to throw us out?
Note: The Serangoon Gardens housing to be provided to these foreign workers is supposed to be temporary.