Thursday 30 April 2020

Fake news used to stir up unhappiness in foreign worker dormitories amid COVID-19 pandemic, says Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam

The authorities will take action against those who deliberately spread falsehoods, says minister
Steps taken to improve meals provided to foreign workers
By Charmaine Ng, The Straits Times, 30 Apr 2020

Some people have been spreading fake news about the situation in foreign worker dormitories here, to incite fear, panic and hopefully, violence, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

These individuals, who the authorities understand are both local and foreign, have been circulating such falsehoods in the form of videos, photos, and even doctored images of news channels, he said.

He cited a video clip circulating on social media platforms recently, which claimed that a Bangladeshi worker had committed suicide at a dormitory in Tuas because of lack of money and work.

On Tuesday, the police said the video was not recorded in Singapore and advised the public not to spread untruths. The police also told the public not to circulate the video, which can cause public alarm.

Speaking to reporters via video conferencing yesterday, Mr Shanmugam said such falsehoods are being circulated online to create fear and panic among the foreign worker community of about 300,000 people.

"It's to create panic. It's to create unhappiness, anger and hopefully, violence," he said.

"And also to make our own people, Singaporeans, believe that... these foreign workers are being treated badly. It's a very malicious type of video."

Mr Shanmugam also noted that there was another video circulating of a fight in a dormitory between two men of South Asian origin.

"It was taken in a dorm in Dubai some time ago, but people try and pass it off as being taken in Singapore," said Mr Shanmugam. The city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has a migrant labour force of 8.7 million.

In another case, an audio recording was being circulated on text-messaging platforms.

"Somebody supposedly working in Sembawang Shipyard, telling the Malay-Muslim community you better go and buy up (groceries) because the Chinese are going to go into a panic-buying mode, and there's a shortage of everything that you can think of," he said.

Old photos of food packets served to foreign workers have also started re-circulating online, suggesting that the quality of food is bad, said Mr Shanmugam.

He added that the food issue has been dealt with by Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, and food quality has "improved tremendously".

"But don't get me wrong, we are delivering several hundred thousand meals, three times a day, to the workers. Majority of them tell us that the food quality is good. I'm not going to say to you therefore, every single packet is good, or every single person is happy - not possible," Mr Shanmugam added.

But some people are deliberately re-circulating these old photos, or photos of food being thrown away in other countries, to encourage foreign workers here to "come out and complain, even when there is nothing to complain" about, he said.

"They don't realise that this is like playing with fire... You use falsehoods to foment trouble and make them angry, you don't know what might happen. There could be a serious law and order situation. This is serious, and we are looking at it seriously," said Mr Shanmugam.

The authorities will take action against those who deliberately spread such falsehoods. "When it's clearly criminal, we will charge them," he said.

National Care Hotline has received 6,600 calls since its launch on 10 April 2020

Some ask about COVID-19, support measures, while others call over financial issues, anxiety
500 volunteers have stepped up so far: Desmond Lee
By Goh Yan Han, The Straits Times, 30 Apr 2020

More than 6,600 calls have been made to the National Care Hotline - 1800-202-6868 - since its launch on April 10, said Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee in a Facebook post yesterday.

There have been about 380 calls a day, of which more than 40 per cent are channelled to the hotline's trained professionals. The other calls are diverted to other helplines for their specific needs.

Mr Lee said about 500 volunteers take turns manning the 24-hour hotline, which was set up to provide psychological first aid and emotional support to those who need it during the COVID-19 crisis.

About 22 to 25 from a pool of psychologists, counsellors, social workers, psychiatrists and public officers are rostered daily across three eight-hour shifts.

"Each call is unique, and gives us a glimpse into the multifaceted challenges different individuals are facing in this crisis," said Mr Lee.

In a Zoom interview with the media on Tuesday, Ms Vivienne Ng, chief psychologist of the Ministry of Social and Family Development, said that of the callers directed to the volunteers, 15 per cent have asked about COVID-19 and support measures such as the Temporary Relief Fund and public financial assistance scheme ComCare, while another 14 per cent were calling due to anxiety.

Eleven per cent called about financial issues, while 10 per cent sought emotional support.

Another 6 per cent were facing family conflicts, divorce and parenting issues, while 4 per cent of callers had experienced aggression by family members.

In such situations, the professional would advise them to call the police or the adult or child protective services, or a family violence specialist centre, said Ms Ng.

When those on duty take calls, they carry out psychological first aid and try to link the callers up with family and friends.

Alternatively, the callers are connected to a network that includes community resources such as social service agencies, which can provide more specialised help on a more prolonged basis, Ms Ng said.

She added that she was particularly concerned about an increase in depression among people over the medium to long term if there is a prolonged period of recession.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Singapore’s COVID-19 testing capacity ramped up - from 2,900 tests a day to more than 8,000

1 in 15 migrant workers tested so far: Health Minister Gan Kim Yong
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 28 Apr 2020

Singapore has ramped up testing for the coronavirus in order to curb its spread and bring the outbreak under control.

It has also boosted its testing capacity and can now carry out more than 8,000 tests a day, up from 2,900 at the start of this month.

This will provide its citizens an extra layer of protection. Essential workers, such as those caring for the vulnerable elderly, are currently being tested, and the plan is to gradually expand testing to a wider pool so that critical services can continue, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said at a media conference yesterday.

Its robust capacity has also enabled Singapore to test about 2,100 people per 100,000 in its population. In comparison, the United States has tested 1,600 per 100,000, and Britain has tested 1,000 per 100,000.

Mr Gan also rejected suggestions that the Government has reduced testing of migrant workers, leading to a drop in the number of confirmed cases.

"This is not true. Our testing capacity for migrant workers is about 3,000 a day," he said. "We have not reduced it. Instead, we have been increasing the capacity of testing of our migrant workers. The rate of testing has not slowed down."

A total of 21,000 workers living in dormitories - or one in 15 such workers - have been tested since the start of the outbreak. Every positive test is added to Singapore's case count, he said.

The testing capacity will also be critical as the country works towards the eventual easing of circuit breaker measures.

That will happen after daily new cases in the wider community have dropped consistently to the single digits over a period of time, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said at the same media conference.

Meanwhile, Singaporeans must press on with measures to stop the virus from spreading, said Mr Wong, on a day when 799 new virus cases and two deaths were reported.

"Testing, as critical and important as it is, cannot be a substitute for personal responsibility and safe distancing measures," he said.

"So we go back to the fundamentals and ask everyone, during this period, to stay home and uphold good personal hygiene."

Mr Wong said the Government has also made plans to house workers who have recovered from COVID-19, with both short-term and longer-term plans being studied.

In the wider community, he said, restrictions would be eased in a "very calibrated manner" only after the number of new cases consistently came down to single digits over a period of time.

Scaling up testing and implementing technology to track people's movements and help in contact tracing will be two key elements of this strategy, Mr Wong said.

"We are developing plans around both of these areas and we will be able to share more details when we are ready," he added. "But these are critical enablers for us to progressively open up the economy.

He stressed that people should still exercise personal and social responsibility even after the circuit breaker period is over.

"We should still try very hard to minimise our social interactions because it only takes one person interacting in a group in close quarters with many people to cause another cluster," he added.

Sunday 26 April 2020

Time to wake up to Western media bias

The demonisation of China is war by other means by the United States and its allies
By Leslie Fong, Published The Straits Times, 25 Apr 2020

Anyone without scales over his eyes and who has not succumbed to cerebral shampooing by the West will have realised by now that large parts of its media are biased, if not outright antagonistic, in their reporting of China.

From the riots in Hong Kong last year, whitewashed as peaceful pro-democracy protests, to the lockdown of Wuhan and other Chinese cities, derided as draconian and an abuse of human rights, the sting was always there, and often not even hidden in between the lines.

All this will be denied, of course, and not just by those media owners and employees but also the readers and viewers who swear by them. It is futile to debate them, such is their ideological bias that they leave themselves no room for doubt, much less introspection. They are entitled to their reading of China, of course, as are their critics to theirs.

It is perfectly understandable that Western media, especially those that publish and broadcast in English, will want to push what they believe is the interest of the West. No one should expect them to speak up for China and other non-Western nations. Or question the liberal democracy dogmas they have grown up with.

To be fair, there are also not a few among them who genuinely believe that what they do is also for the good of the Chinese suffering under the yoke of a totalitarian regime. And so they have gone at it full tilt, especially the Anglophone media.


It would be foolish for people in this part of the world not to see all this for what it really is - a war, not yet a shooting one but a war by other means nonetheless. Only the wilfully blind will fail to see that it is being waged by the United States and some of its allies to stymie a rising China just so they can hold on to their global hegemony.

Demonising and then isolating China, through disinformation and misinformation, is just one of the means. In the relentless pursuit of that goal, truth, to paraphrase what Mr Hiram Johnson, US Senator for California, first said in 1918, has become the first casualty of this war. So much for the self-serving cant about these media being "respected" providers of fair, objective and balanced coverage.

Does all that matter? I submit that it does, to the millions in Singapore, Malaysia and many other former British colonies who have relied all these years on the English-language global media for their news, analyses and commentaries.

It is time they woke up, if they have not already done so, to the fact that their understanding of what is happening in China, and, for that matter, many other places from Syria to Venezuela, is being shaped by those media with an unholy agenda.

This awakening cannot come too soon as some Western media are piling on the pressure by echoing the spurious demands of anti-China politicians that Beijing must pay for the damage caused by the COVID-19 virus which it has set loose on the world.

If allowed to escalate and proliferate, this incitement of people whose lives are being devastated by the pandemic, is certain to result in even more racist attacks against people of Chinese ethnicity, particularly in Western countries. It may well spin out of control into an armed confrontation between the two sides, very possibly in the South China Sea.

Saturday 25 April 2020

COVID-19 armchair critics: There is always time for fair criticism

Mr Lee Teck Chuan's view is not uncommon (Now's not the time to play armchair critic, April 22), but it is terribly unhelpful for three main reasons.

First, although the call for Singaporeans to unite is well intentioned, it divides people into those who "play armchair critic" and those who do not. This labelling of people portrays those who criticise the task force dealing with the outbreak as being difficult for the sake of it, and equates "critical" with "uncooperative".

People can be both critical and cooperative at the same time. Rather than tell people not to be "armchair critics", a much better way forward would be to focus on whether the criticisms are fair.

Second, the view that "now's not the time". There is always time for fair criticism, especially in areas that we tend to ignore in more halcyon days. More people are now suddenly sympathetic to migrant workers' living conditions, even though advocacy groups have been highlighting the issue for almost a decade now.

It has become much clearer how important social connections are for the mental health of our seniors, and how adverse events can exacerbate inequalities and place disproportionately huge burdens on the vulnerable.

These are not issues we will necessarily remember or pay attention to when things eventually return to normalcy.

Furthermore, some criticisms cannot, and must not, wait. For instance, xenophobia and racism are issues that we must address immediately. We cannot allow them to fester.

Third, "hindsight is 20/20" cannot be the excuse for all our failures. We must be able to discern between hindsight and oversight, and this can happen only if we discuss issues fairly.

Even if we think our Government has done well, we must continue to hold it accountable for its actions. Singapore needs good faith critics to push us forward.

Shannon Ang
ST Forum, 25 Apr 2020

9 in 10 coronavirus patients in Singapore housed in community isolation facilities

Of the 11,107 patients who now have the virus, just 1,229 are still warded in acute hospitals as of 24 Apr 2020
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 25 Apr 2020

Singapore has changed the dynamics of its care of COVID-19 patients by treating nine in 10 of them in community facilities instead of acute hospitals.

The move not only differentiates those with mild illnesses from others with life-threatening conditions, but also saves the hospitals from being deluged.

Community facilities now house 9,878 patients - out of the 11,107 current patients. This means just 1,229 patients are still warded in acute hospitals, including 24 in critical condition.

Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang, an infectious diseases expert, said the strategy of moving patients who are well out of hospitals has been applied for some time, even before the first isolation facility became operational on March 24.

Prof Hsu, who leads the infectious diseases programme at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said placing these patients in isolation facilities will prevent acute hospital beds from being unnecessarily filled by relatively well COVID-19 patients who would otherwise be discharged only when doctors are certain that they are no longer able to infect others.

"We have learnt that for many patients, particularly those who are young and have no chronic medical conditions, COVID-19 is no worse than an ordinary flu," he said.

"They would not have required immediate hospitalisation were it not for the need to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus to their families and close contacts."

Singapore currently has three community isolation facilities: the D'Resort NTUC chalet in Pasir Ris, which can hold 500 people; Singapore Expo, which has two operational halls that can hold 950 people, with another four halls on the way; and Changi Exhibition Centre, which can hold 2,800 people. A number of private hospitals and community hospitals, such as Concord International Hospital and Bright Vision Hospital, are also counted as community facilities.

With 897 new cases yesterday, 24 April, Singapore now has 12,075 confirmed cases altogether.

Twelve have died of complications due to COVID-19 and 952 have fully recovered and been discharged. Four have died from other causes.

Just a week before, on April 17, the total number of cases was 5,050.

The official tally for patients who are still hospitalised fell significantly on Thursday after the Ministry of Health (MOH) reclassified those housed in community facilities with mild symptoms in the same category as those who are clinically well. Previously, these patients were counted together with those warded in acute hospitals.

Before the reclassification, MOH had said on Wednesday that there were 4,234 patients still in hospital and another 4,999 clinically well cases at community facilities.

MOH said on Thursday, as it revised the figures for patients in hospitals and community facilities to 1,368 and 8,874 respectively, that this was done to more accurately reflect where patients are being cared for.

Foreign workers living in dormitories made up 853 of the new cases yesterday, 24 April. There were another 19 cases involving workers not living in dorms and 25 cases in the general community, comprising 13 Singaporeans and permanent residents and 12 work pass holders.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli said yesterday that people who disregard safe distancing measures are putting not just themselves but also their families at risk of catching COVID-19. He also warned that those who abuse enforcement officers will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. He said: "Whether you are old or young, you should be staying home."

Fighting COVID-19 in the spirit of Ramadan

Opportunities for spiritual development and charitable acts can still flourish at home
By Shaik Kadir, Published The Straits Times, 25 Apr 2020

Yesterday was the first day of the Ramadan, and Muslims are fasting.

Ramadan has always been a busy month, one which offers Muslims the opportunities to further enhance their spiritual development and for charitable acts. However, many of the traditional Ramadan activities cannot be carried out this year because, under the circuit breaker, gatherings in places of worship are not permitted as precautionary and preventive measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

What were the scenes in mosques before the COVID-19 outbreak?

Muslims prayed in large congregations, with congregants positioning themselves next to one another, row after row, facing the qibla (direction of prayer towards the Kaaba in Mecca), united in the worship of God.

Until last year's Ramadan, mosques had been holding the iftar (breaking-of-fast session) with people sitting side by side in long rows taking the meal together.

Dignitaries - including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, ministers and MPs and others from the various religious organisations - have had the experience of taking iftar with Muslims.

Apart from preparing food for the mosque iftar, there was the cooking of bubur (spiced rice porridge) for free distribution to the public.

Muslims donated generously to meet these expenditures.

Usually, after the tarawih prayers - the special Ramadan night-long prayers - people would gather in a group to read the Quran, as reading and completing it during Ramadan is a blessed deed.

Anyone can join the group. Taking turns, they would read the Quran audibly, a section or two a night, until the whole 114-chapter Quran was completed a few days before the end of Ramadan.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all these mosque activities. Now that Muslims cannot go to the mosque for the tarawih prayers, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore has produced a guidebook on "how they can perform special prayers and practise their faith (at home) while doing their part to prevent the spread of the coronavirus". The guide is also available online.

Usually, on Aidilfitri (Celebration of Charity), large numbers of worshippers would throng the mosque for the one-hour early morning Aidilfitri prayer.

Then, from about noon of the day, Muslim families would start their silaturrahim (strengthening of ties) visits to the homes of relatives and friends, where food and kuih-kuih (cakes and snacks) are served and eaten together.

This whole-day exciting movement of people in new and bright costumes now will not take place this Aidilfitri - which falls on May 24 - as the circuit breaker has been extended to June 1. The safety advisory of "stay home, observe social distancing, wear masks when going out for necessary tasks" has to be adhered to for the good of everybody in Singapore.

What Singapore Muslims would miss most is the Ramadan aura in the mosques. There is definite sadness, but Muslims have to sacrifice customary practices that encroach on physical contact and close proximity interactions during this emergency period.

Also, this is the time to show empathy and compassion to the unfortunate victims who might be of any nationality or religion; it is not for lamenting the inconvenience caused by circuit breaker restrictions.

SGUnited Traineeships Programme: Government to set aside $100 million for traineeship scheme to make fresh graduates more employable when the job market picks up after COVID-19 pandemic

Thousands of traineeships for fresh ITE, poly and uni grads
Applications start on June 1 for 4,000 of the 8,000 places; aim is to make grads more employable after pandemic
By Sandra Davie, Senior Education Correspondent, The Straits Times, 24 Apr 2020

On June 1, applications will open for 4,000 of the 8,000 traineeship positions that have been promised for fresh Institute of Technical Education (ITE), polytechnic and university graduates.

The paid traineeships supported by the Government are being offered by over 280 companies and organisations, including Singtel, DBS Bank, Surbana Jurong, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University.

The Government, which has set aside $100 million for the scheme called SGUnited Traineeships, hopes to make graduates more employable when the job market picks up after the coronavirus pandemic.

Traineeships will last up to 12 months, with trainees receiving a monthly allowance, which will vary depending on the scope of the traineeship and skills required.

The Government will fund 80 per cent of the training allowance and the host company the remainder.

Mr Tan Choon Shian, chief executive of Workforce Singapore, said he is heartened that despite the difficult business conditions during the coronavirus outbreak, many firms have stepped forward to join the scheme.

"With these firms participating as hosting companies, our fresh graduates will be able to use this traineeship period to prepare themselves for the eventual recovery," he said and asked more companies to join the scheme.

The Singapore Business Federation, as the programme manager, will work with host companies to review and approve the scope and development plans of their proposed traineeships.

From June 1, eligible job seekers who are keen to apply for SGUnited Traineeships can search for such opportunities on the national jobs bank,

Fresh graduates are encouraged to register a account to receive the latest updates.

Companies offering positions can post relevant information, receive applications and communicate with applicants through the jobs portal.

Meanwhile NUS, which will be opening up positions across its faculties, research institutes and in administration, said the traineeships it provides will be "traineeship plus" and will include free courses and personalised mentorships.

Professor Ho Teck Hua, NUS senior deputy president and provost, said some 11,000 of the university's undergraduates as well as master's and PhD students will graduate this year.

The idea is not just to help graduates tide over this difficult period.

He said: "It is tied with development and mentorship opportunities, so that when they finish their traineeship, they will have the skills and savvy needed to seize opportunities in the post-pandemic world."

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Singapore extends COVID-19 circuit breaker period by 4 weeks until 1 June 2020: PM Lee Hsien Loong

Additional $3.8 billion wage support, other relief measures to be extended in the month of May 2020 to tide firms over longer circuit breaker: DPM Heng Swee Keat

June school holidays to start from May 5 to cover extended circuit breaker period, says MOE

Last digit of IC to determine entry to four markets; essential workforce to be cut to 15 per cent

Up to 3,000 tests for COVID-19 done daily in Singapore, most on foreign workers

All foreign workers living in dorms barred from leaving premises until May 4 under tighter measures to curb COVID-19 spread


Measures to check coronavirus spread tightened and extended to June 1
PM Lee says no room for complacency amid spread in dorms and also wider community
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2020

Circuit breaker measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus will be extended to June 1, with existing rules further tightened for the next two weeks.

This means more workplaces will be closed, reducing the number of workers who keep essential services going.

All standalone food and beverage outlets selling mainly drinks and snacks, as well as hairdressing and barber shops, were asked to shut by 11.59pm last night, 21 April.

Entry restrictions are also being put in place at hot spots where large groups of people continue to gather, starting with four popular markets.

These stricter measures will last until May 4, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his fourth national address on the situation.

But it would not be possible to return to business as usual soon thereafter, and so the circuit breaker would have to be extended until June 1.

"Then, provided we have brought the community numbers down, we can make further adjustments and consider easing some measures," he said yesterday. "This way, we can be more assured that we have made definite progress and consolidated our position."

His statement, which he also delivered in Mandarin and Malay, came just before Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced that the Government will extend wage support for businesses next month, at a cost of $3.8 billion.

PM Lee acknowledged that many people, especially businesses and workers, will be disappointed by the extension of circuit breaker measures.

"But I hope you understand that this short-term pain is to stamp out the virus, protect the health and safety of our loved ones, and allow us to revive our economy," he said.

Another 1,111 new cases were reported yesterday, 21 April, driven mainly by foreign workers living in dormitories who are being tested rigorously, taking the national total to 9,125.

Although the number of community cases has fallen in recent days, Singaporeans cannot afford to be complacent, PM Lee said.

"We must press on to bring down daily infections more sharply, to single digits, or even zero."

Singapore must also keep working to reduce the number of unlinked cases, he said.

"Unfortunately that number has not come down," PM Lee said. "And this suggests there is a larger, hidden reservoir of cases in the community that is the source of these unlinked cases, which we have not detected."

He called on all Singaporeans to stay home as far as possible, urging those who have to go out to do so alone and not with their family.

"Remember: It is not just about adhering to the letter of the law," he said. "The spirit of the guidelines is to reduce movement to a minimum, and to avoid being out and about in the community. This is the way to protect yourself, your family and everyone else."

PM Lee also repeated his assurance to migrants that their health and livelihood will be taken care of.

"To our migrant workers, let me emphasise again, we will care for you like we care for Singaporeans," he said.

Those with mild cases of COVID-19 are either being housed on-site, in separate facilities within dormitories, or in community care facilities elsewhere.

Those who need more active treatment will receive immediate attention and be taken promptly to the hospital, PM Lee said.

Looking ahead, he said that several things must be in place for the circuit breaker to end. The country must open up incrementally, making sure that it is safe to do so at every step.

Singapore also needs to substantially scale up testing for COVID-19 so that it can quickly detect any new cases.

"This we are beginning to do, not only by procuring test kits and equipment from other countries, but also by developing and manufacturing our own test kits," PM Lee said.

Lastly, Singapore needs to make full use of IT so that contact tracing can take place more efficiently. Apps are being developed for this purpose, but people must install them and weigh privacy concerns against the benefits of being able to exit from the circuit breaker, he said.

Tuesday 21 April 2020

Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS): Self-employed can apply for relief from 27 April 2020

By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2020

The self-employed can apply for the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) from next Monday, 27 April.

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) said that those who have not been automatically included in the scheme can submit an online application to the union from next week. It added that those aged 37 and above as at Dec 31 this year who meet eligibility criteria need not apply as they will be notified automatically via SMS and a letter from the Central Provident Fund Board.

The scheme will disburse three quarterly cash payouts of $3,000 - in May, July and October - to help tide people over the loss of income stemming from the Covid-19 outbreak.

About 100,000 self-employed people are automatically eligible. They can check their eligibility online.

The NTUC SIRS hotline on 6713-5777 and virtual assistant will also be operational from tomorrow, 22 April.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) oversees the scheme but the NTUC will help administer applications and appeals for those who do not automatically qualify.

People who miss out can submit appeals through the NTUC.

The scheme is open to self-employed people who have an annual net trade income of no more than $100,000, who live in a property with an annual value of no more than $21,000 and do not own two or more properties.

If they are married, they and their spouse together must not own two or more properties and the spouse's assessable income must not exceed $70,000.

The scheme initially had a rule that an applicant must have started self-employment on or before March 25 and must not earn any income as employees. But an enhancement by MOM now means that it can include self-employed people with an income of no more than $2,300 a month from employment.

The website for applications will be integrated with MyInfo, a service that consolidates residents' personal data that can be then used to auto-fill official forms.

Sunday 19 April 2020

Don't blame migrant workers for coronavirus spread in Singapore

By Tee Zhuo, The Sunday Times, 19 Apr 2020

On Thursday night, I was on a phone call with N, a 29-year-old Bangladeshi construction worker who has been here for eight years. He is now quarantined in Cochrane Lodge I.

Had I written this sentence a month ago, I might have to explain to readers that this is a licensed dormitory in the north of the island housing thousands of foreign workers. I probably don't need to now.

Cochrane was one of the first few dormitories with cases of COVID-19. The vast majority of new cases are now linked to these sites.

For the average Singaporean, these workers were probably invisible until this "explosion" of coronavirus infections.

When my colleague Joyce Lim reported on squalid conditions at S11 Dormitory @ Punggol earlier this month, it came as a shock to many.

Although the situation at that time might have been worse as it was being turned into an isolation area, foreign workers here have always lived in generally bad conditions.

Since 2008, several migrant worker groups have called for better workers' housing after dengue fever, Zika virus and even chickenpox outbreaks over the years.

In a March 22 letter to The Straits Times headlined "Employers' practices leave foreign workers vulnerable to infection", Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) president Deborah D. Fordyce said the risk of a cluster among workers at dormitories is "undeniable", with so many squeezed into a room.

A week later, the first cluster at S11 was reported.

Yet, based on letters and comments sent to the media, some of the concern caused by these alarming numbers is not for the workers.

One reader who called The Straits Times last week asked the media to "investigate whether these workers are gaming the system", wondering why "all of a sudden so many hundreds of them are ill at the same time".

A Facebook user said foreign workers should be sent home, as they were making Singapore's COVID-19 case numbers look bad.

A letter from a Lianhe Zaobao reader blamed foreign workers, who she said come from backward countries with poor hygiene habits like eating with their hands, which Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam called out on Friday for being xenophobic.

Sadly, the comments reveal a rather ugly side to what some Singaporeans think of migrant workers, even as other locals have rallied to donate tens of thousands of dollars to efforts helping them.

To speak of those stricken with the disease as just digits that will make the national count "look bad", or to suggest workers are faking illness, exhibits a lack of empathy at the very least.

In a Facebook post responding to the Zaobao letter, MP Zainal Sapari said he is proud of eating with his hands, which is part of his culture and has "nothing to do with personal hygiene or bad habits".

"Some of the comments...reek of racism and prejudices of the culture of other races," he said.

Migrant workers I met while on assignment last month had already taken precautions like wearing masks and safe distancing way before they were made compulsory.

In contrast, more than a week into the circuit breaker, some locals still flout rules and have even attacked enforcement officers.

In a pandemic, a certain degree of fear is understandable. COVID-19 has been highly contagious and can be transmitted asymptomatically, and we may suspect even our own neighbours and relatives of carrying the virus.

But when confronted with high numbers at the dormitories, I would ask Singaporeans to first hear from foreign workers themselves, instead of jumping to stereotypes.

Over the course of half an hour, N spoke of many issues that he and other workers at the dormitories have continued to put up with, despite the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) efforts. Several other worker and civil society groups have also raised these conditions.

These included cramped and ill-ventilated rooms, food that is under-cooked or tastes bad, as well as worries about not having been paid salaries for several months, leaving them unable to contact anxious families back home as their SIM cards have run out of money.

Out of desperation, some workers have taken to commenting about these issues on MOM's social media posts showcasing efforts at dormitories, risking possible retaliation from their employers and dormitory operators.

I also ask that Singaporeans think about what we take for granted.

As I called N, I did so in my own room with air-conditioning. The last time I had to share living quarters with 11 others was during national service - and, even then, the room was both spacious and well-ventilated.

We have come to expect detailed information on each day's new COVID-19 cases, and start grumbling when they have not been released yet by the evening.

N, on the other hand, said no one tells them how many cases their own dormitory has, and workers grow anxious with only the sounds of the ambulance arriving and then leaving the premises.

N's fellow countrymen, who have travelled thousands of kilometres to a foreign land, built the very apartment block I call home.

Despite their toil in building this city, few knew or cared where or how foreign workers were housed before this crisis. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes - an attitude I, too, was guilty of.

There is much that can be done right now. For example, if you do not need your $600 Solidarity Payment, you can donate it at #HOMEFORALL Migrants - which shares it with migrant groups, including TWC2 and Home.

The money will be used to help workers with meals and supplies, improve hygiene and also Internet connectivity.

What about the longer term?

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said finger-pointing during a crisis when her team is working round the clock is not helpful, but has pledged to improve the dormitory system after the pandemic.

If the present crisis has shone a light on anything, it is that conditions at workers' dormitories were already poor even before this. COVID-19 will also not be the last pandemic to hit such workers the hardest.

I hope migrant workers will not become invisible and forgotten, and we will not once again forsake them after the pandemic passes.