Singapore’s shameful state-sanctioned class divide


“Although the official abolishment of Apartheid [in South Africa] occurred in 1990 with repeal of the last of the remaining Apartheid laws, the end of Apartheid is widely regarded as arising from the 1994 democratic general elections.” (Wikipedia)

One of the most poignant symbols of apartheid in South Africa were the townships, part of a system of racial segregation enforced through legislation. The non-white population had to be segregated from the whites.

The word “township” was used pejoratively during that period which lasted from 1948 till 1994. It continues to be a reminder of that era of blatant state-sanctioned racism.

In 2008, when Singapore’s former Minister for Foreign Affairs, George Yeo, floated the idea of Singapore establishing “townships” for our foreign or migrant workers, it raised not a few eyebrows. Some wondered if we would be on the way to installing our own form of apartheid, if Mr Yeo’s idea was taken up.

Mr Yeo explained the necessity of housing our foreign workers separately: “We may grow much faster if we open our doors to foreign workers but if there are too many of them coming into Singapore, it will affect our living environment.”

It sounds eerily like what the white people of South Africa might have thought too – too many blacks in the neighbourhood “will affect our living environment.” The solution then is to house them “miles away”, as some Singaporeans reportedly preferred too.

And as with those of South Africa, Mr Yeo explained that Singapore’s townships would be “self-contained” – “which may give foreign workers the things they need, such as ‘better, cheaper access to food, to shops’ as well as ‘their own places for recreation’.”

One can’t help but doubt that convenience for the workers is the real reason behind Mr Yeo’s township idea then, given that the suggestion came on the back of public outcry over the installation of a dormitory in Mr Yeo’s Serangoon Gardens estate.

Isolating our foreign workers is not new, to be sure. We already do that, to a certain extent. As Mr Khaw himself said, we house some of our present foreign workers at Jurong island, for example. And we also house them “miles away” – at Choa Chu Kang cemetery, literally leaving them among the dead. [See report here.]

On 8 April 2013, the idea of isolating or segregating our foreign workers was again raised – only this time, the Minister for National Development says he is “open to [the] idea of housing foreign workers at offshore islands.”

The minister perhaps was referring to the suggestion in 2008 by Professor Wang Chien Ming, then director of the engineering science programme at the National University of Singapore. The professor had raised the option of having “large floating structures” which could “support cities on water”, built for foreign workers. In other words, floating dormitories for foreign workers.

It would seem we have moved from townships to cemeteries to offshore floating structures, all “sustainable and self-contained”, no doubt, to keep the foreign workers away – so that they “do not affect our living environment.”

The number of foreign workers in Singapore in 2005 was some 577,000, according to news reports. Presently, the number is between 800,000 to 1,000,000. The housing shortage is thus no surprise.

In recent times too the government has been promoting integration of locals and foreigners, urging locals to help foreign nationals feel at home in our island-state.

One must then wonder why it is also promoting the segregation of foreign workers from locals, and even from the main island.

What is also of concern is that such actions by the government creates the impression that it is permissible to isolate and segregate non-locals, especially low-skilled or low-paid foreign workers.

Such attitudes may give rise to the very thing which the government itself has been criticising – xenophobia towards foreigners. It would indeed amount to racism as well – the very kind which took South Africa almost 50 years to rid itself of.

The danger here is that we may accept the rationale that isolating and segregating foreign workers – “at offshore islands” – is good for them too. We would have missed the important point here. And it is this: how we treat the “lowest” in our society is how we ourselves determine the kind of society and people we ourselves are.

We have an ongoing “National Conversation” – led by government ministers themselves – precisely geared to determine this, the kind of society we want to be in 2030. But society is determined by the kinds of mindsets and attitudes we have towards things and people around us.

State-sanctioned racism, disguised as good intentions, has no place in such a society we hope to build.

The solution to the housing problem for foreign workers is not in further isolating them. It is in correcting the flawed economic and labour policies we have installed. For we have moved them from gated dormitories to cemeteries, and now we suggest moving them to townships and floating structures out at sea.

Let’s not lose ourselves in bigotry.

flosting dorms


One thought on “Singapore’s shameful state-sanctioned class divide

  1. These foreign workers must stay within Singapore (as opposed to housing them in Batam/JB). That’s an important reality check that what we are doing is sustainable (be it economically, ethically, environmentally, etc). Apparently, some expats are even living in JB and driving to work here in order to save on rental costs – yet these are the foreign workers who could potentially be PRs and new SCs.

    Then the next Q is “where” and “how” in Singapore.

    WHERE: Infiltrating HDB heartlands and illegally converting private housing into pseudo condos would increase social tensions arising from different cultural, social and hygiene habits. There is no compelling need to socially integrate those foreign workers who are not potential PR/New SC applicants.

    HOW: It would be more important to establish proper benchmarks and enshrine surprise inspection in enforcement to ensure decent living conditions in these housing quarters. This would be better than two-shift bed shares in, eg, HDB/private housing.

    Stealth living in HDB/condos result in overcrowding, health/fire hazards for these foreign workers and their neigbours. Eg,

    – Pearlbank recent fire was apparently due to electrical overload as one spacious unit in this condo is known to house 40 occupants.

    – Pacific Mansion is well-known for sub-divided cubicles with plywood walls.

    – Dragon Mansion advertised availability of bed-space rental – I saw this ad cable-tied to a drainage barrier near Liang Court. This was in 2012 in so-called First World Singapore which is exactly reminiscent of what was happening in Chin Chew Street in late 19th century Singapore!

    According fellow human beings with proper amenities and protection under the law and with due respect (especially the lower social stratum or those who are physically/mentally weaker) is vital. Personally, I have seen instances of Singaporeans who get up from their bus/train seat when a foreign worker sits down next to them – deplorable conduct of these ugly Singaporeans. I have also heard from foreign workers who refused to sit down rather than risk such insult.

    Social integration is altogether another realm. Even amongst Singaporeans, there are some who do NOT have friends of other races – be it due to happenstance or by deliberate choice or by unconscious filtering.

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