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2 May 2022

During the COVID-19 circuit breaker in April 2020, Singaporeans were shocked by a spike of 728 new cases on 16 April (CNA, 16/4/20). 680 of these cases were migrant workers, including 654 who lived in dormitories. The infection cases among these dormitory residents numbered 2,689 out of a total of 4,427 cases in the country that day (Ministry of Health Situation Report, 16 April 2020). For a group that accounts for only a fraction of our population, migrant workers in dormitories accounted for just over sixty percent of cases at that point of the pandemic.

COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on migrant workers, and this has brought national and international scrutiny to the cramped living conditions in dormitories (which exacerbate infections), and the treatment of migrant workers in general. As the pandemic progressed, we wondered why reporting for migrant worker infections was done separately from the rest of the “community cases”. Does this suggest that migrant workers were not part of our community? As Singapore endured different iterations of COVID-19 restrictions, migrant workers in dormitories were subjected to differentiated measures and unable to leave their dormitories on their rest days. This has had a terrible effect on their well-being and mental health (Straits Times, 30/8/21).

Some in our society decried our treatment of migrant workers and rushed to give to or volunteer with migrant worker organizations. However, after a short period when outrage was expressed on social media, the conditions of our migrant workers receded from our attention. We appear to have progressed little from our NIMBY attitudes, seen, for example, when migrant worker housing last captured the national attention and people protested over the siting of migrant worker dormitories in Serangoon Gardens in 2008. From time to time, concerns over the treatment of migrant workers in relation to their unsafe transportation at the back of lorries without seating or restraints, the lack of space for their recreation, and their lack of welcome in our community would surface and then die down.

Singapore’s great reliance on migrant workers is not matched by our attitude and treatment of our migrant workers. We need them; we want them, but we do not want them too close to our minds and to our neighbourhoods. We marginalize migrant workers by ignoring them and paying little attention to their concerns. If issues are raised, we offer appropriate noises of sympathy but move quickly on. We would rather migrant workers be…invisible.

A study of 1,000 Singaporean citizens and permanent residents by The Majurity Trust and Leap201 carried out in September 2020 provides insight into Singaporean attitudes toward migrant workers. The report “Building Bridges: Improving the Lives and Livelihoods of Migrant Construction Workers in Singapore” indicated that most Singaporeans support the fair, but not equal, treatment of migrant workers, and prioritized Singaporeans’ interests over that of migrant workers.

Respondents expressed a willingness to consider higher prices in order improve migrant worker welfare but were mostly reluctant to commit to trade-offs that would hit their own pockets. The report suggests that Singaporeans regard the government, employers, and dormitory operators as primarily responsible for migrant worker welfare. The respondents also evidenced a lack of consensus on the desired extent of integration of migrant workers within Singaporean society and the persistence of a NIMBY attitude.

Do Christians in Singapore mirror these respondents in our attitudes and actions? Or do we exude the “aroma of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15) by our recognition of the dignity of migrant workers as bearers of the imago dei—the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), and our obedience to Jesus’ fundamental teaching to love our neighbour (Mark 12:31)? As Christians, we cannot ignore the Bible’s account of God’s concern for the stranger, the foreigner, and the vulnerable.

In Zechariah 7:9-10, we see a triad of instructions that are intimately connected with one another. Justice, mercy, and compassion are conjoined with instructions not to oppress those who are vulnerable in society: “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor.” Many of us would recoil at the idea that we are “oppressors”. Surely not! However, oppression is not just what we do. Oppression can take place through ignorance, neglect, avoidance, and complicity. We can contribute to oppression by our silence and inaction too.

We show compassion by seeing the other and recognizing their humanity. We try to understand their circumstances and act to ensure that we—individually and as a community or society—treat them not only with justice, mercy, and compassion, but also love. We oppress by not seeing others—dehumanizing people by treating them as invisible. We ignore them and collude with others by both our actions and inaction to exclude them or allow their continued oppression. The command to love is a verb, connoting wilful and intentional action. Claiming ignorance is no defense for the Christian.

Migrant workers, especially migrant construction workers, are easily invisible to us. They live and work unnoticed by the rest of us. Their emotional wounds, mental health struggles, depression, and stress are hidden from our sight. We cannot see and we do not want to see. They are also invisible because they are not “us”.

Christians and the church in Singapore have an opportunity to model a different way for our society: A way that rejects the NIMBY attitude and our society’s fear of, and disinterest in, extending welcome and hospitality to the very people who make our progress possible; a way that seeks not only fair but a caring—loving—treatment of our migrant workers; a way that repents of selfishly hanging on to the benefits of our migrant workers’ labour at their expense.

Such a way requires us to re-examine public policies, business practices, and personal prejudices. Changing prejudices, practices, and policies and making migrant workers visible in our society and treating them with dignity is the responsibility of every Christian, every Singaporean. Some of us would undoubtedly feel that we desire a different way but feel powerless. We may believe that only the government and business owners are able to change the status quo. We profess sympathy but plead powerlessness.

Not doing anything will change nothing. Each of us as an individual, employee, employer, business owner, or policy maker must determine if we would follow the rest of our society or follow Jesus’ way, the way of love. It is a way that refuses to treat our migrant workers as invisible. It is way that chooses to treat migrant workers with the dignity befitting those who bear the imago dei.

Rev Dr Bernard Chao is Lecturer in Practical Theology, and Director of EQUIP, a lay training initiative, at Trinity Theological College. He received his PhD in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary (USA). He teaches in the areas of leadership and Christian education, offers courses in youth ministry and Wesleyan theology, and has research interests in the intersection of the social sciences and theology. A former litigation lawyer, Bernard is an ordained elder of The Methodist Church in Singapore (Trinity Annual Conference).