Monday, September 22, 2008

NIMBYs in Singapore

Recently the 'not in my backyard' syndrome reared its ugly head in Singapore. Somehow news got round that a disused school in Serangoon Gardens -- a rather nice, quiet, very middle-class part of Singapore -- were to be converted into a dormitory to house a thousand foreign workers.

There are more that 500,000 such foreign workers in Singapore working in construction sites, apart from many more thousands working as domestic servants in households while both parents are at work.

I know Serangoon Garden well because I had relatives living there, and I used to have to change buses at what is called the 'circus' (roundabout) when I went to Nanyang Junior College.

I wrote the following letter to Straits Times and it was, of course, rejected. Basically I believe that there has been a dereliction of duty on the part of the policy-makers to make life in Singapore more human/bearable for the foreign workers in our midst:


Social scientists have long debated the meaning of ‘community’ and the residents of Serangoon Gardens are to be congratulated for showing an example of what ‘community’ could be.

The issue of housing 1000 foreign workers is not simply a question of this community against the rest of the world, or where to site such dormitories.

My perspective of the issue begins and ends with the fact that my late father was a migrant. He came here to escape poverty. Did he intend to stay? I think not.

But it was pointless to consider returning to a communist China. He stayed, got married, and raised six children with no additional help from the government.

I remember my father’s intense pride in his chairmanship of a huiguan. He was a man who taught us to ‘ying shui si yuan’, and so gave back to his village/clan associations what they gave to him when he was a new, young and single migrant.

Our current problem stems from years of neglect both in terms of policy and funding to ‘integrate’ these workers, even if temporarily, into Singapore culture.

Shall we let them organize themselves as clan associations did and therefore take care of their basic needs, provide facilities where they could congregate, enjoy some entertainment, receive counselling, celebrate festivals, etc?

Where there are efforts to help our foreign workers, it is often by voluntary groups like the churches (and temples?) who organize services in Tagalog, Tamil, Telegu, etc for our foreign workers. Would running English lessons and giving opportunities to learn about Singapore make a difference to the way these workers behave?

Our government seems to have done a ‘Pilate’, washing their hands of looking after the welfare of these workers. So in the last decade or two we have followed their lead to see these workers as mere digits, worker ants, nearly sub-human even, as having a different morality and therefore prone to criminality. We tolerate their presence as a necessary inconvenience.

We forget that they have the same needs and feelings, hopes and aspirations as those of my late father and those of his generation. Note the words of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, reminding us that he is only human:

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”


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Ang Sar Lee said...

I am not surprised that your letter to the ST was rejected as it is critical of the government :)

Anonymous said...

It's not just a matter of calculating that the school building can house 1,000 men. There has to be space for them to walk around and relax after a long day's work. If you are in Singapore, go to Kian Teck Crescent in the evenings, you will see that the workers sit by the roadside, in small groups. There has to be plans for such areas as well.