Nationally Speaking: Personalizing Aliens

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By: Samuel Loh (16A01A)

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Source: Wall Street Journal

Few other developed countries employ foreign labor to the extent we do in Singapore, and fewer still do so with as little pretension as us. There is ostensibly nothing to gloss over the untamed bareness of it all – burly workers toiling alongside heavy traffic, the characteristic yellow of their hardhats matched only by the dirtied shade of boots they fashion; groups clustered around Race Course Road to call home; temporary dormitories built from prefabricated shipping containers exude some kind of ephemeral quality that’s oddly part charming, part brutish.

Yet, genuine understanding of their lives remain the object of elusion. In the most peculiar of ways, the presence of migrant workers amongst us has become one of those ubiquitous, “Singaporean-ish” things, yet is paradoxically repressed,  pushed off the spotlight of public consciousness. They’ve become something abandoned to the codes of state law to address, and their welfare a distant thought for ordinary citizens unless a HDB-residing toddler is rescued or if rioting breaks out in a historic district. Socially and culturally speaking, migrant workers have become invisible. To many, they are economic instruments only slightly more human than the machinery they help operate.

Source: Straits Times

At least, for the most part, our lack of empathy for the plight of migrant workers seems to stem from ignorance as opposed to indifference. There’s a subtle but very important difference — where ignorance necessarily precludes choice, indifference suggests an unwillingness to act upon better instincts. The routines and discomfort they experience on a daily basis remains largely out of sight, and thus, out of mind. This could be because of many things: a culture that discourages talking to strangers, natural suspicion of unfamiliar peoples, our own busy schedules, and so on. And there might actually be a lot more reasons, but the confluence of these produces an environment where their problems can be easily packed and kept aside quite neatly.

And the reason why the whole anti-immigration fervor seems even just a little bit credible is because many participants of this conversation wrongfully conflate genuine problems, such as the increasing frequency of MRT breakdowns, with migrant workers. Realistically, there probably isn’t any causal link. Furthermore, even though the contributions they make to our national infrastructure are significant, these are long-term investments less immediate to our senses, as opposed to the discomfort of having a slightly more crowded bus ride — which is trivial but still a lot more obvious. It’s easier to notice and feel the effects of train services going down on a monthly basis when you’re actually on the vehicle, whereas you don’t always see a skyscraper through completion until many years later. It comes naturally to us when we talk about how our own forefathers built this nation from the ground up a la the Pioneer Generation or even before, but how many of us will tell our children, with similar reverence, that the new skyscrapers of this 21st century Singapore were built by workers of foreign import? For now, at least, it is a prospect that feels incredibly uncomfortable and maybe bordering on blasphemous to our country’s narrative. The selectiveness that arises from our confirmation biases is often also the same selectiveness that allows us to unknowingly cut out the migrant worker from our lives.



Of course, efforts to make their situation more known have been ongoing and commendable. For a brief while in late 2014, the first ever Migrant Workers Poetry Competition caught the eyes and ears of Singaporeans as it showcased the literary works of migrant workers (Some of their pieces can be found here in full). These initiatives help by breaking down the barriers of unfamiliarity. There’s something special to knowing that despite our great cultural and occupational differences, we still indulge in things like literature and melody. But more concerted endeavours above and beyond creating a free website on with questionable publicity at best are needed. Neither is it enough to have social workers from various organizations talk to us about them, because little resolve really gets through once the empathy gap has grown as large as our own. We need to talk to migrant workers, and migrant workers need to talk to us — as Einstein once put it, there’s a lot more value to a voice than an echo.

We cannot and should not expect ourselves to change the world entirely. To think so would be grossly idealistic. In fact, that’s especially the case considering that volunteerism and social work of any real consequence demands so much time and energy that the average Singaporean student like us simply can’t afford to commit. What we can do, however, is to pursue small yet impactful ways of behavior and speech that understandably seem trivial, but on aggregation help create a friendlier and more open environment to discuss pertinent issues concerning the conditions of foreign workers. Simple hellos and smiles are more than just greeting; they are also acts of recognition. It signals that we can connect with these workers on the same human level as anybody else. When locals walk past pretending not to notice the presence of foreign workers tiresomely working to build our city, one cannot help but feel we are but engaging in a deliberate attempt to dissociate ourselves from reality. Accepting that they are indeed an immutable part of our national narrative — past, present, and future — is the first step in broaching important issues concerning work safety, social integration, and so on. Crucially, these are achievable things whose significance is often overlooked by people who believe only large-scale campaigns and decades-long activism can change anything. The misunderstanding that making a difference is prohibitively difficult is exactly what’s stopping us from, well, making a difference.

The general chaos of human life, much less the busy ones of Rafflesians in Singapore, breeds a strange kind of emotional parochialism — an ignorance and sometimes indifference to the destitution of fellow human beings, to whom suffering is colossal in scale but miniaturized by our thirst for moral convenience. The challenge then is not to stop and think, but to stop and feel.

In conjunction with National Day, Raffles Press is launching Nationally Speaking. Posts under this column analyze and comment on affairs and discussions of national significance. Submissions are welcome at To view other posts under this column, click here.

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