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Give Me One Reason
Tracy Chapman & Eric Clapton

Saint 2.0

Sunday, September 7, 2008
disrupted lives | 1:15 PM

I follow with great interest the recent intense debate taking place at Serangoon Gardens over the past few days.  For those of you overseas, the article is included below. Later in the evening or tomorrow morning, I will post my opinions which I've had about this issue of low-wage foreign workers living in our estates and that which also hit home last year.   

Sep 7, 2008
Your backyard, my front door
By Tan Hui Yee

Serangoon Gardens residents have put forth a litany of reasons to explain why foreign workers should not be living in their midst. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Warning: The contents of this column may offend you.

But the words to come are essential to appreciate the sentiments behind the current furore over proposed temporary foreign worker housing in Serangoon Gardens estate.

Over two hours last Wednesday, the residents of the private estate in the north-east wore down their Members of Parliament with 101 reasons why foreign workers shouldn't be living in their midst.

Their main arguments, prefaced with phrases like 'I have nothing against foreign workers but...', can be summarised as follows:

They will rob our elderly folk.

They will molest our women.

They will sleep with our maids.

They will litter.

They will get drunk in our parks and make us feel unsafe in our homes.

Much of the language that was reportedly used, and the subtext of what was said, would not have been too out of place in the United States of the 1950s as white supremacists fought against the call for equality by African Americans, or in post-war Britain where newly arrived migrants met a swell of racial bigotry.

The only difference here is that the subjects of discussion have far fewer avenues to defend themselves, given that most will never get to be Singapore citizens even after years of building our homes and skyscrapers.

Singapore runs a tightly efficient guest worker system that keeps its industries humming at a competitive cost, but has a much harder time providing adequate housing options for the 500,000 here now, and the thousands more to come later.

The building sector alone is expected to require an additional 40,000 to 50,000 workers by 2010.

Last month, the Government announced that 11 new sites have been picked for dormitories that can house 65,000 foreign workers, but that they will take two years to complete. In the meantime, vacant government buildings will be converted into temporary quarters for these workers.

Building more dormitories is a logical answer to penny-pinching employers who cite the long waiting list for dormitory space as a justification for putting up their workers in converted factories or cramped shophouses.

However, when it comes to finding locations for worker housing, the authorities are pretty much caught between a rock and a hard place.

Ideally, a comprehensive masterplan outlining future sites for dormitories - temporary or otherwise - should be publicised months, or years, in advance so that employers face less uncertainty in housing their workers.

In reality, such public announcements are relatively last-minute, low-key and piecemeal affairs because anything else would spark a massive outcry from residents living nearby.

Note, for example, that the Ministry of National Development has not released the full list of vacant state properties picked for temporary worker housing.

The whole Serangoon Gardens episode bears the same flavour of the protest generated last year when the Government picked Sin Ming for a pilot purpose-built funeral parlour modelled after discreet Japanese establishments.

There were many reassurances that the usual inconveniences associated with funeral parlours would be controlled because incense would be burnt indoors and processions confined to its compound.

Yet plans for the high-tech, new-age centre now appear to be put on hold after vehement lobbying by residents fearing that the value of their properties will drop.

Housing foreign workers is probably as taboo as the business of death here, so it seemed only logical that two new dormitories housing 12,000 workers are now being sited less than 20m from the Lim Chu Kang cemetery.

Whatever debate that move generated is minuscule compared to what we are witnessing now in Serangoon Gardens.

But chances are, on this crowded little island of 707 sq km, foreign worker dormitories will have to end up in somebody's backyard, for the simple reason that not all our construction sites and factories are clustered around the industrial areas of Jurong, Woodlands or Kaki Bukit.

And the things that Singaporeans are squeamish about - justifiably or not - will not disappear even if we refuse to provide the infrastructure for their existence. If anything, a conscious neglect will only feed the ogre of our fears.

The question to ask is not how far such 'disamenities' can be sited from our homes, but how best they can be designed to mitigate their perceived effects.

If Singapore's response to climate change is to introduce a public housing estate with solar-powered lights and rainwater collection points, then surely high-tech, common sense solutions can be devised to reduce any possible disturbance from being near dormitories.

If, for example, residents find the smell of curry offensive, then the authorities should equip dormitory canteens with special exhaust filters. And if too many workers urinate in Housing Board void decks after a night of revelry, then it's perhaps time to build comfortable drinking spots for them with enough dustbins and toilets nearby.

After all, if Singapore wants to live up to its ambition to be a truly sustainable city, then it needs to find sustainable housing solutions for all its inhabitants - guest workers included.

That, in fact, is the simple part. Fixing our attitudes is a different matter altogether.


Can Singaporeans ever be made to change their attitudes towards foreign workers?
Send your comments to suntimes@sph.com.sg

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