Inequities Faced by Singaporean Migrant Workers Amplified by Group Polarization
As tourists visiting Singapore stop along the Marina Bay to take photos of the stunning skyscrapers which have erupted only over the past 50 years, it’s unlikely they will take the time to think about who built these buildings. During the three months I lived on the small island, I never did. And I spent every day working with the people who built the city.
My apartment was in Little India, one of the favorite congregation sites for South Asian migrant workers, and every morning as I walked to the bus stop, I would watch Singaporeans avoid eye contact or cross the street when approaching a foreign worker. I rode the bus to HealthServe, one of the few non-profits serving these workers, where I served as a Communications Intern and spent my day interviewing migrants, mostly from South Asia and mostly involved in construction. Most of them could point out a building in the city that they had helped put up. These men had indeed built the city, yet every day, I also heard heartbreaking stories of how the workers are mistreated and discriminated against.
The foreign workers who silently keep Singapore’s economy functioning gained some extra attention in the spring 2020 due to how gravely they were affected by COVID outbreaks. However, discrimination against the migrant workers continues, as they are being left out of Singapore’s reopening plans and held like prisoners in their dormitories. Furthermore, when some advocates expressed concern for the workers’ living conditions, the government made plans to expand the dormitories, but the expansions would move foreign workers closer to residential areas, and there has been significant backlash from many Singaporeans. Already, in areas like Little India which are popular for the workers, there are fences around green spaces in residential areas, so foreign workers are discouraged from gathering there.
How did the culture in Singapore develop to reject these transient workers?
In the 1980s, foreign workers began to come to Singapore to fill the jobs that Singaporeans themselves are unlikely to be willing to take (at least not at the low-wage migrant workers currently receive). Implicit bias considers the prejudices that we all have but are not aware of. It is human and it is natural to be afraid of people who are different than us. When there was a great influx of foreigners, many Singaporeans felt threatened.
From early on, there was pushback regarding the workers, and the government tried to restrict them, but the employers needed the labor. The city’s rapid growth in the past half-century would have likely been impossible without the simultaneous growth of the foreign workforce. Today, there are an estimated 1 million low-wage foreign workers (including nearly 300,000 construction workers) living in Singapore, and the discrimination against them remains.
Over the years, the timidness around the workers has been amplified through group polarization, the tendency for the opinion of a group to grow more extreme. When Singaporeans only surround themselves with Singaporeans, rather than talking with migrant workers, their opinion of the “other” group grows continually more extreme. As Singaporeans share their dislike for transient workers, more Singaporeans will share the beliefs that foreign workers are smelly, dangerous, and uneducated. If Singaporeans never talk with the migrants themselves, these stereotypes can never be challenged.
What can we do to fight group polarization?
Social media, especially as machine learning is improving, are only intensifying the effects of implicit bias and group polarization. If you want diverse opinions, you have to actively seek them out. One recommendation for fighting group polarization is to find content that introduces different perspectives and life experiences. HealthServe, the organization I interned with a couple years back, posts a lot of content like this on their Instagram and Facebook pages. An example in print is Parliament Member Louis Ng who put up posters of domestic workers and foreign workers and their stories.
You can not only interact with these voices on social media, but in real life too. In Singapore, it was found that groups that interact with migrant workers view them more favorably than those who do not. When you do have interactions with people who are different than you, share these stories with others. If it is difficult to see these interactions in a positive way, recognize that we are all humans and focus on what you have in common rather than what makes you different.
In my home country the U.S., we deal with many similar issues of discrimination. During the summer of 2020, a new movement has encouraged many people to seek out diverse voices on social media, in the news, etc. which has started to improve intolerances (although we still have a long way to go). For groups that already have so much stress in their lives (I could go on about the struggles migrant workers have to face besides discrimination, but this article covers a lot of them), you have the opportunity to ease their suffering by simply being open-minded.