By Charmaine Yap
On the very first day of our 3-week internship at TWC2, Alex told us most emphatically that we would need to “step out of our middle class mindset and assumptions”. That thought particularly stuck with me. Thinking back now, I doubt I had really understood then what he had meant by that, but being day-old new interns, of course we just agreed with him.
Over the next three weeks, we ventured into a part of Singapore that was completely alien to me — new places, languages, cultures and realities.
We were physically immersed in an entirely new environment. Most of our evenings were spent at Little India or Geylang. Come evenings, the streets would be thronged with workers after a day’s work, and the buzz of conversation would be in foreign languages. It was unlike any part of Singapore that I recognised.
One of the experiences that stuck with me was crossing Kitchener Road from Serangoon Plaza to City Square Mall. Once we reached the Mall, the conversations around took on very Singaporean intonations, and I would be back in “normal”, recognisable Singapore. It was a bizarre feeling of stepping from one world to another, so clearly delineated and distinct from each other by just one road.
We had a steep learning curve when it came to interacting with the workers. There was a lot to be learnt in recognising the diversity and nuances in nationalities, ethnicities and cultures of the workers. Learning to adjust our language and to use their lingo was also a long process.
Something else unfamiliar to me was the harsh realities that the workers face. It was unthinkable that so many human beings are treated with so little respect and as so expendable, in Singapore. Yet more astonishing is how limited our system is in providing aggrieved workers help and justice, or the perverse consequences which it inadvertently produces. These realisations came with a growing sense of the prevalence and degree of the abuses that occur in the foreign worker community.
At the end of those three weeks, it struck me remarkable how invisible migrant worker issues are in our collective consciousness, given the egregious abuses that are occurring in a community that forms nearly one-fifth of our population. Yet, I had myself spent 19 years entirely unaware of this diverse and bustling community. I was starting to understand the “middle class mindset” that we had been forewarned about.
Whether by design or chance, the path of the average Singaporean hardly ever crosses with that of a foreign worker. In hindsight, it was by some mix of complacency and inertia that I remained uninquisitive and indifferent to their lives. They were a distant reality that I felt removed from.
This distorted my perception of our society. I realised that I had taken for granted that my immediate reality represented the whole of Singaporean society. I always expected that the system would be able to address the grievances of any individual fairly. As this experience has shown, that is not the case for many workers. My personal reality was only a fraction of a much larger world.
To step out of our “middle class mindset” now means to me discarding the sense of contentment with staying within our comfortable sphere, and being curious to discover those whose paths we never cross. For the privileged individuals who have benefited from the system, it may seem to be a functional and good one. Only in becoming aware of the full picture can we begin to see the faults that exist and to realise the need for change.
For three weeks of December 2013, four first-year law students from the National University of Singapore were attached to Transient Workers Count Too, and given a project to interview migrant workers — those with jobs, and those without. Their Work Report is summarised at Informed consent, wages, kickbacks, termination and transfers. Their full report (pdf) can be downloaded from that post.
The writer of this opinion article, Charmaine, was one of the four students. Here she provides a free-form reflection on the time she spent with us.