The Facebook post by Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan 11 November 2014 (click thumbnail at right) titled ‘Joint exercise with Police, SCDF & foreign worker ambassadors’ accompanied by eight photographs does a great disservice to migrant workers who have played such an important role in building Singapore, especially those of South Asian origin (the ones depicted in his post). By deploying migrant workers to act as rioters for a police exercise, and posting supportively about it, the minister is reinforcing stereotypes and dehumanising all those who made family sacrifices to come work in Singapore.

khawboonwan_facebook_riotersIt is bad enough that some Singaporeans hold prejudicial views about migrant workers, seeing them as prone to flouting law and community norms, and a danger to public safety — for which there is no objective or statistical evidence — it is irresponsible for a minister to fan such beliefs with a thoughtless post.

It is also objectionable that the police and civil defence organised an exercise like this, employing migrant workers to play the role of law breakers. It is the exact opposite of sensitivity training that is so needed for the agencies to work effectively as neutral and helpful agencies. TWC2 pointed out at the Committee of Inquiry into the Little India riot that distrust between law enforcers and communities make problem-solving harder. Even a simple exercise like this where South Asian faces are imprinted into the minds of law enforcers participating in the exercise (and now in the public’s mind through Mr Khaw’s post) as their opponents in a stand-off creates reflexes and patterns of thought that are unhelpful to good community relations.

Mr Khaw’s mention of foreign workers’ dormitories as dangerous nodes of “concentration” and posing heightened risk has negative implications. Besides reinforcing unfounded stereotype of migrant workers as dangerous especially when in groups, he is making his own ministry’s work harder. By planting in the public’s mind the notion that dormitories are potentially explosive places, he is creating public resistance to building more of them — an aim of the Ministry of Manpower — and in land-scarce Singapore, it is unavoidable that they come close to one or two areas of housing. If the Ministry of National Development’s response to such resistance is to place dormitories as far away as Singapore’s size allows, it creates difficulties in transport and access to amenities for foreign workers who have to live in them. Moreover, the isolation makes it even harder to achieve better social understanding between migrant workers and locals.

Singapore will not be what we are without migrant workers. They are not punching bags; they are the lifeblood and the muscles of our economic wellbeing.

Comments posted under Khaw’s Facebook post within the first 22 hours are archived in this text file.