Tired of being cooped up in his flat during the latest soft lockdown, this TWC2 volunteer decided to wander around a part of Singapore he had never been to, for a change of scene.

He came across a massive hoarding, perhaps six metres tall. It is pictured above.

Hoardings are usually erected to hide ugly construction sites. At one end of this hoarding was a titillating sign that indicated a future dormitory within.

Wanting a higher vantage point to peer beyond the hoarding, your volunteer noticed a multistorey car park nearby and walked up six floors to its highest level. He saw, to his surprise, that it wasn’t a construction site at all. It was finished. There was a completed and functioning dormitory there.

The blue and grey roofs are the dorm buildings. They are enclosed by a hoarding wall at least two storeys (six metres?) high. In the background is a housing estate.

Maybe there’s a gate through which one might get a closer look, your volunteer said to himself, prepared to walk the entire perimeter if necessary to find some way to look through.

It didn’t prove to be too difficult.

Just around the corner from the sign that he noticed at the beginning and that had said “CCK Dorm C”, was a road entry. It turned out to be a common roadway leading to two quick-build dorms, CCK Dorm A (blue roofs) and CCK Dorm C (grey roofs).

But while the hoarding opened up to let the driveway through, in its place were fences upon fences, most stretches topped with barbed wire.

At several places, there were two rows of fencing with a hostile gap between them. Prisons are built the same way.

Fencing around CCK Dorm A (blue roofs)

Fencing around CCK Dorm C (grey roofs)

This TWC2 volunteer is immediately reminded of internment camps during the Second World War, where prisoners of war were held. As enemy combattants, they were considered a security threat even after being disarmed.

Here’s a photo of Camp Concordia from the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/WWII.PRISON.CAMP.CONCORDIA/

This other post from the same Facebook page shows German POWs let out to work.

The migrant workers housed in our dormitories are similarly let out to work each day. But when the shift ends, the employer must bundle them all into his trucks and ensure that they are taken back to the camp. The men are not allowed out till the next work shift — by law.

These absurdly restrictive rules are supposed to be justified by Covid-19, though it is hard to see the relationship between the handful of Covid-19 cases so far in 2021 and the need for such inhumanity. In the past six months, between January and June 2021, there were only 21 cases of Covid-19 among the nearly 300,000 workers living in dormitories.

Moreover, vaccination rates are quite high. We estimated in our recent article Some latest numbers on dorm population and vaccination that about 45% (and climbing) have been fully vaccinated by now. Many of the rest have previously recovered from Covid-19 and thus have natural immunity. The target is to have everyone who is eligible in Singapore to be fully vaccinated by September or October 2021.

To add another layer of Covid-19 indignity, dorm residents have to undergo PCR testing every two weeks.

Inside the camp

Walking right up to the fence, your volunteer managed to get this picture of the inside of the compound.

The small yellow box in the foreground looks like an ashtray. Towards the rear is the tall and intimidating hoarding.

Seeing these pictures, another TWC2 volunteer recalled that she had been in contact with a worker who recently stayed in the blue-roofed dorm. The worker had sent her some photos of the room interior.

This photo shows at least eight beds in his room. There is a hint of a ninth bed at the bottom left corner. Since the beds are arranged in twos, there may altogether be ten.

A striking thing is the lack of windows, at least as far as we can see. The room has fans but no air-conditioning.

Some beds have mattresses and some do not. It’s not clear why that’s so.

This is a WhatsApp exchange the worker had with his boss. The worker complained that one “can’t stay in [room] during hot days here”. It may have to do with what looks like metal roofs. And the high hoardings around the perimeter probably made it worse by obstructing natural breezes.

There is also the problem of food.

He mentions two room numbers in his messages to his boss; it is possible therefore that his photos are of two different rooms, not just one.

Soon after, the boss moved his workers out. This worker who was talking to TWC2 is no longer staying there.

A few more pictures that the guy sent to TWC2.

Comparison with a floorplan of another quick-build dormitory

Coming back to your intrepid volunteer looking through the fence, the exterior of the blocks seemed to him to resemble (at least initially) a floorplan that TWC2 had for another quick-build dormitory — this one in Kranji Way. However, as will be discussed shortly, the exterior resemblance is misleading.

But, nevertheless, we can digress here and show you the drawing for the Kranji Way dormitory.

There are twelve living units in a block. Each unit houses five persons (single-decker beds) and includes a toilet and a shower.

As the photos sent to us by the worker show, CCK Dorm A (blue roofs) has eight, nine or ten men per room and is therefore of a lower standard.

Another difference from the floorplan for the Kranji development is this: Kranji has a communal kitchen just a few metres from the sleeping block. CCK Dorm A does not seem to have that. Maybe there is a kitchen somewhere else in the compound, but according to a worker who stayed there briefly, it does not. The men have to rely entirely on catered food.

From another part of the fence, your volunteer spotted a quarantine room. There’s a man inside sentenced to solitary confinement. His name and ID number — of course, we pixelated out the personal details — are posted on the door. No doubt meant for easy management and surveillance, there’s nonetheless a fine line between administrative convenience and public shaming.

By good fortune, from another part of the fence, this time looking into CCK Dorm C — the one with grey roofs — your volunteer snapped a photo of a worker unloading mattresses. So, we know that at least the beds come with mattresses.

Why the need for them?

These two dorms are quite evidently among the quick-build dormitories (QBD) that Singapore rushed to completion late last year in a desperate move to reduce density in the massive dorms. TWC2 had argued way back at the start of the pandemic that dense housing conditions made for easy transmission of Covid-19 — a point echoed by many experts and (as is now clear) accepted by the government.

In October 2020, it was announced that about 8,000 workers had moved into the first seven QBDs. There will be eight more built by the second half of 2021, and these will house a further 17,000 workers. Thus, there will altogether be 15 such QBDs housing 25,000 workers. Even so, given that there are nearly 300,000 dorm-resident workers, it does not look as if these QBDs will make much difference to the overall density.

Here is a news clip from Channel NewsAsia, dating from 30 October 2020:

You might have noticed that in the above video from our State broadcaster, the camera did not dwell on architectural features like this:

The question remains: Though we may call them “dormitories”, is there a reason why they are built to look, swim and quack like prisons and internment camps?