Today after a long day of travelling from one nursing home to another to spread the joy of the Christmas season at Merry Marathon 2014, I had a 1.5 hour bus ride back home in a cold, chilly and empty bus. My neck was aching from the terrible posture in which I napped and later my legs hurt from walking to and fro deciding what to have for dinner in Clementi; to bring it from worse to worst, I took away a packet of piping hot Kway Teow for my mom before I boarded the bus which would bring me home in about 20 minutes. On the bus, as I stood, I had one hand grabbing onto the handle above me and another with the noodles I try to keep away from everyone else with much effort. I was dozing off, struggling to keep my balance. At this point, one of the countless migrant workers also on the bus with me tapped me on the shoulder and offered me a seat. And when I refused, he insisted.
I can only imagine how exhausting a day he must have had and the kind of conditions in which he worked: sweltering hot sun before the pouring rain this evening, menial labour and back-aching chores. With this in mind, the kindness he displayed was touching. And it made me wonder, “What exactly makes us so different?” Is it really the skin color, or the attitudes; the behavior, or simply the profession? Whatever it is, it’s nothing. It’s nothing significantly distinct enough to make them deserve any less respect or dignity than Singaporeans deserve.
I understand the woes: the ones derived from the controversial Population White Paper, the open door immigration policy that invites migrant workers to fill the jobs that have now been referred to as ‘the ones that Singaporeans don’t want’. We fear increased competition, not just for jobs but for housing, necessities, space, amenities just to name a few; and fundamentally, we fear change. In an article by Devadas Krishnadas, he calls for Singaporeans to stop supporting the phenomenon of xenophobia disguised as nationalism and I would very much like to echo that. I notice the way I avoid eye contact, I walk more quickly and have a subconscious sense of distrust as a ‘defense mechanism’ toward migrant workers; not only because of the stereotypes I subconsciously subscribe to, but also because of the way these migrant workers are a physical representation of the arguably ‘wrong’ policy that we have learned to direct our unhappiness or mistrust towards. It’s irrational. The increasing number of migrant workers to support our growing infrastructure and speedy development to remain competitive is a reality that will proceed regardless of how we treat these migrant workers, and it is only part of humanity to treat fellow human beings with the same amount of respect and kindness as we would to our fellow Singaporeans.
A way to look at it is to realise that the bigger picture is about creating a better Singapore, a country that is better for all, including the world and ourselves. While the government continually improves its policies to better serve its citizens and juggle the tradeoffs of inviting more foreigners into our limited land space, it makes sense to me to give them time. I sometimes feel that we expect our government to be perfect just because of their high salaries and perceived omnipresence. In the words of Krishnadas, “it has become a national pastime to blame the Government for any inconvenience or social discomfort” based on these two premises. As citizens, it remains our responsibility to live out the pledge of standing by Singaporeans “regardless of race, language or religion” and in creating the vibrant, loving and accepting community we want to be. I look at Australia and #Illridewithyou— I am infinitely envious. The love and acceptance (not tolerance) that is displayed and the generosity in protecting fellow human beings regardless of nationality or religion is heartwarming.
It has become a personal aim to understand, if not serve, and learn to empathise with this marginalised group in our community beginning with listening to their perspectives and being open to their culture. Here’s the case for migrant workers, and my take – #Illridewithyou.