The Two Singapores: On The Ground (from Home)

This article is part of the following series:

“The Two Singapores” is an ongoing interview miniseries run by Somatosphere to interrogate Singapore’s COVID-19 response, in particular in its handling of the explosion of cases among migrant workers living in cramped dormitories. The series aims to shed a light on Singapore’s reliance on cheap migrant labor in maintaining its image as a glitzy, cosmopolitan city-state, and aims to offer an insight into a more harmonious and equitable post-pandemic future where migrant workers are accorded better protections and access to healthcare systems in Singapore.

So far, we have talked to public health research assistant Amanda Low from the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, and academic Megha Amrith, who leads the ‘Ageing in a Time of Mobility’ Research Group at MMI-MPG. On today’s edition of the series, we talk to Ivan Ng, a case work volunteer at the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), one of several NGOs dedicated to migrant worker welfare in Singapore. Ng retired from the banking industry after more than 30 years of service, and has been volunteering at HOME for the past five years. His work revolves mainly around providing assistance to migrant workers who face disputes about salary and work injury claims with their employers. Although he finds the work frustrating in the face of much inequality and injustice, Ng appreciates the unique opportunity to accompany workers on their plights and to empathise in their situations.

Wahid Al Mamun (WAM): What has your volunteer work looked like since the outbreak of COVID-19?

Ivan Ng (IN): As a casework volunteer, I helped non-domestic migrant workers solve their issues with salary and injury compensation. Normally, we like to talk to workers directly to understand the issue and to give them some options. But due to the circuit breaker11 in Singapore, many of the migrant workers were isolated in their dormitories. Our office also had to close because we were not considered as an essential service provider. In the end, only two of our staff members were given permission by the government to walk the ground and meet the workers. I still did my part as a volunteer but I worked from home, and the two staff members would have a hotline which received calls from migrant workers all around Singapore. This includes those in dormitories, but also workers living in the community, scattered in places like Geylang and Little India.22 Our staff would meet them and would see what their problems are, and my task was to coordinate all this. The style of doing this work may have been different, but we were basically dealing with the same issues.

Some people say that part-time volunteers are less committed, which is somewhat true – you don’t have to go to the office every day, and you dedicate fewer hours per week than regular staff. And the pandemic has also limited our physical contact with the workers, which has been a challenge. But it opened up another opportunity for volunteers to help – we use online channels and we have been calling people on their phones much more. On my end, I was actually busier during the pandemic than the time I spent in the office.

WAM: And what about after the Circuit Breaker – how did business resume for you with Phase 2? What did that look like?

IN: After the circuit breaker we gradually reopened the office. I continued to work from home for some time – I’m approaching sixty, and the workers are still considered a higher-risk population. I only started to come back to the office last month. We have less workers coming to the office now because dormitories are not fully open yet, even though they are no longer considered ‘isolated’ – the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) still has many restrictions on migrant workers moving around, so workers need to get approval and let us know before coming to our office. But migrant workers living in residential areas can come to our office, so we have started our business as usual with precautions like body temperature checks, health declarations, and general social distancing etiquette.

WAM: I’ve been thinking about the dormitory issue and the restriction on migrant worker movement if they are in the dormitories. I’m wondering how that has affected their mental health, and whether you’ve seen that in the calls and cases you’ve been getting.

IN: Unfortunately, we don’t have any statistics yet about migrant worker mental health. However, during my conversations with workers, especially those who can’t come to the office, I always feel the intense stress levels they are facing. Normally when they ask for help, we can immediately jump into the issues that they face – unpaid salaries, injuries, what not. But now there are several occasions where the workers call you because they just want to talk to you. As men, we’ve grown up to understand that it’s not easy to open up to other people about how we feel, so I’m surprised when they just want to open up to someone.

Along the way, they will share that they’re also worried about their families back home, especially for workers from Bangladesh where the situation is a lot worse. They also worry about financial matters – will I lose my job? Will they cut my pay? These are all mixed up together and they cannot keep all this to themselves. When some of the workers do come to our office, they share their stories with tears in their eyes, which again is not very common among male workers.

Not to mention that the dormitories heighten the situation and make it worse. I was talking to a worker yesterday who had been staying in the community and had been given some accommodation allowance by his employers. Starting this month though, the employer wants him to move to a dormitory because they would not pay his allowance anymore. This was traumatic news for him because he really does not want to go back to the dormitory – he is scared of being infected and of losing his freedom to move around. Of course, he doesn’t have money to afford rent so he’s been asking us if we can help them. But it shows how real the issue is as far as the dormitories are involved.

WAM: How have NGOs on an organizational level and volunteers on an individual level stepped up to the challenge of meeting the needs of migrant worker mental health?

IN: I think some of our volunteers are trying to just spend more time and to listen. Sometimes our job is very technical – you have a problem, we have a solution. Now we feel that we just need to spend more time just to understand the problems migrant workers face, and to give them the time to voice out how they feel.

At the same time, people are collaborating on projects to gather statistics and information about migrant workers’ mental condition. Moreover, some of the other [migrant worker] NGOs like Transient Workers Count 2 (TWC2), HealthServe, and ourselves have come together for migrant worker mental health projects. We still need to discuss how we can bring up more awareness at a higher level to get the government to actively step in. But even among ourselves, we are connecting with each other and pooling resources together – both HealthServe and us have several professional counsellors. So, when we feel that some people need to talk to a counsellor, we will refer them to one of these counsellors. Some of the workers will decline, but we will try to really encourage them to talk to someone more professional.

We also need to give more narratives to the Singaporean public – even if you are concerned about your own mental health during the pandemic, the mental health of the migrant workers should not be neglected at the same time.

WAM: I think providing counselling services for migrant workers will be greatly beneficial. However, do you foresee any technical problems with implementation – what about cost, and what about restrictions to mobility for migrant workers?

IN: Of course, there are limitations in resources – we really want more regular counselling sessions for those in need, but it is quite difficult because counsellors are limited in quantity and have very little time to see everyone. There are also strict restrictions in dormitories, which means the workers cannot come out. We’ve been trying tele-counselling – I have referred some people to hotlines where you can talk to the counsellor informally. Sometimes, the worker may not suffer from some underlying mental condition, so if there is someone at this moment who can listen to them for a couple of sessions that’s fine. But some people may need more. For those in the community, we also tell them to go to the polyclinics and tell the doctor about their problems. Usually the doctors can refer workers to a specialist or the psychology ward, if needed.

I understand that the resources themselves are a great barrier, but many of our counsellors are pro bono anyway, so cost is not an issue. One obstacle we do need to solve is the language barrier. If the worker is Bangladeshi, they may not be comfortable in expressing themselves in English, and may prefer Bengali-speaking counsellors. This is something we may not be able to provide professionally, which is where volunteers can be the first point of contact with the workers, even if they are not fully trained. Sometimes, we even have workers who have already returned to Bangladesh helping out. When we have new workers coming into the office and we cannot communicate with them, we will make a group call with the workers back home to translate for us. The workers back home can also relate their own experiences to share with the worker who had come to our office.

WAM: With reference to your earlier point about involving narratives and investing Singaporean people in migrant worker issues through narratives, I do think that among a lot of my peers on social media just talking about migrant worker issues more. But how do you sustain that energy for the long run?

IN: I think this is a real challenge. At the beginning of the circuit breaker we received overwhelming response from the Singaporean public They were donating money, food, everything. My work also involved matching the needs of the workers – sometimes workers need food, meals, phonecard top-ups, and groceries. I usually found there was an oversupply of donors – we have more people who wanted to help than the pool of workers that we were taking care of! As the condition stabilizes now, Singaporeans also need to face their own issues because the economy isn’t doing well. When you have your own issues, it becomes difficult to pay attention to others, and we can see this slowly creep in right now actually. I think we need to accept this fact first and foremost, but at the same time – how can we move ahead?

One thing I mentioned before is we need more like-minded people or groups coming together. We have to continue our project and to publish what we have about what issues migrant workers are still facing, how we can help. Individually, I must not stop sharing all these stories with everyone around me. Of course, it’s not like I’m stuffing this down people’s throats, but whenever the chance to have a conversation, you have to share all that you know with people around you. I think it is a ripple effect, and every individual can do their part. On an organizational level, we need to show the policymakers that we have momentum, and we need to find a way to do something about it from there.

WAM: How do you get to the policymakers? How do you envision a Singapore of the future, post-pandemic? How do you imagine a more equitable Singapore for migrant workers?

IN: People have different ideas about this issue, and I think we need to be open to all opinions. Sometimes – especially in my age group – I hear some opinions that I do not hold. It will be good if everyone is engaged – you don’t need to agree with each other all the time, but we need to encourage everyone to speak what is on their minds. We need an open, honest conversation where we can listen to both sides.

Even though we may always wonder if the Singapore government truly listens to other people’s ideas, you can see how the voters can be vocal about their opinions from the recent elections.33 The government is slowly opening up more channels to listen to the public. Sometimes they may come across as heavy-handed, but they know they ultimately still need to listen to the people because this translates to votes in the future elections.

Personally, as far as the migrant worker population is concerned, it seems we have two populations in Singapore – the local population for whom everything is well taken care of; and the population of more than a million migrant workers, whose welfare is often overlooked at best. I would like to find a way to bridge the gap between these two populations. Of course, I’m not saying this can happen overnight, and I don’t know if it will be good to totally integrate the two populations straight away. However, we should always ask – are we treating migrant workers as part of Singapore? Do we have a basic level of respect and fairness towards this population? Say, for example, the situation at the dormitories during the Circuit Breaker. While we are staying comfortably in our homes, our foreign workers are crowded in such a small area in the dormitory. This is a main reason for the uneven outbreak – the workers just have nowhere to go. Of course, the government is trying to make more space in the dormitories now, but I think it is part of the issue and offers the immediate solution. In the longer term, I really feel that we have to foster social cohesion and inclusiveness in Singapore.

Another thing I will say is the Employment Act44 exists to protect workers’ rights, but we always have been saying that the enforcement of this law is problematic. While the law is not properly enforced and employers are aware of this, they will try to take advantage of the loopholes in the law. And who will suffer? It is definitely the workers. I think you may be aware of this common scenario – the worker comes to Singapore and is given a Work Permit. But if the boss doesn’t like you for whatever reason, you’re cut and you’re sent home. The cost for the worker is immense – they had probably had to borrow money and sell their house to pay the agency fee to come to Singapore. The worker loses almost everything. On the other hand, if the worker is not happy in his job, he cannot do anything about it because he will be sent home if he voices his dissatisfaction. If you look, you can always find the inequality – I’d call it an injustice. Will the government do something about it? I am sure they know the issue exists, but they are also keen on maintaining cheap labor and promoting business, so they may just close one eye on the issue.

The views expressed in this interview reflect the personal opinions of Ivan Ng, and do not in any way reflect HOME’s official stance on the issue of migrant worker welfare.


[1] The Circuit Breaker refers to the Singapore government’s stay-at-home order, issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on 7 April 2019.

[2] Both Geylang and Little India are both mixed commercial and residential areas which have a great population of migrant workers relative to the rest of Singapore. Many migrant workers who do not live in the dormitories live in these neighborhoods. See interview with Amanda Low in this series.

[3] The 2020 General Elections in Singapore were held on the 10th of July. The incumbent People’s Action Party, in power since 1959, registered only 61.2% of the popular vote, one of its poorest showings in the elections. Additionally, the opposition Workers’ Party claimed 10 seats in the Parliament – the largest ever representation of opposition-elect in Parliament.

[4] The Employment Act is Singapore’s main labor law, and delineates basic terms and rights for all types of employees. Read more here.

Wahid Al Mamun is an undergraduate studying Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is a summer intern at Somatosphere.