*Terry is Leticia’s foreign worker ex-boyfriend in The Noose
Many Singaporeans do not associate ourselves with foreign workers, especially factory workers and construction workers. At the sight of them, we think: “They are loud, they stink and they may rape us.”
I would not be surprised if many Singaporeans think that way, or that an even greater number of Singaporeans see them as a necessary evil – people who are willing to do jobs no self-respecting local will do, but crowd our public spaces and overload our transport system.
Now that the Singapore Government has announced in this year’s Budget to reduce reliance on the foreign workforce, I believe locals, especially those in the manufacturing and service sectors, are rubbing their hands in glee.
Complains that there are too many foreign workers in Singapore are not new.
Back in 2009, residents, worried about their property values, submitted a petition against the Serangoon Gardens foreign workers’ dormitory. The Bukit Batok foreign workers’ dormitory is also located away from other residential properties and surrounded by undeveloped land.
Accusations that foreign workers steal jobs and cause overcrowding reached their peak around last year’s General Elections, amid worries that the government’s method of creating jobs for foreigners to boost Singapore’s GDP is unsustainable.
Why the mentality shift for overseas projects?
Such unhappiness lies in stark contrast when we voluntarily live amid poor and ‘dirty’ foreigners. This seismic shift in the Singaporean mentality comes when we do overseas community projects. Going overseas for community service projects is almost always seen as a good thing.
We may, for example, go overseas to build houses for the poor. But the very people whom we help on our overseas community projects may have friends or relatives building our houses in Singapore. The only difference is that we, tired of our too-comfortable lives, choose to go overseas to ‘suffer’; but they, the foreign workers, are forced to come to Singapore because of their poverty.
So there are two very similar groups of poor foreigners – one group in their homeland, the other group in Singapore. But our attitudes towards the two groups vastly differ. We pat ourselves on the back when we do overseas community projects, but distance ourselves from the foreign workers here. Is this not hypocrisy?
We help the alien poor because it gives us a sense of satisfaction. It is a social exchange. We pay for the products that foreign workers in Singapore assemble on factory lines. It is a heartless business exchange. But have we forgotten that in both cases, we are dealing with people?
A person with a true heart for people and the overseas community would not have drastically varied responses to the two groups.
Selfishness behind the “altruism”
Perhaps the scenario that I just painted betrays the fact that despite doing community work, we are all self-serving people at heart – we only want what benefits us or makes us feel good.
There is a similar selfish mentality when it comes to doing overseas community projects. It is the ‘cool factor’ that the exoticism of this project brings, that truly attracts us.
If one truly desires to help, there are no shortages of volunteer opportunities in Singapore. Why not help our fellow Singaporean first? Because we are in it for that short holiday that makes us feel morally good.
And to what extent are we willing to help? Spend a lifetime overseas like Mother Teresa? No, we only want a ‘quick fix’. Help to the point where the foreigners’ living standards match our own?
I do not doubt that there are people who do overseas community for altruistic reasons. But the reasons for some are never purely altruistic – there are definitely some selfish reasons.
So let not the person who does community work overseas trumpet his good deeds. And let not the schools, which so often encourage their students to go overseas for community work, beat the drums of pride. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.
I am not requesting Singaporeans to take concrete actions to help the lives of the poorer foreign workers in Singapore. But at the very least, remove the scorn from our minds. Stop associating them with dirt and filth.
Whether you are Chinese, Indian or Malay, remember that your forefathers came here as foreign workers too.