Put ourselves in their shoes

Put ourselves in their shoes
Foreign workers waiting for an outdoor event to take place near the Esplanade.

SINGAPORE - Foreign workers from South Asia are not malicious troublemakers but people who have left their homeland in the hope that their family members may be lifted out of destitution.

They work under the blazing sun or in drenching rain, and are often given the most lowly jobs - bone-jarring and ear-splitting drilling, clearing of debris, lugging of heavy loads.

They eat huge mounds of rice drenched in curry to get energy, drink tap water from reused plastic bottles and fall asleep on pavements during their breaks.

They sleep in crowded dormitories or illegally at mosquito-infested worksites.

You see them transported in pick-up trucks, exhausted, asleep or just lost in thought, unaware of the risk to life and limb should the truck get into an accident.

For the first year of their stay here, the bulk of their pay goes into repaying the agents who arranged for their trips. Only when that is done will their families begin to receive the long-awaited monthly remittances.

Then, on Sundays, you see some of them in Little India. They come out in clean shirts, congregate in groups, singing, dancing, smoking, drinking, meeting friends and watching cricket. It is the day they can feel "My life isn't too bad, I can survive".

I appeal to the authorities not to overreact to the riot and clean up Little India such that it becomes interesting only for tourists. It ought to remain a haven of comfort, and a reminder of home, for these workers from South Asia.

As Singaporeans, we need to do some "heart work" with regard to the foreign workers in our midst, even if it is not easy and may make us feel uncomfortable.

First, we must recognise racist attitudes and keep them in check. We have seen some of these in ugly comments online since Sunday. Talk to any Indian friend who trusts you enough and he will share accounts of racist attitudes he has encountered. We can fix this if we try.

Second, we have a shared responsibility to safeguard the welfare of foreign workers here. There have been enough sickening stories of workers underpaid or unpaid for months, of injured workers who do not receive the medical treatment they need and, occasionally, even of severely injured workers dumped by the roadside to die.

And the unending accounts of the dreadful treatment of maids simply will not stop.

Surely it ought to be the "Singapore way" to object to the inhumane treatment of foreign workers.

I do not make any excuses for those who broke the law on Sunday night. But we should all pause to walk in the shoes of the foreigners who come here to eke out a living doing jobs we shun.

Irene Tan Ling Neo (Ms)


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