05 May 2020

What can Singapore do about its dormitory population?

Are guest workers a hidden and permanent underclass in Singapore?

"S11", a dormitory or worker camp in Singapore
Photographer: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images
The segregation of COVID-19 numbers in Singapore's daily reporting is a misguided attempt to boost domestic morale through window dressing and impression management. Don't panic at these high numbers; guest workers living in dormitories are not part of the community, they're not local, they're not permanent residents! This intrusion of politics into technocratic competency in Singapore's effort to manage the coronavirus pandemic is now affecting key policy. The minister heading the coronavirus task force announced yesterday in parliament that our goal is to end the lockdown when new daily community cases are at low single digits. One can only infer this will be achieved by simultaneously discounting new daily numbers in the ongoing outbreak in the dormitories.

This attempt to handwave away more than 90% of SARS-COv-2 infections in Singapore is not supported by medical science. From an epidemiology standpoint, what's happening in Singapore's guest worker dormitories is a classic community outbreak. Contact tracing has established early on that guest workers living in dormitories were infected through a cluster at Mustafa Centre, a megamall popular with Singaporeans, permanent residents, guest workers, as well as tourists from all over the world.

Instead of following the science, the data presentation reveals the social hierarchy of Singapore as seen through the eyes of its leaders: The community consists of citizens and permanent residents who are on skilled visas and their dependents. Outside the community, there are unskilled work pass visa holders and then still further out, the 300,000 transient guest workers in the property development industry who live in crowded purpose‑built dormitories, converted factories, and shophouses. Singapore's daily Covid-19 reports illustrate the governmentality behind these non-medical, non-scientific categorisations: which populations count and which don't count, which populations matter and which can be discounted.

Table from Ministry of Health Covid-19 report for 4 May 2020
Did Singapore forget the link between overcrowding and outbreaks?

Overcrowding is associated with a propensity for outbreaks of certain infectious diseases. It is a fact known since modern medicine was in its infancy.

Certain institutions of the modern state exemplify the trend of increasing governmentality and rational control of bodies and populations. We at Illusio further posit that they are further characterised by sanctioned and legalised overcrowding and subsequent medical-scientific measures, protocols, and rituals to circumvent disease outbreaks. Schools, prisons, and the military make up the classic trio of institutions but to this, we add hospitals and nursing homes in welfare states and dormitories (or worker camps) in labour input dependent economies.

A typical overcrowded dormitory room in Singapore, after new standards were imposed in 2016
During the early phase of the global coronavirus pandemic, nations across the globe focused their attention to all these institutions. We note that Singapore took somewhat proactive measures in these institutions except its worker dormitories, and the outbreak only happened because its decision to impose a lockdown was 2 weeks to a month late. In order of what was done first starting in March, prisons took immediate protective measures, nursing homes banned visitors, schools were closed, and basic army training for conscripts suspended for the duration of the lockdown.

A typical overcrowded worker camp room in the Gulf
Despite clear indications that the outbreak had broken out in the general guest worker population, Singapore's coronavirus task force decided to impose quarantines dormitory by dormitory, and only recently started to roll out mass testing its guest worker population. Dormitory operators and employers in the construction industry seem to be aware of the dangers if not the signs of an outbreak, requesting guest workers to don masks in public in February and encouraging them to be tested at Singapore's hospitals before the Ministry of Manpower issued a circular against this.

To be sure, in February tests were in development and low supply and meant to be used in hospitals on patients who had fallen ill from Covid-19. But for Singapore's Ministry of Manpower to openly scoff at genuine, legitimate, and well-placed health concerns by parties who were well acquainted with the dangers of disease outbreaks in Singapore's dormitories and to call them irresponsible and threaten them with license cancellations is simply a policy failure, again indicative of a mentality that discounts guest workers in policy formulation, even crisis response formulation.

Why did Singapore take late action on dormitories?

Singapore's liberal activists nurtured close contacts in the international media who are invariably activist journalists. It is no surprise that international coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak in dormitories adopt the same crusading tone as our activists, blame the same set of villains as our activists, and diagnose the same societal problem as our activists.

Caution is needed before the full blame can be laid at the doors of Singapore's political leadership, its Ministry of Manpower, and its coronavirus task force. While the Ministry of Manpower appears to be overbearing in this instance, we note that in normal times (even after the Foreign Worker Dormitories Act was passed in 2015) the whip hand has been with the construction industry and its dormitory operators.

Monopoly, Singapore edition.
Or at any rate, one of the many official "Singapore editions"over the years.
Real estate is big money in Singapore. Its property is among the most expensive in the world. REITS are seen as sure-win bets in a normal economy and a standard investment vehicle. Real estate is so big, the Singapore government's investment vehicle Temasek Holdings has significant positions in every major REIT. Where do the fat profits go? Not to the guest workers who build flats, condos, malls, and the office blocks in Singapore's financial district, but to property developers and their shareholders, then local dormitory operators and visa agents on both sides of the border. All the government can do is impose a levy on foreign workers, yet not too high a levy.

Economic theorists suggest that industries that are too profitable and big cannot be effectively regulated. A regulatory agency or commission may be appointed to oversee such an industry, but the end result is the industry players and lobbyists hold the whip hand. It is they who consent to the industry regulations they are willing to follow, and not the regulator who imposes guidelines for industry players to follow. What regulations industry players do not wish follow will are usually framed as an additional cost that must be passed down to everyone instead of being absorbed in any part by themselves. It is of course an attempt to privatise profits and socialise costs, which only works because of the power imbalance between them and the regulator.

Josephine Teo's ministry is nominally in charge of drafting the dormitory regulations for Singapore's property industry. One of her responses to the dormitory outbreak illustrates the textbook definition of regulatory capture: "Each time we attempt to raise standards, employers yelp - these are added costs which they must eventually pass on. They ask MOM, 'Are people prepared to pay more?'"

Fox guarding a henhouse is a popular explanation for regulatory capture;
illustration by Quentin Blake in The Fantastic Mr Fox
That is not to say that Singapore's dormitories are the worst in the world. Even ruthless capitalists have standards! As the dormitory owner explains, Singapore's dormitories exceed World Bank's minimum standards for worker housing in terms of amenities! At a regulated minimum of 3.5 square metres per person, Singapore's dormitories come within striking distance of the International Labour Organisation's recommended 3.6 sq m per person for worker housing!

If you scroll up to the earlier photos of dormitory rooms in Singapore and work camp rooms in the Gulf, that's how 3.5 square metres per person looks like. Regulatory capture or no, these minimum standards endorsed by international bodies still make worker housing susceptible to the occasional outbreak like measles or swine flu, even with subsequent medical-scientific measures, protocols, and rituals to circumvent them.

What can Singapore do about its guest workers and their housing?

Moving quarantined guest workers to army barracks, offshore ships, and surplus housing flats is a temporary measure. As the minister Josephine Teo said, there will have to be changes to worker dormitories when all this is over.

NMP Walter Theseira has suggested a Commission of Inquiry into the outbreak. Such an investigation would be superfluous and move too slow; the Ministry of Health's epidemiologists and contact tracing team are likely to be fully aware of the exact mechanism of disease transmission due to the extensive investigations as part of their work.

Liberal activists have proposed the Commissioner of Foreign Worker Dormitories actually appoint his assistant commissioners. The commission was created by the 2015 FEDA to accompany new dormitory standards in Singapore. Regulatory capture rendered the commission powerless to discharge its duty of oversight and it was pointless for a powerless commissioner to appoint assistants. The failure to fill these posts did not cause the outbreak.

We at Illusio believe that the conditions are ripe for the Ministry of Manpower to take back control of dormitory regulation and for the government to regain credibility in the eyes of the domestic and international public and come out on top.

Some political scientists say that administrative governance is marked by a punctuated equilibrium model of lawmaking. "Some dramatic events, commonly observed and productive of the right kind of public narrative, serve to alter, if only briefly, the static dynamics that allow for private interest 'capture' of legislative and regulatory entities... Dramatic events can intensify public focus on particular policy questions, however, and enhance the possibility that the inherent advantages enjoyed by private regulated entities in the process of policy-generation can be reduced."

This describes Singapore's dormitory outbreak situation to a T. Singapore's leaders must strike when the iron is hot or the chance to take back control will never come again for a long time. Such action can take the form of mandating new, higher dormitory standards, a higher levy rate, or as is our preference, a special tax that will be seen by the public as a righteous and moral penalty on the industry and its owners for failing to mitigate overcrowding in dormitories.

As a parting shot, we leave Singapore's policymakers with a recommended set of talking points to sell their playing of the Uno Reverse card on the property development industry.

1. Lessons are learned every day in our fight against the coronavirus
2. We trusted the industry to do the right thing and to set their own standards
3. Until it showed it was not up to the task
4. It's not our fault there was an outbreak
5. Ultimately it's the dorm operators, property companies fault
6. We will build better dorms and make them pay for it
7. For one time, construction companies cannot privatise profits and socialise costs
8. This is an unprecedented situation and international bodies have not made new recommendations
9. We will follow the science and best practices as they develop worldwide
10. This is currently a minimum space of 12 square meters for the accommodation of each worker as the ideal physical distance between workers that would help avoiding transmission of any infection

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