District 9, Singapore-style

District 9, Singapore-style

“Have you checked out Penjuru Rec?”

By District 9, I’m not referring to the posh Orchard Road area. Quite the opposite, but I will come to that in a bit.

The Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) is proving to be more than just a one day news hit wonder. In fact, it’s in the local news on an almost daily basis since I last poured sarcasm on its after the fact display of philanthropy. Perhaps I was too harsh on them. Let’s hope this is not just a knee-jerk reaction after being caught missing in action following the recent series of worker troubles.

With its links to the union and government (curiously, it is labelled an NGO by the mainstream media despite being an offshoot of NTUC and having a PAP MP on its helm), MWC is in a better position to raise concerns directly to the authorities and exert pressure on errant employers. It should seek to work together with and complement the real NGOs HOME and TWC2, who have raised concerns about an increasing number of worker claims and complaints.

One piece of news on the MWC that caught my attention was the setting up of Penjuru Recreation Centre in Jurong East for foreign workers. The news article itself painted a very positive picture with the overtly uplifting headline “A place to chill out, learn new skills”. Besides having sport facilities such as a cricket field to cater to workers from the Indian subcontinent, there will be movie screenings, sports telecasts, concerts, bazaars and classroom classes. This centre is not a first, though. According to the report, there are at least three other similar centres, including the Scal Recreation Centre in Jurong West that houses sport facilities, a foodcourt, a supermarket, barber and shops.

The article was eager to credit MP for West Coast GRC Foo Mee Har for coming up with this seemingly thoughtful idea of such a centre in Jurong East. We are the country of hubs and we treat our foreign workers well, ergo an all-in-one social and entertainment hub for them. Isn’t that lovely? However, the true motive behind the MP’s suggestion becomes apparent in an unfortunate quote (emphasis mine): “The workers can enjoy themselves here. This will help to mitigate the disturbance to the residents.

This is the sombre reality behind all these wonderful centres we are building for our foreign workers — to keep them as far away from our malls, foodcourts and housing estates as possible. After decades of the Ethnic Integration Policy in our nation building, it appears to fly straight in the face of the government’s painstaking efforts to prevent racial segregation and ethnic enclaves.

The truth is we get uncomfortable when these workers start hanging out at our void decks or congregating in our shopping centres. It’s natural instinct to feel threatened by the increasing presence of others who exhibit different cultural habits and speak different languages from us. And these workers probably feel more comfortable as well not being subjected to constant condescending stares from locals. So wouldn’t social segregation such as this suit both locals and foreign workers perfectly?

It brings to mind the science fiction movie District 9 where unwelcome aliens are confined to a government camp away from humans, which eventually led to increasing unrest. The movie itself is a satirical allusion of the apartheid-era Cape Town District 6 with forced removal of 60,000 non-white inhabitants.

Are we now openly promoting the formation of enclaves with an out of sight, out of mind mentality? Over the longer term, will this lead to bigger problems between locals and foreigners? Already, too much of the displeasure at the PAP’s liberal immigration policies is being misdirected into anger at foreigners. We must watch out not to exacerbate the situation.