We have a problem. We have hundreds of thousands of foreign workers – and we don’t know what to do with them on Sundays. And they probably don’t know what to do with themselves on Sundays either.
The foreign maid can stay “home” and be paid for not taking the day off. And even if they are out, they’re not likely to get into a drunken stupor and throw pieces of concrete around. They’ll just crowd somewhere until someone shoos them somewhere else.
The foreign worker can stay in his dorm – except that he won’t get paid because he is not working. In the better dorms, he can play basketball and watch cable TV. In the lousier dorms, well, he will have to find his own entertainment. Maybe, he could sneak in a beer can or two…
It looks as though for all our masterful planning of Singapore’s infrastructure, we neglected to think about what we should do about guest workers when they are not working. It’s not enough to house them, although some people still think “housing’’ is too good a term for cramped dorms. It’s not even enough to make sure there are more trains and buses so that Singaporeans won’t complain about overcrowding.
No one quite thought about this question: Where do they go on their day off?
I’ll wager that most of us plan our precious weekends carefully. Some of us have got it down to a routine; visit parents, in-laws, take kids for enrichment classes, attend church service, get together with friends, watch a movie or read a book at home. How do foreign workers plan their weekends? For those from the Indian sub-continent, it’s probably a routine as well: take bus, go to Little India, send back money, eat, drink, meet family, friends and then return to dorm.
Will Little India go back to normal after the riot? It was definitely not business as usual last weekend. Businesses grumble about lost takings. It wasn’t just the foreign workers who gave the place a wide berth (as they have been encouraged to), tourist numbers dwindled too. Of course, liquor stores were most affected given the alcohol zone. Little India became a dry zone in more ways than one. But you know what? Residents there are probably happier.
And now, the rumble is that the ban will hold in some form, perhaps modified to restrict the hours of sale. It is likely that you can’t swig a beer along five-foot ways or in open spaces, at least in Little India.
Whatever the action taken, there will be consequences and questions. One good thing is that minds are now directed at another part of a foreign worker’s life – not about pay or abuse or working/living conditions but about their Sundays.
Their dorms are situated in remote spots far away from Singaporean eyes. Amenities are lacking. They want ingredients from home for cooking and other essentials that dorms do not provide. They need them cheap because they know how much/little they’re paid. In any case, they need to save money to send it home. Already they say that it’s worthwhile paying for a shuttle service from dorm to Little India because they can do a one-stop shopping, eating, drinking and everything else.
But some people think they should be in a “gated community’’ or be provided with amenities far away from residential areas so as not to ruffle Singaporean feathers. To be sure, some would probably say that they just “stay in’’ like some NSmen do in camp. After all, they are here to work, not play. It’s an uncharitable view and you could even argue that this is the price to pay for maintaining law and order.
The Committee of Inquiry will be looking into the causes of the riot, and it appears to have framed it in large part as a law and order matter. Others have suggested that riot was the result of pent up tensions arising from bad treatment of foreign workers. Then the G weighs in to assert that working conditions had nothing to do with the cause. Provide evidence, it says. The G would have done better and kept mum about its conclusions/assertions – and let the committee do its work.
But here’s one suggestion: The committee shouldn’t just be looking at causes but also answers to this question: What CAN foreign workers do on Sundays. And where?