Location, they say, is everything. And in Singapore, living in District 9 means you’ve got it all – posh condo, swanky car, cushy job. You know, all the good things life has to offer. The guy who made the video below should know. He left China for a job here. And his boss was kind enough to put him up in – gasp – District 9.
This video has been widely circulated on the internet (more here). It’s triggered angry comments from shocked Singaporeans and even led to a front page write-up in a local paper. But the truth is there are probably many more hovels in District 9, and across the country. When we were making our documentary, Migrant Dreams, we were led to an illegal cluster of container dormitories. And just round the corner from we’re staying now, workers are housed in dingy walk-ups, crammed dozens to a room, with just one shared toilet and very little ventilation.
Filthy loos. Bug-infested beds. Rampant overcrowding. How do employers, in good conscience, expect their workers to put up with such squalor? One employer told us – “The workers don’t mind. They are used to it because they live in slums back home.”
When confronted, the landlord of the container dormintories complained bitterly. “I’ve given them stoves to cook on, running water and toilets [five for 200 men], what more do they want?”
What more do they want? There is the implicit assumption that these foreigners, these lucky bastards, should be grateful for whatever we give them. Because, don’t they come from some third-world backwater? If they don’t like it, they can jolly well go home. What do they expect, condos?
No. They don’t expect condos. They expect to be treated like human beings. And humans aren’t generally meant to live in damp, smelly, bug-infested hellholes. The irony? Hovel living doesn’t come cheap. Most workers will tell you they have to pay their employers for food and lodging. Never mind if their so-called dormitory is rat-infested, or stinks of poo and piss.
It’s World Habitat Day today. The theme this year – “Planning Our Urban Future”. Perhaps in our own planning, we should take into account the ones who do the physical building. The ones who toil long hours, for very little pay. Just so that we can have our swish apartments and giant malls.
Modern-day Singapore was built on the backs of migrant labourers. It has been said our forefathers also endured horrendous conditions when they first arrived. Why should foreign workers who come now expect any different? Because we like to think we’ve evolved since the 1800s. That was when we didn’t have our world-class everything. Back then, even the poshest homes didn’t have flush toilets. Now, good sanitation is a given. Especially when you’re living in the miracle that is Singapore. And most certainly when you’re living smack in the middle of District 9.