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William Jamieson

October 14th, 2020

Logistical Violence and Virulence: migrant exposure and the underside of Singapore’s model pandemic response

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

William Jamieson

October 14th, 2020

Logistical Violence and Virulence: migrant exposure and the underside of Singapore’s model pandemic response

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

“Singapore as model Global City is undergirded by stark disparities in its subjects of governance: citizen, expat, and migrant worker. While others have rightly responded to the exposure of the condition of migrant workers during the pandemic as an appalling disparity that needs to be ameliorated, this contribution seeks to locate the unique exposure of migrant workers to disease during the pandemic within the city-state’s peculiar political economy…”, writes William Jamieson, a PhD candidate in Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, a handful of nations and territories supposedly set the global standard for the response to the spread of coronavirus from China: Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam. Singapore was lauded in particular for its early declaration of a public health emergency, its assiduous testing regime and track and trace system, as well as its quarantining of positive cases. In the case of Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, and Hong Kong, this experience in particular was built on the SARS epidemic of the previous decade, which conditioned the tautness of their overall responses.  For Singapore, the initial exemplarity of its pandemic response was savagely undermined by April (Chew et al. 2020). Outbreaks in migrant worker dormitories had gone undetected and had to be contained by stringent lockdowns. As the infection spread, it quickly became apparent that it was nigh impossible for migrant workers to effectively socially distance in their dorms, quartered 15-20 to a room, as well as sharing toilets, kitchens, and dining areas (Koh, 2020). Migrant workers were decanted from their dormitories to disperse dense populations of healthy workers from infected dorms and quarantine infected workers. These temporary measures took equally utopian and dystopian turns; some workers were lodged in their own Housing Development Board flats, state-administered public housing usually out-of-reach of this segregated class of worker; some others were relocated to ocean liners, with separate ships for the healthy and the infected, inverting the bygone practice of plague ships into a parody of the city-state’s own attitude towards their approach to these workers: outsourced and off-shored. While these measures were eventually effective, Singapore’s overall number of infections swelled to 56,000 people by late August; over 90% of those cases were from migrant worker dormitories (Han, 2020; CNA 2020). Even as late as the 24th of August, new clusters are springing up in dormitories (CNA, 2020).

Figure1: Tuas View Dormitory (Robert John, 2019)

 

The exemplarity of Singapore’s pandemic response was starkly unmasked to reveal what Yea terms the ‘institutionalised neglect’ of its migrant workers (Yea, 2020). Singapore as model Global City is undergirded by stark disparities in its subjects of governance: citizen, expat, and migrant worker. While others have rightly responded to the exposure of the condition of migrant workers during the pandemic as an appalling disparity that needs to be ameliorated, this contribution seeks to locate the unique exposure of migrant workers to disease during the pandemic within the city-state’s peculiar political economy, and the construction of the migrant worker as an already pathological subject requiring considerable containment, both spatially and logistically. The migrant worker is not only a demeaned and endangered source of cheap labour within the city-state, but a covert model of logistical citizenship that Singapore’s logistical state requires for its reproduction. Firstly, Singapore’s logistical state will be outlined, followed by the evolving governance of migrant workers in Singapore, and conclude with a sketch of Singapore’s implicit model of logistical (non)citizenship engendered by its reproduction as a logistical state, a model of logistical violence that in turn ripened into logistical virulence.

Figure 2: Migrant workers recovering in gazetted HDB blocks or on cruise ships (Yeoh and Smalley, 2020)

 

Recent scholarship has identified logistics as a critical practice not only for buffering the friction of global trade, but has also ‘remade geographies of capitalist production and distribution on a global scale’ (Cowen, 2014: 10; Chua et al., 2018), inviting a reconceptualization of the terms of labour and citizenship. Singapore’s rise as a logistical state is intimately tied to the shifting cartographies of global production and circulation in the second half of the 20th century, leveraging its colonial legacy as an entrepôt, already a prominent oil and rubber hub. Canny social and economic policies positioned the nascent city-state as a key manufacturing and logistical node in the region, its swift development throughout the 70s and 80s powered by nimble switches up manufacturing value chains, outsourcing lower-value manufacturing to nearby Malaysia and Indonesia. The introduction of the Central Provident Fund (a mandatory savings and pensions programme), government-linked companies and banks, sovereign wealth funds, as well as the vigorous pursuit of foreign direct investment and multinational companies form the public-face of Singapore’s logistical-developmental trajectory, culminating in the paradoxical policy imaginary of a ‘Singapore Model’ (Chua, 2011).

However, as Barr notes, the role that low-paid migrant labour has played in this transition has been almost comically underplayed: between 2004 and 2015 the number of foreign workers more than doubled, from 621,400 to 1,368,200, 40% of the population (Barr, 2019). They serve as a buffer, shielding the average Singaporean from the worst excesses of periodic unemployment (as employment passes can be simply revoked or reduced on an annual basis), and from the worst kinds of work and working conditions. The migrant worker, without any substantive political rights to reside or organise in Singapore, is intimate with almost every facet of the production and reproduction of the logistical city-state:

Such foreign workers have built Singapore’s factories, schools, skyscrapers, roads and railway lines… [and] provided seemingly unlimited domestic service so that middle-class Singaporeans can work extremely long hours. It is no exaggeration to say that Singapore’s reliance upon cheap, vulnerable foreign labour has been at least as important to the country’s economic development as more celebrated aspects of the political economy, such as its highly educated citizen workforce. (ibid)

Low-wage migrant workers are unable to vote, and are not allowed to collectively organise for better working conditions. They are excluded from the Employment Act, covered instead under the Employment of Foreign Manpower, and owing to the lack of any fixed minimum wage in Singapore, are paid far lower than their Singaporean counterparts. Currently, Singapore has a foreign worker population of just under 1.4 million, with over a third classed either as foreign domestic workers or construction workers on Work Permits, the lowest-paid category of employment visa. The fluctuating population of 300,000 odd migrant construction workers come from across South and Southeast Asia to make more money than they would at home. They fill the gap for dangerous and poorly-paid labour that very few Singaporeans have to contemplate in facilitating the perpetual construction of the critical infrastructure of the logistical state, as well as its skyline and countless condominiums.

Singapore’s successful brand of global city governance is underwritten by the overwhelming disparity between the subjects of its governance. In particular, the migrant worker is the political subject of the logistical state. The distinction is important, as its citizens and expats (high-paid migrant labour) can vote and are accorded affordances and rights the migrant worker cannot access. While they are more intimately acquainted with the material production and reproduction of the city-state, they rarely encounter the state itself: migrant workers can’t apply directly for a work permit from the Ministry of Manpower but instead have to pay an agent to obtain one on their behalf for thousands of dollars, who acts as a liaison between the Ministry of Manpower (more commonly referred to with the Freudian acronym MoM) and the construction companies; the average Bangladeshi worker paid SGD$6,400 in agent fees in 2015[1], not including an additional fee for the construction company to employ them. Workers seeking adequate compensation for workplace injuries and abuses are stymied by labyrinthine layers of bureaucracy which insulate contractors from subcontractors and often take years to rectify[2].

The data on workplace injuries in the construction industry offers a grim if oblique view onto the working conditions of the workers at most risk from injury; while average ratio for recorded injuries to fatalities across 28 EU member states in 2015 was 474:1 (varying from 373:1 in Sweden and 1428:1 in the Netherlands), while in Singapore it was 82:1 (TWC2, 2018). This strongly suggests that injuries are persistently unrecorded, with several cases reported by Transient Workers Count Too and the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics demonstrating the extent to which doctors will collaborate with construction companies to send injured labourers back to work.[3] For the Ministry of Manpower, these events are aberrations that are the result of the informal nature of the migrant labour market, emerging as a natural consequence of competition, and the desire for agents to obtain the best deals for the construction companies.

However, these aberrations and worst excesses redirect attention away from the inequalities structured into the migrant labour market itself, and the political subjectivity cultivated by it, necessitated by the logistical state yet somehow unwelcome within the city-state proper. Bal aptly notes how these cases are seized upon by the Ministry of Manpower as opportunities to theatrically perform their impartiality and concern, whereas the motivation for the specific kinds of exploitation and abuse faced by migrant workers stems from the legal apparatus controlling migrant labour, such as the Foreign Worker Levy (Bal, 2017). A complex legal and social system keeps migrants at-risk to lubricate the capital circuits of the logistical state.

Their working and living conditions, seemingly the product of no grand design but an impromptu interlocking of design failures, redraw the lines of exploitation and precarity, prompting the question of whether or not these constitute the emergent conditions of a kind of ‘logistical citizenship’. Cowen’s above-mentioned claim that shifts in circulation and logistics entailed a subsequent redrawing of the relations of the state to security, labour and citizenship, merits revisiting. The fragility of just-in-time supply chains necessitates new forms of governance and control commensurate with these territories of circulation (Cowen, 2014). The circulatory concerns of the logistical state point towards the desire to obscure not simply the labour that goes into the seamless functioning of its surface but to quarantine the very specific forms of political subjectivity it has constructed in the form of its class of migrant workers. By designing a class of workers insulated from the responsibility of the state through nested transnational chains of agents, middlemen, dormitory companies, contracting and subcontracting, the state has inadvertently manufactured a political subject conditioned by the practice of logistics. This was made explicit following the security emergency of the 2013 Little India Riot.

Singapore’s ‘bifurcated’ regime of migrant labour, according to Yeoh, is premised on a differential politics of inclusion and exclusion: for skilled, high-paid migrants, productivity and loyalty is rewarded with permanent residency and paths to citizenship; for the unskilled, no such route exists, no matter how long they stay they will ultimately be seen as ‘transgressors’ to be excluded (Yeoh, 2006: 36). This bifurcation was made a matter of formal government intervention in the aftermath of the Little India Riot. In 2013 a migrant construction worker, relaxing in Little India, a district comprising the most central migrant worker dormitories and residences, as well as a leisure hub for many other South Asian migrant workers, was run over and killed by a coach driver. The death prompted an immediate backlash from other workers nearby enjoying the evening, resulting in a riot that Singapore had not seen since the race riots of 1969 (Lee et al., 2015). The riot ruptured the veneer of state-manufactured multi-ethnic harmony, with the politically invisible class of migrant workers becoming problematically present in the national consciousness.

The government was quick to dismiss the riot as an isolated local event, unrelated to the working and living conditions of the workers, and focused instead on the predominantly South Asian workers’ problematical consumption of alcohol and occupation of Little India on Sundays, and the perception of the neighbourhood as an ‘area of “disamenity”’ (Subramaniam, 2017: 58). Alcohol was temporarily banned in Little India, and in the months and years to come the state would pursue a ‘decentralisation’ strategy, which saw the construction of additional migrant worker dormitories, gated facilities designed to accommodate tens of thousands of workers (Tan and Toh, 2014).

The construction and development of this new model of ‘all-inclusive’ migrant worker dormitory was developed as an explicit response to an unprecedented crisis of security for 21st century Singapore. Their haphazard attempts to wean migrant workers off of the downtown core, and leave them content and entertained at the periphery, perversely mimicked the spatial contours of quarantine, and the discourse around the problematical presence of migrant workers within the city framed their transgression as a matter of public hygiene. While the permanent yet provisional presence of these migrant workers in the city has always been regarded as a nuisance, at best, and as a public health emergency at worst, what the riot and the immunological response to it made explicit was the inherent pathologising of this class of worker.

The unbearable presence of Singapore’s brand of logistical citizenship is a constitutive source of political and social unease because it points to the cracks within the Singapore model itself: beyond leveraging inequality, logistical citizenship is simply the political subject governed by the impulses and techniques of logistics itself. Citizenship is informally rescaled by logistics to the raw input of labour power, structured and rendered ‘efficient’ by an opaque transnational market, and its presence deemed pathological and to be spatially quarantined. While not a class of citizen explicitly formulated (beyond the regulations necessary for cultivating cheap and provisional sources of labour), what logistical citizenship holds for the political economy of the Singaporean state is not the jurisgenerative Roman specter of Agamben’s homo sacer, the bare life that can be exposed to death, but the exact kind of life required by the considerable political-economic machinery of the Global City (Agamben, 1995). What is legislated through logistical citizenship isn’t the calibration of the state of exception upon the expendable figure of bare life but the disciplining and governance of a product, labour, in the lubrication of capital circuits specific to chokepoints in global markets like shipping, petrochemicals, and construction. The pathological sociality of logistical citizenship needs to be contained and subject to legal-economic displacement so that the state’s formal citizens do not encounter the true political-economic terms of their enduring prosperity.

The implicit logic of the sequestration was again made explicit by the repeated coronavirus outbreaks in migrant worker dormitories; while the population of citizen’s is subject to an exemplary response in pandemic control, those in the logistical state are exposed to exponential viral reproduction. Here we find the perverse limit of the Singaporean state’s ongoing experiment with an ‘elastic notion of the scale of the nation and its citizenship’ (Ong, 2006: 178) .  It is no accident that the city-state’s over-leveraging of low-paid migrant labour, and desire to segregate it according to an implicit socio-immunological principle, configured ideal circuits for viral reproduction; as Wallace et al. (2020) note, the coronavirus pandemic was conditioned by the circuits of capital itself, and the shifting economic geography of land use, agriculture, and enclosure, and reproduced globally by ubiquitous transport infrastructure. By linking logistical violence with virulence, we can then locate the outbreak of coronavirus in the dormitories of migrant workers in Singapore within the precarious construction of logistical citizenship itself.

 


Footnotes

[1] http://twc2.org.sg/2018/11/22/recruitment-cost-in-some-cases-about-20-times-monthly-salary/

[2] The migrant worker NGO Transient Workers Count Too have an extensive archive of workers’ accounts of the abuses and injustices that they face at the hands of employers, and the sluggish pace of redress, if any is to be found.

[3] https://twc2.org.sg/2016/09/18/workers-who-find-their-doctors-and-lawyers-adding-to-their-problems/; It should be noted that the best data on migrant working conditions in Singapore often come from NGOs with an adversarial relationship with the government. The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) have been pressured into giving the government the identities of their informants in a report on domestic worker abuse, while TWC2 have their statistics and reports of labour abuses disputed.


References

Agamben, G., 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 1st Edition. ed. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif.

Bal, C. (2017) ‘Myths and Facts: Migrant Workers in Singapore’, New Naratif. Available at: https://newnaratif.com/research/myths-and-facts-migrant-workers-in-singapore/ (Accessed: 28 January 2020).

Barr, M. (2019) ‘Foundations Laid, Directions Set’, New Naratif. Available at: https://newnaratif.com/research/foundations-laid-directions-set/share/xuna/f9e817650f505b7c38f29416dfd0ba69 (Accessed: 18 February 2019).

Chew, M. H. et al. (2020) ‘Clinical assessment of COVID-19 outbreak among migrant workers residing in a large dormitory in Singapore’, Journal of Hospital Infection. Elsevier, 106(1), pp. 202–203. doi: 10.1016/j.jhin.2020.05.034.

Chua, B. H. (2011) ‘Singapore as Model: Planning Innovations, Knowledge Experts’, in Worlding Cities. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, pp. 27–54. doi: 10.1002/9781444346800.ch1.

Chua, C. et al. (2018) ‘Introduction: Turbulent Circulation: Building a Critical Engagement with Logistics’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 36(4), pp. 617–629. doi: 10.1177/0263775818783101.

Cowen, D. (2014) The Deadly Life of Logistics. University of Minnesota Press. Available at: https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/the-deadly-life-of-logistics (Accessed: 29 November 2019).

Koh, D. (2020) ‘Migrant workers and COVID-19’, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, p. oemed-2020-106626. doi: 10.1136/oemed-2020-106626.

Lee, W. F. et al. (2015) ‘The Little India riot: experience of an emergency department in Singapore’, Singapore Medical Journal, 56(12), pp. 677–680. doi: 10.11622/smedj.2015188.

Ong, A., 2006. Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty, Illustrated Edition. ed. Duke University Press, Durham N.C.

Palma, S. (2020) ‘Surge in Covid cases shows up Singapore’s blind spots over migrant workers’, Financial Times, 3 June. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/0fdb770a-a57a-11ea-92e2-cbd9b7e28ee6 (Accessed: 5 August 2020).

Subramaniam, G. (2017) ‘Evidence-Based Approaches to Place Management’, Centre for Liveable Cities, (11), p. 10.

Tan, A. and Toh (2014) Cinema, cricket field at Singapores biggest dormitory, The Straits Times. Available at: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/cinema-cricket-field-at-singapores-biggest-dormitory (Accessed: 2 December 2019).

Wallace, R. et al. (2020) ‘Monthly Review | COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital’, Monthly Review, 1 May. Available at: https://monthlyreview.org/2020/05/01/covid-19-and-circuits-of-capital/ (Accessed: 27 August 2020).

Yea, S. (no date) This is why Singapores coronavirus cases are growing: a look inside the dismal living conditions of migrant workers, The Conversation. Available at: http://theconversation.com/this-is-why-singapores-coronavirus-cases-are-growing-a-look-inside-the-dismal-living-conditions-of-migrant-workers-136959 (Accessed: 25 August 2020).

Yeoh, B. S. A. (2006) ‘Bifurcated Labour: The Unequal Incorporation of Transmigrants in Singapore’, Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie, 97(1), pp. 26–37. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9663.2006.00493.x.

Yeoh, G., Smalley, R., n.d. Recovered from COVID-19, migrant workers live on a cruise ship and in an HDB flat [WWW Document]. CNA. URL https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/cnainsider/covid19-recovered-migrant-workers-cruise-ship-hdb-flat-12761650 (accessed 8.6.20).

 


* The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

 

About the author

William Jamieson

William Jamieson is a PhD candidate in Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. His work is concerned with the integration of political geography and literary theory through critical creative writing methods to enhance our understanding of how space is 'read' and 'written' by capital. His project concerns dynamics of land reclamation in Singapore and sand extraction across Southeast Asia. His fiction has appeared in Ambit and The Evergreen Review. His fiction pamphlet, Thirst for Sand, was published by Goldsmiths Press.

Posted In: COVID-19 and Southeast Asia

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