Published on Thursday, 04 July 2013 00:00
Written by Andrew Loh
The issue of foreigners and foreign workers continues to be in the spotlight, since the Government released the population White Paper in April. It caused much concern among Singaporeans and two protests against it were subsequently held at Hong Lim Park. The two events attracted the biggest protest crowds in Singapore post-independence.
The reaction to the Paper and previous instances of foreigner-bashing have the authorities worried as well – particularly about how investors will see the (fraying) relationship between the people and the Government, which has consequences on our economic growth and wider social development.
But while we are rightly concerned about these important issues, it is also worth noting how Singaporeans reacted when the recent haze from Indonesia descended on our tiny island-city. While many were disturbed or unhappy with the perceived lack of contingency plans in place to deal with the smog, there were also many others who took the initiative and stepped out to lend a hand to those around them, extending their goodwill to foreign workers as well.
When the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reached a record high of 401 on Thursday, 20 June, the calls for a Stop-Work Order to be issued to protect construction workers – who are mostly foreign workers - grew louder.
But even before this, when the PSI was lower but still in the unhealthy levels, many Singaporeans and members of the public took it upon themselves to reach out to these workers.
One lady bought some mineral water, jumped into a cab and went from construction site to construction site to give out the bottles of refreshment. It was the least she could do, she said.
All masks had either been unavailable or had been sold out then.
Then there was Mr Laurence Wong who laid his hands on whatever masks he could find, went out to the streets and gave them to outdoor workers and elderly folks who, for one reason or other, had to be outdoors.
Ms Fang Shihan and a friend bought all the bottles of one brand of mineral water from NTUC Fairprice, put them in their bags and trudged out to nearby construction sites to give the water to foreign workers. So did Mr Jolovan Wham and a group of friends who went out to sites up north to do the same.
There were also those who quietly bought the recommended N95 masks from overseas - because there were no more stocks in the local stores – to give out to those who were more vulnerable and who would need the protection more.
Some others started Facebook groups to collate and disseminate information on where to purchase the masks, what precaution to take when the haze situation got worse, and generally to keep the public updated. SG Haze
was one such group.
For some of these do-gooders who went out there in the midst of the foul air, it was unbearable to breathe in the toxic fumes which is caused by the reckless burning of extensive forests and land in Indonesia.
Sitting with a group of foreign workers on Wednesday, 19 June, in the open as they took their lunch during a break in their daily grind, I too could hardly stand the smell and fumes, even though I had a mask on. The sad thing is that the workers themselves had seemed resigned to their fate – that there was little they could do if their employer did not provide protection for them. Thankfully, the masks from the Government’s stockpile were made available to the businesses to distribute to their workers. When I saw the workers again a few days later, they told me they had been given the masks.
As the haze situation improves (and hopefully continues to be so) these ground-up initiatives from people who saw the deteriorating environmental situation, felt compelled to do their part and well, just went out and did it, tells us a bit of what we Singaporeans are capable of.
And this is one of the most heartening things about Singaporeans (and our foreign friends) – that when the time calls for it, they step up to be counted. We saw this in the past when Hotel New World collapsed, when SARs hit us, or when we read about others who are not as fortunate as ourselves, like when thousands turned up to comfort and console a mother who lost two of her boys in a traffic accident in Tampines earlier this year.
This is the spirit which will stand us in good stead, going forward – that while we may disagree with how our country should be, we nonetheless stand together and do our bit part when the time calls for it.
For if we do not care for our country and our fellow men, women and children, and those who dwell among us and who work for our benefit, then we would be a lesser people and indeed a lesser nation.
Fortunately, the signs show that while we may be a small country in physical size, our collective hearts are in fact bigger than this, as we stand unfazed by the haze.