On 24 April, The Straits Times reported that Wisma Atria shopping mall had banned contractors from using its public toilets, even imposing fines and expulsion if they disobey.

Earlier this month, MP Denise Phua remarked that residents need to be protected from the crowds of foreign workers at Little India, labelling them as “walking time-bombs and public disorder incidents waiting to happen.” She suggested ring fencing the communal areas of residents.

These incidents have drawn the ire of the public, who lambaste these as ‘discriminatory’.

However, Wisma Atria said that the restriction arose because “shoppers complained about the workers using our facilities to shower or wash their tools.” Likewise, MP Denise’s suggestions were an effort to safeguard against a repeat of the Little India riot in 2013.

Thoughtful commentators note that the toilet ban is not necessarily a ‘human rights’ issue. Pragmatically, Wisma Atria is answerable to its customers to ensure a clean and pleasant shopping experience for them. Stringent regulations are also beneficial to its cleaners and management, as inconsiderate users now face penalties.

That said, there is a general consensus that the message could have been conveyed more tactfully.

We must be careful not to breed an us-versus-them mentality. Such sentiments are deeply hurtful and do these workers great injustice. With all the contributions that they have made to provide us with a first-class landscape, they deserve more respect than they actually get.

Perhaps, it is timely for us to ask ourselves – are we still an all-embracing, multicultural society? Or are we now one that polarises people through bans and fences?

It seems ironic while largely ignorant about the hardships transient workers face, we pay attention when incidents arise. Then we stereotype and criticise them. Our actions (as well as the lack thereof) have a two-fold effect on these workers. Not only have we imposed physical restrictions, we have also built up psychological walls to keep them out.

In another recent incident, a foreign construction worker was reported to have squatted on the pavement on a rainy day to eat his lunch, as he feared that he would ‘dirty the seat’ at a bus stop. The extent to which some workers have gone, so as to not offend Singaporeans’ sensibilities, reveal our projected aversion towards them.

As one would treat a guest with respect and friendliness in his home, we ought to reflect how we as a host country treat our migrant workers. Are we hospitable, or hostile?

Still, these incidents have raised some awareness about how foreign workers are stigmatised in Singapore. I am heartened to see more ground-up movements (GUMs) which aim to ameliorate this.

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Image Source: Geylang Adventures

One of these GUMs is called ‘SAMASAMA’, which means ‘together’. Members of the public will be celebrating Labour Day with migrant workers over dinner at Westlite Dormitory in Mandai. There is also an art, photography and video exhibition which features these workers, who hail from various backgrounds.

By providing opportunities for interaction between locals and foreign workers, we can progress towards becoming a more inclusive society. I am very encouraged by the GUMs’ initiation and the public’s support of these initiatives, and sincerely hope that more Singaporeans will step up to make a change.

Occasionally, we forget that the essence of being human is to feel connected – as simple as a smile or a ‘thank you’ can make someone’s day. In fact, a smile is a powerful expression that transcends language, nationality and cultural background!

The onus is on us to break down walls, not build fences. May we shed our sense of entitlement, transform our hostility into hospitality, and extend kindness towards all – including our migrants and guest workers.