It was meant to be just another Sunday, where Filipinas Abigail Danao Leste, 41, and Arlyn Picar Nucos, 50, would gather with their friends along the pedestrian pathway outside Lucky Plaza for an afternoon of socialising and relaxation.
The happy occasion took a horrific twist on Dec 29, however, after a car ploughed into their group, leaving both women dead, and four of their friends injured.
The tragedy sparked an outpouring of sympathy and grief from Singaporeans and others in the foreign domestic worker community alike.
At the same time, the fact that the group had been picnicking along the pedestrian walkway has come into scrutiny, especially online.
In particular, many wondered why the many FDWs who flock to Lucky Plaza on Sundays, would choose to set up a picnic by the roadside, even if they had been on the pedestrian pathway.
Others wondered if these gatherings should be allowed at all, given that they clogged up the walkways, creating what they considered an eyesore along Singapore’s premier shopping belt.
It did not take long for a flurry of alternative meeting areas for FDWs to be proposed.
Go to a restaurant, or book a karaoke lounge for your gatherings. Head to Tuas, or Lim Chu Kang or Choa Chu Kang instead – there is an abundance of open spaces there, safe from traffic and judgment.
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These were practical and feasible suggestions that are likely to be effective at easing human congestion and clutter along Lucky Plaza, while keeping foreign workers safe. However, while well-intentioned, they also appear to gloss over the significance of Lucky Plaza to Filipino foreign workers, who make up some 80,000 of the FDW population in Singapore.
To many of them, Lucky Plaza isn’t just a convenient place to indulge in a spot of retail therapy on Sundays. In the past few decades, it has come to be a sort of institution to Filipino workers, with shops and amenities that cater closely to their tastes and needs, and the resultant community that has formed around it feeling uniquely like home, being in the company of their countrymen.
The attachment they have to Lucky Plaza, is similar to what their Indonesian peers feel for City Plaza, and what their Myanmarese friends think of Peninsula Plaza.
FDWs don’t just crave space, they seek a sense of community
On a deeper level, it asks questions of our capacity to be empathetic towards the needs of foreign workers based here who seek a sense of community and understandably crave a connection to home.
Without a doubt, many consciously make the choice to work here, aware that their salaries go a long way to affording their loved ones back home a brighter and more comfortable future.
But with that choice also comes six-day work weeks where one’s environment blurs the boundaries between work and personal space. It means being at the employer’s beck and call for much of one’s waking hours, and not having much freedom to interact with others outside of the household without permission.
It’s a choice that many of us will most likely respect, but struggle to imagine making for ourselves, coming from a place of comparative privilege.
It is with this in mind that the suggestions for FDWs to move away from Lucky Plaza come across as practical, but also a tad insensitive.
Because more than just prime land, Lucky Plaza is the one place in Singapore where Filipino foreign workers have come to feel most at home on the one off-day a week they are given.
Their attachment to it is as much to the time-saving convenience of having eateries, shops and services there that cater to their needs, as it is to knowing they will find themselves in the company of others who share their culture and backgrounds.
Can that same experience and community be replicated in Tuas or Choa Chu Kang? One suspects not, in addition to questioning how fair it is to expect FDWs on a limited budget and short on free time to travel to less accessible areas just so they can stay out of the general public’s way.
Heartlands or parks: Are FDWs welcome there?
Besides, the phenomenon of having large groups of foreign workers appear in areas close to the heartlands has long earned the ire of Singaporeans, with the same complaints of noise, mess and eyesore being raised.
And while they could head indoors to courses and centres designed for them by non-profit organisations, the large number of workers venturing outdoors on the same day means there is a limit to how many can be accommodated.
What options does that leave foreign workers here?
One FDW who suggested that the Singapore Government carve out an area in Orchard Road where FDWs can gather freely attracted some criticism for being “entitled” by netizens.
Granted, it may be a tall order to expect prime land to be set aside solely for such a purpose, but the request for a safe space to socialise and be in the company of friends should be listened to.
Despite the accident, Filipino FDWs have continued to throng Lucky Plaza, with many citing the convenience and comfort they find there as outweighing any fears they may have.
If we feel that strongly about the heart of Singapore’s shopping district not being the best place for them to congregate, then perhaps the conversation should go beyond suggestions of obscure locations to identify an alternative that can match Lucky Plaza in terms of meeting the FDWs’ needs.
Given the sheer number of foreign workers based here, and the value of the work they do to support our households, what do we lose by helping them to feel more accepted in the community?
This Singaporean hopes it can start with our taking a kinder view, by being more accepting of the fleeting inconveniences we experience with cluttered walkways and unexpected crowds on Sundays.