Enjoyed The Thought Collective‘s Diverse-city Little India Trail. With such a groan-worthy pun, no prizes for guessing that there is a link Ben & Jerry’s, of the delicious ice-cream-with-corny-names fame.
Thinkscape’s [Learning Experiences (LEs)] are designed to help people see current issues and institutions in a new light. We hope to help participants develop a sense of ownership over these issues, and propel them towards meaningful and much needed action. Thinkscape also aims to be a citizenship portal for young people. We encourage youths to explore and form opinions on issues critical to Singapore’s survival and success, maturing their own narratives and building harmony with our nation’s broader story.
The pedagogical approach appears to be one of curated social learning (if there’s such a thing! and vs. social constructivism) through the lens of narrative inquiry:
Thinkscape creates experiences that advocate new perspectives on industries, institutions and issues in Singapore. We believe that experience is a powerful means to bring conviction and reality to our learning.
Thinkscape’s Learning Experiences (LEs) take the form of trails and workshops, and are designed by The Thought Collective, which comprises of educators, social innovators and advisers from public agencies and civil society groups. Through building narratives for Singapore, we aspire towards transforming the social and emotional capital of our nation.
Having just returned to Singapore, I was keen to get to know certain areas again. Little India was one of the places I’d spent quite a bit of time in the past. Still, the trail was eye-opening.
Some part of the trail (tour!) was an introduction to the Little India world through the lens of a Indian transient worker, usually working in the construction industry: here is where you’d go to get comfort food when you are off sick, here is where you watch your beloved cricket matches, etc.
Other bits helped us interrogate the architecture and use of space of the area – to understand the demographic and social changes that (may) have taken place in the last few years.
Certain structures and signs (green fences, an open space converted into a car park, a row of shops, prohibition signs, and void deck obstacles were pointed out. They were put in place to discourage the congregation of foreign workers in those spaces, especially during the weekends, and to stop them from cycling through the void deck.
The pedagogical methodology of “experience and explore” rather than “educate” meant the trail leader’s commentary was somewhat ambiguous, though leaning slightly to the left. This seemed merely to reinforce the perceptions already in the minds of the participants (by sample size of people paying good money to walk around their own country, probably already laden with certain sympathies).
If I’d led the trail, I’d wanted to have been explicit about the concerns and cares of all stakeholders concerned in each case.
Assuming the first step to social cohesion is understanding the perspectives of a group you would not normally hear from or sympathise with, then airtime must be given to both the perceived victim (in this case, the migrant workers) and the perceived oppressor (usually, the rich, the ones in authority – the government or employers, the majority race):
- not just to transient workers who may be lodged in overcrowded dormitories and have fallen foul of poor workplace practices, but to their employers who may have taken all measures to prevent such things from happening;
- not just to foreign labourers with no place to congregate, but also to the old people living in the flats above who find themselves living their twilight years almost as if they themselves were in a foreign land, or think themselves in constant danger (a fear either baseless or based on experience) of being forcefully robbed and falling and hitting their head, etc.
I think we have all already been well-fed on the usual tropes of poor victimised migrant worker, and rich fat cat oppressive people in power. But the world is more complex than that, and there are more narratives (and not very straight-forward ones at that) from sinful people than we would like to listen to. Not all poor people are honest or un-opportunistic or non-manipulative; not all the rich got that way by stealing nor will they always fail to care for their workers. We need to be able to give all sides a fair hearing to be able to empathise, and seek real solutions. This is what justice looks like.
2 You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, 3 nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit. (Exodus 23:2-3)
15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour. (Leviticus 19:15)
Got a bit fed-up with an Australian on the trail, who rolled out the usual “look at all the shiny condominiums and skyscrapers you have in Singapore, built by the blood of Indian workers. You don’t bother with proper safety regulations. And when they fall sick or have an accident, you send them home. You use and dispose them. Exploitation!”
When different groups spoke with various workers chillaxing in the square, they cheerfully assured us that not only were they cognisant of the necessary safety requirements (helmet, vest, ropes, belts, practices), they also knew the Ministry of Manpower guidelines for pay, overtime work, days of leave etc. And they were happy here. There was no work at home, so any sort of work in Singapore was a godsend.
And I recalled acquaintances in the real estate industry wringing their hands over how, much as they tried to implement safety practices on worksites, holding weekly nagging sessions, checking safety gear at the gate, implementing spot-checks, and even fines, terrible accidents still occurred. Some workers, convinced that this namby-pamby society was encumbering them with all sorts of unnecessary safety equipment took them off at every opportunity.
In addition to the need for multiple perspectives on certain social issues, I thought there was too much conflation of the purported aim of the trail. The trail leader kept asking what could be done to help transient workers to “integrate” and “assimiliate“. As a Malaysian Indian and I pointed out, (i) it takes two hands to clap; and (ii) transient workers aren’t interested in integrating or assimilating. They were here to earn money to pay off agent fees, then send the bulk back to family, and hopefully save enough to return home and raise their kids and start their own business. And this isn’t just the goal of transient workers but also more generally of the bulk of white-collar types like teachers, IT professionals, researchers.
Being clear about the aim helps us craft solutions more specifically. So while there is no need to help them to assimilate into Singapore society, there is alot that can be done to make them feel welcome in our country, just like you would a visitor to your home.