By Hema Kalamogan

Hema is a course architect at Skillseed.

We spoke a lot about  dignity this year at Skillseed, whether it was during our workshops or over lunchtime conversations. As a facilitator and participant in The Adventurous Fellowship’s Integration and Inequality camps, I noticed that the topic of dignity was central to many of our fellows’ discussions. This seemed to reflect on how as, Singaporeans, we often treat people who are economically disadvantaged in a particular fashion - usually without dignity. But what does it mean to promote dignity?

This article will attempt to address that question, while hopefully sparking a conversation about what we, as a community of people, can do to compensate for the dignity that is often lacking in  institutional policies and systems. Dignity is recognising that everyone has inherent worth no matter who they are. A violation of dignity occurs when there is an environment of asymmetric power, someone in a position of apathy and someone in a position of vulnerability (Donna Hicks, 2011). Promoting dignity then means recognising this power asymmetry and taking steps to reduce it, having empathy in all our interactions, and realising that the person we are interacting with has inherent worth.

It took some time for me to build up the courage to start writing this, and I wondered why I felt uncomfortable speaking about an issue that I care for deeply, even though I am a socially-aware millennial. Honestly, it’s scary to call things out, but I guess if the concept of calling things out scares me, a Singaporean citizen, what more for a migrant worker who wants to stand up for his or her rights? All the more reason for me to write this, no matter how difficult it may be. .

The thoughts and ideas in this reflection piece emerge from experiences I had during The Adventurous Fellowship, as well as various volunteering stints and experiences. Though my post focuses heavily on migrant workers, I hope that you can find parallels with other communities you might work with.

These ideas presented here are not meant as an attack on any organisation or individual –  just my personal thoughts about how we can try to do things a little bit better and with a little more dignity. Take this as me simply TRYING to call it out as it is.

1. Exercise your Power with Heart

As workers in a foreign land, our migrant brothers and sisters lose any sort of agency as soon as they arrive in Singapore. From the minute they land to the time they leave, we exercise our power in so many different ways: through the extra check at the arrival gate (the one that we Singaporeans  are rarely subject to), through the bulletin board at recreation centres that constantly reminds them of the high cost of breaking rules, through surveillance cameras in back alleys & dormitories, through dormitories tucked away in the furthest corners of Singapore, through spraying water on the floor every evening to prevent workers from sitting down together, through concrete badminton courts, which no one wants to play on because they’d rather play cricket, but concrete is easier to maintain than grass...I could keep going.

These are some examples of  things that we might not have control over or be able to change immediately, but as individuals there are some things we CAN change in the way that we exercise our power.

For example, we can change the way we hold events for workers. I noticed that these events often focus on  the notion of giving. While this isn’t wrong, the way we give matters too. When we ask migrant brothers to queue up for second-hand items, or food, we perpetuate that unequal power dynamic through unidirectional giving - us giving and them receiving. While I do recognise that in some cases (like sustained / regular food projects) it may be the most efficient way to get things done and the volunteers are there regularly, I wonder if we can be more creative / dignified with our giving, especially in the case of ad-hoc migrant worker events.

How do we give while still maintaining or even promoting the dignity of our workers? Would it still be considered a successful ‘giving event’ if the food and items were packed in advance, and the workers could pick them up whenever it was most convenient for them? If the answer is no, and the argument is that volunteers are suppose to interact with workers, then let’s ask ourselves: how many volunteers actually make conversation with our migrant brothers in the process of handing out stuff? How many volunteers will sit with the workers and chat with them after the ‘giving’ is done?

So let’s rethink this: what if we brought food to the workers, and then sat on the floor to eat with them? What if we engaged in activities that showcased their talents together with them? If this means having to  compromise the scale of the event, can we do that in order to preserve the dignity of our migrant brothers? Should we place more importance on KPIs or on addressing the ever-present power imbalance between ‘us’ and ‘them’?

“Throw your rubbish. If not you will not get this event next year...” I overheard a volunteer say this to a migrant brother at an event the other day. I understand that the volunteer was probably just concerned about cleanliness, but could we move towards a point where no volunteer would ever say this to a worker (who has lived in Singapore for 6 years, probably knows our many rules by now, and was just at that moment reaching for a towel to wipe the puddle of water that I had spilled),robbing him of his dignity?

With great power comes great responsibility right? When we find ourselves in a position of power, how we use that power matters. How we wield our power will translate to the team we lead and interact with and how they go on to treat other people as well. Exercise your power with heart. Take a step back to rethink how we can do things while keeping the dignity of the people we serve in mind.

2.   Build Empathy

As obvious as this might sound, the only way to understand how a migrant brother/sister feels, is to sit down and chat with them. It’s only when you sit down, share a meal, suspend all sorts of judgement, and attempt to neutralize the power dynamic, that you realize they are as human as you. They have families, dreams, hopes and untapped talents just like you do, but by a stroke of luck, we live starkly different realities (something I struggle to come to terms with everyday).

The stories that come from these conversations will bring to light the life WE have created for our migrant brothers and sisters - the problems they face navigating various systems, the challenges they face at work, how we as Singaporeans often make them feel, how employers have helped them develop themselves or how employers have abandoned them entirely. When I say WE, I refer to the nation as a whole because if we all decided to care about the situation of migrant brothers/sisters, WE could turn things around.

Drawing by a migrant brother, Vimalarasan.

Drawing by a migrant brother, Vimalarasan.

There have been several articles, videos, and initiatives surrounding the plight of migrant workers in Singapore recently (YEAY!!) but unfortunately empathy isn’t built by just knowing about something. Empathy is built by listening to a person face-to-face, by trying to stand in their shoes and think about how we would feel, and from seeking to understanding where they are coming from by suspending judgement and recognizing privilege.

Recently, I met a migrant brother while taking  the lift, and we chatted about my bicycle for a while. As we parted, he told me to take care, and ride safe. If I were to be completely honest, I don’t think most Singaporeans would express concern for a stranger they just met in the elevator, and that single encounter made my morning. Many times, the problems and troubles of our brothers go unheard because we do not speak with them. Even though language might sometimes be a problem, making the effort to talk to them sometimes brings out hidden troubles and allows you to direct them to the people who can help. The brothers I’ve met are always happy to chat, and besides, because of their working environments, many of them have picked up basic english. Start with a bike, a cold drink on a hot day or just a smile, and I assure you they will be happy to have a conversation with you!

Only when we truly try to understand can we move ahead to think about how we can provide dignity.


3. Trust Them

We had the opportunity to embark on a Geylang Adventures tour during the Adventurous Fellowship Integration camp. Our guide Yinzhou highlighted how after the Little India Riots, the government established restrictions on alcohol, put bright lights in back alleys, and installed surveillance cameras throughout Geylang, affecting the way migrant workers navigated space in Geylang.

As a Singaporean, I take a lot of pride in our nation’s security and it’s something I would not want to see compromised. But if we keep repressing people, they are going to crack one day. We are all human after all. When workers aren’t given trust or respect, there becomes less motivation to uphold rules, given that people already expect the worst from them anyway.  

In her commentary on the monitoring system for estate cleaners, Natalie Chia says “many underlying causes for estate uncleanliness cannot be addressed simply by rearranging duty schedules or ensuring workers complete assigned routes. Factors such as employee motivation, benefits schemes and workplace culture are not captured or resolved by a position tracking system.” When it comes to low-wage workers, why do we immediately take the position of distrust and resort to solutions that dehumanize and perpetuate the hierarchies already present? Why do we not look inward and question whether the solutions also lie within us? What if we treated our workers better and provided more motivation for work? What if we as a community did better to keep the estate clean?

Many people tend to hold on to the negative things that individual workers have done or things they have not done, and let the more common helpful, kind, and good acts go unnoticed or forgotten. Every community has its weirdos and bad people, and we should not be clumping all the workers together because one person did something bad (one very common dignity violation). Trusting people also preserves their dignity. Trusting starts from you and me. The system might not trust 800,000 workers as a whole but we can start trusting Rajesh, Imran, Pothu…

I dream of a day where I have a house and the brothers I know will be able to come over for a meal without anyone judging or calling it out as a security threat. That’s probably the one main reason why I would apply for a BTO (and applications are open by the way HAHA).

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For the past months, a group of us have been playing cricket at Boon Keng with several migrant brothers we know. Everytime we finish a session, I go home with a smile on my face because this kind of interaction is what I envisioned Vaangae Anna to be - a cricket session led by the brothers, a chat after to hear their stories and a thank you knowing that they can reach out to us if they need help. This is what maintaining dignity means to me, treating people like they are your friends (because they are) and trying as best as you can to drop all the posturing and power play that we so often bring along to our interactions. Vaangae Anna is a work in progress and by no means a perfect model but if there is one thing we try to do it is to maintain dignity, no matter what.


As we head into the new year and celebrate the season of giving, let’s take a bit of time to think about how we can give better. I welcome opinions and thoughts on the topic and I hope this short piece gives you the courage to call it out as it is, no matter what issue you are tackling and are passionate about!



Further readings:

Leading with Dignity By Donna Hicks: Hicks talks about how to create a culture that brings out the best in people

Research papers from TWC2 and Home

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