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Silent foundations: The paradox of student activism and unheard voices of migrant labour in Singapore

Musing of a student: Singaporean student activism aims noble, yet achieves little in real-world impact. This reflects broader societal issues, where invisible migrant workers underpin daily life, overlooked and undervalued, despite their crucial role in maintaining the fabric of society.



by Srikandi Karma

A student wakes up alone in her cramped and hard bed, surrounded by a cube of six white walls with little sunlight and no wind.

Right afterwards, she turns off her air conditioning: electricity costs have recently increased, even though tuition is already way too expensive. Water streams down from the heavens outside, creating the perfect weather for additional rest after yesterday’s night shift at the cafe. Alas, she has to attend her morning classes. Moved like a puppet by invisible iron strings, she cleans up and forces bland, overpriced campus breakfast down her throat in preparation for class.

The bus is crowded. Oops! Did a hand graze her legs? It’s hard to tell whose hand it was and equally difficult to tell if it was intentional. Physical contact is effectively unavoidable when you are being packed like sardines in a can. In any case, there is no clear and effective mechanism through which she can pursue reparations.

Arriving in the classroom, she sits quietly in her chair as her professor goes on a boring hour-long monologue. Dissociating from her laptop screen, she tries to escape her insufferable reality by complaining about class with friends over Telegram and scrolling through random Instagram posts – oh, another story popped up about how climate change is ruining the world. Hooray!

Given the terrible conditions in Singaporean universities and many other nasty things occurring in the world, it is unsurprising that many students eventually come to the conclusion that something is fundamentally wrong with how our society is organized.

Some students proceed to take their desire to help others and change the world into concrete attempts at improving things through movie nights, discussion groups, volunteering with non-governmental organizations, art exhibitions, raising funds, and so on.

For instance, Yale-NUS College is known for its progressive activist student population. Responding to news of its impending closure, former professors and activist celebrities alike celebrated the legacy of critical thought and political organizing that the campus has spawned, both within campus and in larger so-called civil society. The range of issues tackled by student activists vary from gender inclusivity to the ever-worsening climate crisis.

While many activists pursue these activities for personal gain and to amplify their narcissism, student activism is generally done with noble intentions. The question that many student activists rightly pose is then, why has student activism achieved so little, when evaluated in terms of concrete material results and accumulated organizational strength?

The imagined student at the start of this essay is one side of the Singaporean coin.

Hidden on the other side of the Singaporean coin are the predominantly migrant workers working endless hours to make that miserable experience possible.

After waking up, the student finds two Chinese cleaning workers obediently mopping the floor of her living room. Her tasteless breakfast is quickly served by a Malaysian auntie whose small business collapsed during the pandemic. The crowded bus she hopped on was driven by a Singaporean uncle who is taking loans to afford baby powder. These workers are the invisible cobweb holding Singaporean society together, the ominous hidden abode of Singaporean production, with around 40% of the Singaporean workforce being composed by migrant workers.

Indeed, the Singaporean student glosses over her servants without a care in the world. If she is feeling generous and kind, she will say “good morning” to her servants before running off to write her politics paper about justice and equality. Otherwise, the servants elude her eyes: she treats her servants not as human beings who are full of feeling and thought, with children to raise and aspirations to pursue, but nameless automatic machines with neither brain nor heart, whose lot in life is to serve her needs and convenience.

Students treat migrant servants as one would treat a cleaning robot with no name, personality, history, or emotions. Put it another way, as far as the colonial master is concerned, the colonized slave has no identity and personhood.

To the student’s practical consciousness, some noise occurs and things move around, and then the living room has magically become spotless. The student walks into the dining hall, looks at the food, and scans the QR code; some noise occurs, things move around, and there is magically food on her plate. Nothing really happens, and magically, the campus gardens are neatly trimmed. The migrant servant does not exist for the Singaporean student.

What is occurring is an example of commodity fetishism, wherein the commodity appears as an independent product instead of what it actually is, namely the result of exploitative human relationships between the Singaporean student-consumer, the Singaporean university-merchant, and the migrant worker-servant. In this thorough collective delusion, the migrant servant disappears altogether. Further inquiry into how the servant disappears from the Singaporean mind would be fruitful and illuminating.

The underlying question is the socially constructed and unconscious mechanisms of perception, cognition, and memory within the psychology of the imperialist subject. That is, what it means to be Singaporean today and how history has constructed who we are.

One of my friends, for instance, has been working as a gardening worker for nearly a year. Only one person had struck up a conversation with him before I did.

Alas, even that conversation was a one-off act without any further interactions. As he correctly professed: “You know, slavery still exists today. I am a modern-day slave.” Yet another friend recalled their annoying experiences in talking with an anthropology professor who kept visiting them to ask about their political views. “It was so weird. I felt like I was a lab rat that was being tested.”

In another case, while encouraging a student to socialize with their surrounding workers, she quipped: “I don’t know, they’re probably homophobic and stuff.” Ironically, after hanging out and playing chess with the workers, I found out that some of these workers are men who have sex with other men.

In an event for migrant worker artists involving beautiful songs, dancing performances, and poetry, everyone enjoyed vibrant and beautiful collective expressions of the human heart while the organizing activists at the table were busy staring into their phones and chatting with one another. More generally, the Singaporean exploits caregivers in general, not only migrant servants.

A meeting of LGBT+ activists was being held in my friend’s residence and I happened to be around. While I did not say anything in the meeting, I offered different kinds of tea and cut fruits throughout the session. Most participants did not ask for my name, engage in small talk, say thank you, nor even make eye contact.

After I got up to brew drinks, someone sat on my chair, leaving me with no place to sit. I jokingly remarked that I was just an Indonesian coolie whose purpose was to serve the Singaporeans in the room, with uncomfortable laughter to ensue.

Pick your poison: invisibility, degradation, or projection! As Ellison brilliantly expressed in his novel Invisible Man: “I am an invisible man. … I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”

Herein lies the hypocrisy of the Singaporean progressive, who roars about migrant workers in conferences, writes about colonialism for their publications, and raises funds for migrant workers elsewhere while being complicit, abusive, and dehumanizing beneficiaries of imperialism in everyday life and their organizations.

Holding respectful democratic conversation and building mutually cooperative relationships with those around you is a constitutive part of basic human decency, collective flourishing, and a life worth living. Here, we have arrived full circle to the initial question of student activism. Singaporean universities are segregated across class and imperialist lines.

This segregation includes student activism; unfortunately, the scale of the disease is such that my analysis can also be extended to Singaporean society and activism more generally. When students hold movie screenings about an ongoing war abroad and reading groups about gender emancipation, the participants are always only students.

The servant is not given room for political expression and participation in discourse. Migrant workers might be mentioned in student activism as a point about inclusivity and imperialism but are more often than not mentioned by students who presume to represent migrant workers without any actual existing relationship with migrant workers.

Better yet, instead of benevolent masters speaking for servants in elite conferences, let us tear down these walls altogether and invite our servants to participate as participants with an equal right to political expression, capacity for cooperation, and interest in the collective struggle to abolish the exploitation of man by man, in which we too suffer at the hands of nation-states and capital.

In fact, it is in the interest of students to cooperate with migrant workers in political organizations and vice versa. A glimpse through the rich and fascinating history of Singaporean progressive movements suggests that student movements are most effective in building change when it operates in symbiosis with workers more generally. The concrete reason underlying this pattern is the economic location of workers in universities and society, which provides a basis for class conflict to be realized in mass action.

Imagine the following case – which happens in many countries in Southeast Asia and throughout the world. Students are frustrated about rape and the lack of institutions independent from the university or otherwise, providing effective accountability and reparations. University workers are frustrated about low wages and catcalling from their higher-ups, likewise without proper channels through which these problems can be addressed.

In demanding for concrete improvements and resources from the university, a united front of students and workers can put mass action on the table during negotiations. As a last resort, mass action can be pursued when everything else has failed. With no student interested in attending class, no Chinese worker cleaning the floor, no Malaysian auntie serving food, no sleep-deprived uncle driving the bus, and a barricade of students plus workers sitting in front of the university gates, the university would cease to function until management gives in to the demands put forth by the organization.

In other words, you can do so much more than beg higher-ups in the nation-state, corporation, and university to give you what you want.

A mass organization is capable of negotiating with these powerful entities as an equal party representing the collective and democratically discussed interests of its membership. Or if you prefer: a mass organization is the only entity capable of independently organizing mutual aid, free education, rape accountability, open kitchens, and other desirable structures to create collective human flourishing, beyond authoritarian relationships into which we have been indoctrinated by the nation-state, capital, and university.

Such is the untapped potential of mass organizing in Singapore and why the invisibility of migrant workers to the Singaporean mind is a poisonous imperialist delusion.

The invisibility of migrant workers is a political, epistemological, and moral problem. As the writer Multatuli declared centuries ago after experiencing Dutch colonialism in Java, the task of a human being is to become a human being. Neither the master nor servant is a fully realized human being. The master is drowning in her ideological ignorance, oblivious to how the world works, without knowledge of who she even is, tortured by the twin dance of pity and guilt, and unable to meaningfully connect with others.

By fear and regulations, the master is policed to comply with the existing order of society. As a result, vast oceans of the human experience are locked away from the master. Conversely, the slave is being robbed of the value of her labor, reduced to a mere mechanical instrument, and forced to toil under the piercing sun for the master’s benefit.

In this context, the student is simultaneously the cattle of for-profit universities providing a commodified education, workers who toil for the accumulation of profit and environmental destruction, and beneficiaries of segregated strata of migrant worker servants. Students and workers are prisoners together.

Activism is the key that can shatter this prison in which we live.

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Well students are Newbies, just starting out in Life. No Money Power to challenge the Filthy Rich and the Rich by Filthy Means. Even if you have worked and established yourself somewhere. It is No Where compared to those who have secure their place in Society by making themselves Critical or “indispensable” with the problems they created.

All probably start off Naive But Crushed by all the Bullshit Filthy Rich spin to keep themselves critical.