Our Model Migrants

December 20, 2010

As far as propaganda goes, this was pretty straight forward. The Special Report in Saturday’s (18 Dec 2010) issue of The Straits Times lined up some foreign workers – labourers and domestic workers – in fine treads and stiff poses with the tag-line “Model Migrants”. The subtext was practically leaping out: Today is International Migrants Day – foreign workers can look good too, just like you, so treat them nice.

How strange considering that the Singapore Police denied local NGOs (HOME and TWC2) from distributing flyers to the public in a vehicle procession to commemorate migrants day on that very Saturday. Instead, they were told by the police to stick to Speakers Corner. These two events kick home a couple broad truths about our country. Firstly, we prefer style to substance – the image of a vehicle procession of volunteers talking about human rights and workers’ dignity is just too nightmarish to contemplate. Secondly, we prefer our foreign workers in controlled quarters like, say, the bomb shelter or The Straits Times, where their pearly whites are captured for posterity instead of the great urban outdoors where, godforbid, they start to speak for themselves.

But what about the Straits Times feature itself? The very subheading – Model Migrants – is inherently problematic. It recalls the US debate over “model minority” – a label tagged on to Asian-Americans who have been lauded by conservatives as ideal minority groups (read: ethnic groups that don’t cause trouble). These model minorities are, of course, contrasted with other minorities like African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans. It is a tag that more progressive Asian-Americans are rejecting because it makes them vulnerable to the burden of conservative values as well as a wedge between other ethnic minorities.

Of course here in Singapore we are all supposed to get the tired pun – ‘model’-as-in-vacuous-body-in-front-of-camera, not ‘model’-as-in-standard-to-aspire-to. But how does one know the difference when the two male labourers and two domestic workers have been scrubbed, mascara-ed, trimmed, groomed and plucked beyond reality? They are happy, healthy and trendy – just like all our labourers, coffeeshop cleaners, maids and sweepers are. And if you disagree, well, you just don’t get it. This is the establishment’s fantasy of what a foreign worker ought to be – smiley but silent. We sanitise everything, streets, politics, now foreign workers.

It speaks of our society’s deepseated inability (or refusal) to understand foreign workers on their own terms. The reality is just too political. A story of a maid slaving away in Singapore to feed her three children back home in Indonesia? Too guilt-inducing – its Christmas time for christsake. A labourer who has to work a year just to pay off his unscrupulous agent back home? Surely you can’t blame us for the corruption elsewhere? How about an 18 year old maid who is mandated to live life like a nun, work like a slave, cook like a chef, wash like a machine, and speak like a maiden – isn’t she the true model migrant for most Singaporeans?

No we need more than that. We need to plunk them in the clothes of the nouveau riche. We need to dress up the women like tasteless JC girls on their prom night. We need to match the guys up in ill-fitting blazers that only housing agents revel in. We need to clothe them in a Singaporean imagination before we can even begin to see them. Foreign workers need to be translated to us in the language of cheap consumerism and off-the-rack fashion because we are too middle class to comprehend a world beyond.

And of course we feel all the better for it. We have done our bit to ‘glam’ them up a little. Like angels from above we have granted them a brief respite from their otherwise mundane lives. But in the process we have mocked them. We have put them in clothes they could never possibly afford, in make-up they could never possibly have occasion to wear. We have said to them – suck in a taste of how the other side lives and remember it for this is the closest you’ll ever get. And we want a pat on our back for it.


5 Responses to “Our Model Migrants”

  1. genghis Says:

    well said. lovely way of pointing out we’r arrogant, heartless snobs, prissy, and have no depth, as we’r taken in – and very easily too – by appearances. worse, we flaunt all this blithely and proudly.

  2. barsushi Says:


  3. Chris Says:

    I agree! The mockery is unkind and insensitive. And the hypocrisy!

  4. quickbeam Says:

    Awwww… C’mon, don’t be so serious. ’tis the season of warm fuzzies! A bit charity can be a lot FUN. Don’t we all enjoy a Cinderella story? They look so cute and…. clean! If only folks back home see them in this splendour, they will feel that lump in the throat and know just what a decent, enlightened and progressive (!) society Singapore has.

    Btw, love ur work.


  5. Norvin Says:

    Downright disgusting

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