When Singapore detected its first case of COVID-19 in January 2020, containment seemed manageable—until the disease started spreading like wildfire among migrant workers.
While cases among the general population of 5.7 million numbered only about 10–20 a day, by April 2020 news agencies were reporting that infections among the Southeast Asian nation’s approximately 288,000 migrant workers—who live in small dormitories where social distancing is difficult—had spiked to 10,000 cases in one week.
In response, the government placed the workers in isolation in their dorms, preventing them from going out into the community—for five months.
The story of how local Christians stepped up to meet the need is an overlooked silver lining among all the gloomy headlines of the pandemic. And with Singapore reentering a season of heightened restrictions last month as COVID-19 cases climbed again, the fact that migrant workers are not a focal point of the outbreaks shows how they are better taken care of now, due to the kampung (meaning “village”in Malay) spirit that led many Christians to serve Singapore’s least of these.
Trouble in paradise
Migrant workers in Singapore have traditionally led challenging lives in the island city-state. They hail mainly from India and Bangladesh but also from Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand. As the main source of labor for the wealthy nation’s construction projects and other low-wage jobs, they form a vital part of the Singaporean economy.
While some employers treat their workers well, other workers live hard lives, facing long hours doing dangerous work for low pay (about $15 USD a day). They miss their loved ones in their home countries and often feel the weight of debts they have to pay off.
The plight of these migrants—especially during the government’s “circuit breaker” campaign when the workers were in mandatory isolation, facing the stress of being cooped up and not receiving any income because they couldn’t work—touched the hearts of many Singaporean Christians. A Bible verse that motivated many believers to begin ministering to them was Deuteronomy 10:18–19, where Moses instructs:
[God] loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
Such efforts have been coordinated by the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO), which was formed in 2019 under the Hope Initiative Alliance (HIA), an interreligious aggregator of services for the needy that partners with more than 100 organizations—including many churches—to provide holistic care for vulnerable and marginalized communities in Singapore.
A significant proportion of AGWO’s partners are Christian churches and organizations, though it has members from all faiths and also works with various government agencies to support their own assistance to migrant workers. Two key leaders are Christians: Ezekiel Tan, who serves as HIA’s president through his role as CEO of SowCare, the social service arm of The Bible Society of Singapore (of which Tan is general secretary); and Samuel Gift Stephen, senior pastor of Life Center, who serves as HIA’s chief outreach officer and the lead director of AGWO.
Food for the hungry
Due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in April 2020, the Singaporean government imposed a two-month lockdown on the entire nation, calling the restrictions a “circuit breaker” for the pandemic. Migrant workers became the most affected group.
With the coronavirus raging in some of the dorms, they lived in deep fear for their health, feeling imprisoned in the small rooms they shared with up to 20 fellow laborers. Worst of all, they couldn’t go out to get food and couldn’t cook in their dorms. Some employers stopped providing wages and food because of their own economic difficulties, while many caterers didn’t want to deliver food to the dorms because of the high number of COVID-19 cases. They were in danger of going hungry.
While migrant workers had long lived challenging lives in Singapore, it was their unique vulnerability during the circuit-breaker period that really woke up local Christians to the need to help them—in both the short and long term.
One of the most remarkable ministry efforts to arise was a food distribution service, which was intended as a one-day exercise but became a four-month operation. It started on Good Friday 2020, when AGWO decided to send nearly 10,000 special-care meals to the workers and discovered how many hadn’t eaten for days. The alliance leaders became convicted to run a feeding program to distribute food, in cooperation with government agencies, to the migrants for as long as they needed it.
The feeding ministry faced many challenges. While AGWO obtained the necessary permits to distribute the food while following all health and safety protocols, volunteers still had to deliver food to the dorms. With the high infection rates there, the volunteers were putting their own lives at risk. Raising the funds for the food was also another challenge. The alliance aimed to deliver 20,000 packets of food a day; at a cost of three Singaporean dollars per packet, that meant the alliance had to raise more than $45,000 USD a day.
“It was truly a miracle,” said Tan. “We had over a thousand volunteers, but none of them got COVID.”
The HIA and Bible society president also said the financial provision for the food distribution costs was another miracle. A call for donations on Giving.sg, a national website where Singaporeans can donate to charities, raised $2.3 million USD.
Together with the help of many churches, AGWO distributed more than 1 million meals and more than 1.2 million essential items (e.g., hygiene packs, medical supplies, and foodstuffs) to about 21,000 workers across more than 300 dormitories.
In October 2020, HIA received the Organization of Good award—bestowed by Singapore’s president, and the highest award given to a charity in Singapore—for the alliance’s work with migrant workers.
Stephen, the AGWO director, recalls how he had to go “dorm hunting” during the circuit breaker. The problem was that many workers were housed in factories that had been converted into dormitories, but it was not obvious from the outside.
For example, he was walking around Defu Lane one day and saw five men squatting under a tap by the road. He found out these migrant workers hadn’t eaten for three days and were trying to fill their stomachs by drinking water. So he quickly arranged for them to get food. Stephen said they told him, “Without you, we would have died. Thank you so much. Now we know we have family in Singapore.”
“Migrant workers have been an immense blessing to us here in Singapore in more ways than one,” said Singapore pastor Guoliang Wong, one of the volunteers who visited the dorms. “And the least we can do is to show them the love of Christ by supporting and encouraging them through this crisis.”
The food distribution program also created a lot of interest in the international media, with media outlets including the BBC and Reuters covering AGWO’s efforts.
By the end of 2020, the COVID-19 infection rate in the dorms was reduced enough that the workers could cook and feed themselves again, so the food distribution service ended. However, AGWO and the Christian community still wanted to serve them.
Friendships and festivals
Developing long-term friendships with migrant workers became a key aspect of ministry for some of the main volunteers working with AGWO.
In September 2020, AGWO launched iFriend, a befriending program to encourage volunteers to care for the workers.
Ivan Tan (no relation to Ezekiel), a documentary director who was one of the key volunteers leading the migrant worker ministry of The City (a church in Singapore’s business district), described how he formed a friendship after helping a worker to distribute food to dorm mates.
“I wanted not just to give him material things but also to engage with him as a friend,” said Ivan. “He and I have WhatsApp video calls at night, and I came to know that he’s just like me; we share similar joys and struggles. For example, there was a period when both of our mothers were sick in the hospital and we commiserated with each other.”
“Ivan is a very good friend to me,” the worker told CT. “Now he’s like my family.”
The iFriend program also trains volunteers in the dorms to spot signs that migrant workers might be contemplating suicide.
Stephen recalls the story of how one migrant worker, burdened by financial difficulties, was planning to kill himself by drinking toilet cleaning liquids. Before he did, he had packed all his belongings from his cupboard into a suitcase. A volunteer saw the man’s odd behavior, realized it was a sign of a potential suicide case, and managed to talk the man out of killing himself. “We have saved lives through our volunteers,” said the AGWO director.
Another key initiative of AGWO and the Christian churches is their continued work in celebrating major religious festivals with migrant workers, including Vesak Day (also known as Buddha Day), Deepavali, Good Friday, and Christmas.
For example, during Deepavali—a primarily Hindu festival of lights also known as Diwali—last November, AGWO delivered meals to about 8,000 guest workers from more than 70 dorms, mobilizing more than 100 volunteer drivers to distribute the food.
Some church groups also organized celebration activities with the migrant workers. Ivan organized a Good Friday carnival at a recreation center, where workers played basketball and participated in archery games and painting stations. “The workers would draw their village and we would talk about the drawing, talk about their home, and get to know them a bit,” said Ivan. “It was good to engage with them.”
The Christian community’s celebration of non-Christian festivals with migrant workers is a unique aspect of Singapore’s culture. The nation is proud of its respect for different faiths, and the migrant workers to whom churches minister are predominantly Hindu and Muslim. The churches have rallied to help these workers even though they are from different faiths.
“We believe in doing good to the needy, to have beneficiaries of different faiths so as to foster greater trust and acceptance of all the faith groups,” said Ezekiel. “God is like that. He sends rain to all.”
Among the unsung heroes helping the migrant workers during the pandemic is a group of 20 to 50 women who came to be known as the “dorm mums.”
Priya Mohan, who runs her own financial consultancy firm, was one of the key organizers. During the circuit breaker, the dorm mums helped coordinate food delivery to more than 12,000 men in 250 dorms. Mohan says the ministry was a natural fit for her. “I’m Indian, and Indians have a big focus on food,” she told CT. “We show love and affection by feeding people. It’s part of our culture.”
The dorm mums still talk to their migrant-worker friends regularly. “Any trouble or distress or paperwork that needs to be done, they come to us,” said Mohan. “We talk about their health, how their families are in India, how to make a CV [resumé] so they can apply to get a better job, how to choose a girl to marry—everything.”
She showed CT some of the messages that migrant workers have sent to her, such as “Really mummy I’m so lucky, I have Singapore mummy.”
While the food crisis is over, AGWO and many Christian groups are still committed to serving the migrant workers, seeing it as a long-term ministry and the food crisis as merely a catalyst that sparked their work.
Ezekiel describes plans to continue working with recreation centers so migrant workers will be able to play games and attend talks and English classes. The HIA president is also contemplating how to enable the workers to give back to Singapore—for example, by donating blood or cleaning the beach. “Hopefully that would help with social integration,” he told CT, “to show that they care for Singapore and Singapore cares for them.”
The story of the migrant workers during COVID is an inspiring case study of how Singapore’s Christian community worked with multiple stakeholders including the government, employers, and dormitory owners—who were all portrayed in many media accounts in a bad light—as well as charities and other religious groups to help improve the lives of these workers, turning their trials into triumph.
This progress was apparent last month, as Singapore entered Phase 2 restrictions (targeted to end June 13) amid a rise to 20–30 daily COVID-19 cases. Infections in the migrant worker dorms have been very low—less than 10 per week and on many days zero—due to their better living conditions, vaccinations, contact tracing, and safe-distancing measures. And Christians have continued befriending and counseling them and organizing social and educational activities at the recreation centers.
“They’re just like us. They have families, feelings, and fears,” said Stephen. "Even if they are different, we should still minister to them since we are called to love everyone regardless of who they are, where they are from, and from which faith.”
Not only is this an opportunity to fulfill the Great Commandment amid the pandemic, the AGWO director notes it also gives Singapore Christians an opportunity to fulfill the Great Commission.
“Now we cannot travel overseas to do missions, so we have to focus on the nations within our nation," said Stephen. “Serving the foreign migrant workers in Singapore gives us the opportunity to do global missions locally.”
Hwee Hwee Tan is a freelance writer based in Singapore.