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Johan Saravanamuttu is Adjunct Professor at Universiti Malaya’s Asia-Europe Institute. He is also Professor Emeritus of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Adjunct Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Khor Yu Leng is an independent economist at Segi Enam Advisors and a specialist on sustainability. This commentary was published as part of series by S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.


The world was awakened to Singapore’s spike of COVID-19 cases among its foreign workers recently. This should alert countries like Malaysia and Thailand, which have even larger numbers of migrant labour, of the impending crisis they have yet to face.


THE SPIKE in new infections of COVID-19 in Singapore, due to the large presence of foreign workers living in dormitories in the city state, is a wake-up call to other countries with a large migrant labour force.

Singapore’s frank reporting of the virus spread among its foreign worker community has alerted neighbouring countries. In Malaysia, possibly even more reliant on foreign workers (legal or documented and illegal or undocumented) to do its manual and unpopular jobs, the situation can be precarious.

Warning Bells

Having kept the spread of COVID-19 under control, the world was awakened by Singapore’s announcements within a couple of days (around 8 April 2020) that a quarter of its key purpose-built dormitories for the foreign labour force would be put under quarantine. The virus had been spreading with clusters at construction sites and the popular Mustafa 24-hour department store in Little India.

Singapore has moved aggressively on mass testing of foreign workers and this has pushed up its case count which put it at the top of infection tables in East and Southeast Asia. As at end of April 2020, Singapore registered 16,169 cases, mostly among foreign workers accommodated in dormitories.

Three countries in Southeast Asia  ̶  Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand  ̶  have the lion’s share of migrant workers in the region, housing among them some 96 percent of the total.

Migrant Workers

Singapore has slightly more than a million semi-skilled and unskilled foreign workers (excluding domestic helpers), 323,000 of whom are housed in 43 dormitories. Malaysia has the highest number of the three countries, with 2.2 million documented workers and possibly another three million who are undocumented according to industry talk. Now, officialdom in Kuala Lumpur openly talks of an all-in total of six million.

Thailand has about three million migrant workers coming from neighbouring Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The foreign workers of Singapore and Malaysia come from Southeast Asia and South Asia.

While the Singapore foreign worker situation is predominantly an urban phenomenon, those in Malaysia are dispersed in the urban economy and the plantation sectors of the economy. The Singapore situation points to some crucial lessons to contain the COVID-19 pandemic among migrant workers for Malaysia and Thailand.

Lessons from Singapore

Migrant workers basically serve the larger community, the elite and middle-class consumers of their host countries by taking up jobs in construction, essential services and plantations which locals avoid; especially at the prevailing wages.

Ironically, it is the middle-class travellers and globe-trotting elites of their host countries who may have brought the virus into their ranks. Herein lies the core problem; while social distancing is more easily implemented in middle-class communities, such social distancing and even basic hygiene may not be so easily practised in the crammed dormitories, low-cost apartments and other poor facilities which house migrant workers.

Singapore’s containment strategy will likely yield results soon because of the island’s tight governance and its efficiency in controlling social behaviour; especially its ability to segregate affected communities. Deaths per million from COVID-19 at only two in Singapore is among the lowest in the world and the overall number of cases, while still spiking, looks likely to come down.

Singapore’s measures to contain the virus is premised on social distancing in worker dormitories. Those working in essential sectors have been separated from their (mostly) construction sector brethren into disused army camps and public housing flats earmarked for redevelopment.

For those in construction, they are housed in different locations through arrangements with their respective employers. News media reported two hostel ships, used by offshore workers in the oil and gas sector, were also deployed. The use of additional accommodation areas is apparently aimed at rapidly reducing the residential density of foreign worker dormitories.

Last Update: 11/11/2021