SINGAPORE: A forum letter published in Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao that links the COVID-19 outbreak in dormitories to the personal hygiene and living habits of foreign workers shows "underlying racism", Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said.
"I think the letter reveals some underlying racism ... Because it typecasts an entire group - several hundred thousand of them - as lacking in personal hygiene, on the basis of their background, because they all come from backward countries," he said in an interview with Lianhe Zaobao on Friday (Apr 17).
Mr Shanmugam also said that the letter is xenophobic and deeply insensitive, and reflected a "lack of understanding of why we have this transmission of COVID-19 amongst our foreign worker population".
Singapore has seen a spike in its number of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, with the majority of new cases involving foreign workers from dormitories.
On Friday, Singapore reported 623 new infections, of which 558 were linked to foreign worker dormitories.
Kranji Lodge 1 on Saturday became the 13th foreign worker dormitory to be gazetted an isolation area, meaning residents will have to be quarantined in their rooms.
To date, more than 3,200 of Singapore's 5,050 cases are attributed to foreign worker domitories.
READ: COVID-19: Bangladeshi worker, whose wife gave birth while he was in critical state, moves out of ICU
The forum letter, published on Apr 13, questioned if foreign workers were to be blamed for the rise in cases, pointing to their eating habits and alleged lack of personal hygiene.
Mr Shanmugam, however, said that the number of cases at foreign worker dormitories were primarily due to communal living, pointing out that foreign workers live, work and cook together.
"Personal habits are extremely important – washing of hands, keeping yourself clean are very important," he said.
"But when you put people together, when they sleep in the same room, they cook together and they are in close proximity over a long period of time, of course there will be high levels of transmission."
READ: Two weeks and a 70-fold increase: A look into the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore's foreign worker dormitories
Mr Shanmugam also acknowledged concerns over the living conditions in dormitories, saying that conditions in the newer dormitories were "quite okay", while standards in the older ones varied.
"As (Manpower) Minister Josephine Teo has said, look, we will fix this up after COVID-19, and we will deal with the older dorms," he said.
With foreign worker cases expected to continue rising amid aggressive testing, Mr Shanmugam said there is a need to educate people on the reasons.
"The circulation is limited, they are in community isolation," he said.
"The cross-infection from that person to the rest of the community, whether Singaporean or PR, or foreign worker, is extremely minimised through our isolation approaches."
Some people have also expressed concern that foreign domestic workers, because of potential interaction with foreign workers on their days off, could be another group at risk of being infected in large numbers.
Current data shows that infection among foreign domestic workers is very low, said Mr Shanmugam.
Foreign domestic workers have to comply with circuit breaker measures and must remain in their employers' homes on their rest days.
"The evidence so far is that they get the infection from their employers, not from outside," he added.
READ: COVID-19: All foreign worker dormitories to have medical teams of doctors and nurses from hospitals, polyclinics
Looking at the bigger picture, Mr Shanmugam said Singaporeans have a duty to care for foreign workers and show them empathy, adding that the Government and community have moved to help them.
Fifty-seven per cent of Singaporeans have been able to become professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMET) because of foreign workers, he said.
"They clean Singapore, they build our HDB flats, they build our buildings, they handle our waste management, they form the base of our economy," he added.
"And therefore they are helping us build our prosperity."
Mr Shanmugam cautioned Singaporeans against making sweeping statements about foreign workers, even as he acknowledged that racial fault lines run deep.
"As Singaporeans, I would say, whether Chinese, Indian or Malay, or Eurasians, others, we are really kind, compassionate, generous people," he stated.
"We are bigger than the sentiments expressed in that letter."