Singaporeans need to make sacrifices for migrant worker welfare: On the Record with Dr Goh Wei Leong, HealthServe

Singaporeans need to make sacrifices for migrant worker welfare: On the Record with Dr Goh Wei Leong, HealthServe

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Dr Goh Wei Leong co-founded HealthServe in 2006. (Photo: Facebook / HealthServe)

SINGAPORE: When he was a child, Dr Goh Wei Leong’s hero was, of all people, his general practitioner.

“In those days, in the 60s or 70s, the doctors had little practices at home. It was just a little room and he looked after my family and me. I felt that connection. The very human touch of being a doctor was special for me.”

This, in addition to his tendency of being a generalist, meant that when he went to medical school, he was clear in his mind that he would be a GP instead of trying out perhaps more prestigious specialisations.

For him, medicine is about community.

“I like talking to people. I really can’t see myself peering down someone’s throat and that’s all. Medicine is sometimes more an art than a science. It could just be a matter of giving someone a listening ear and giving them the right advice on rest and diet, not only prescribing medicine. The art part of it is what thrills me.”

Today, one could say the bulk of his work is about the art of community.

His healthcare charity, HealthServe, provides migrant workers with affordable healthcare, social and legal assistance and skills training programmes.

He co-founded it in 2006 and today it has dental and medical clinics in Geylang, Mandai and Jurong.

The organisation has 10 full-time staff, 70 volunteer doctors, 20 dentists, and about 300 volunteers. These include students, lawyers, nurses and even tai tais who come in to cook for the workers.

Last year, HealthServe helped almost 500 workers with injury and salary-related disputes, provided over 20,000 free meals and even provided a home for workers in emergency shelters.   

“A lot of the work is about listening to them and seeing the world through their eyes,” he says.

It is work that makes him happy and fulfilled.

As we talk about his work, his smile rarely wavers – only when he describes the plight of workers who don’t receive health assistance from their employers, or those who are shortchanged in terms of medical leave even after severe injuries.

A few years ago, he admits that the things that made him smile were quite different.

“A LITTLE MONEY CAN BE QUITE DANGEROUS”

“Many of us when we graduate, really want to save the world because that’s the reason we came into medicine. The moment I became a GP, I realised a little money can actually be quite dangerous. I bought my first car and I realised this is quite nice. Then I bought my house. At some stage, I bought a sportscar. I got a little sidetracked by the bright lights of the world.”

But a humanitarian trip to Mongolia in 1995 changed his perspective.

“It really opened my eyes. People were doing something for the common good, something beyond themselves and it really challenged me. It inspired me so much that I subsequently went to India. That was another culture shock for me, another tipping point in my life to be confronted with poverty. It’s in the raw painful unanswered questions.”

Subsequently, he started coordinating humanitarian trips to disaster hit areas, including to Indonesia after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The experiences led him to question his role as a doctor, brought the issue of poverty, exploitation and suffering to the forefront of his consciousness and made him want to help.

Helping, he says, was actually a part of his family’s DNA.

One of his most powerful influences is his mother, who was a teacher.

“I remember my mum and her students. She would take in students who had troubles at home so our home was always open to those who needed it. That really shaped my thinking.”

MIGRANT WORKERS ARE SPECIAL

His dentist friend Dr Simon Mahendran, who had a clinic in Little India, inspired him to look more closely at the plight of migrant workers here.

“I think the migrant issue slowly clenched on me because at that time no one was talking about it.”

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HealthServe runs an established food programme for migrant workers. (Photo: Facebook / HealthServe)

He thinks migrant workers are “special".

“They build our homes. They’re part of our community but they are still largely unseen. I think we owe something to them.”

He admits he has been asked why he doesn’t reserve his assistance for low-income Singaporeans instead.

“The lower-income Singaporeans have safeguards. For example, they have Government assistance programmes, family service centres and so on. But migrant workers are vulnerable. They are from a different culture and they come here in debt.

“I think we need to we need to understand that they are like us, fellow human beings. If not we will be like some other places in the world where there’s more xenophobia and bigotry. That’s happening largely because we stereotype people, we put people aside, we box them up according to social class and status.”

He goes on to say that not interacting with the migrants in our midst will actually make us “poorer".

“We will be missing out on human connections, human stories, stories of resilience, of grit. We can learn from the top CEOs, but we can also learn from migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, China, Myanmar or Thailand.”

He himself never imagined he could learn so much from the workers he helps.

“I had always thought that as a doctor, as a professional as a Singaporean, I am here to help these poor migrants who have come, but from them I’ve learnt generosity, resilience, being industrious and just taking things in stride.”

He tells me the story of a migrant worker from China he had been treating.

“He left for home just last week. But when he came to us, he had a hand injury and was desperate because his employer did not want to help. He perked up largely because he found a sense of community. As we were helping him, he started using the little money he had left to buy us drinks. His case was closed just about two weeks ago and he used a little bit from the compensation he received to give us a treat to show his gratitude.”

There are many such stories including of workers who want to donate to the cause.

Dr Goh’s instinct is to refuse and tell them to keep the money for themselves, but he quickly realised that there was value to accepting their help.

“His generosity taught me so much, but it also taught me to receive. I was unused to receiving. I had operated from a posture of giving, a posture of perhaps, power and I used to think that to receive is quite vulnerable. But I realised that adopting a posture of humility was liberating. When they contribute back to us, it also helps them develop a sense of dignity.”

“CAN’T BLAME THE POOR EMPLOYERS. WE NEED TO MAKE THAT SACRIFICE”

Many of the workers who approach HealthServe have been unjustly treated by their employers.

For instance, some employers refuse to take care of their workers’ medical needs after a workplace accident and insist on repatriating them instead. They may even pressure private clinics to give the worker inadequate medical leave even for severe injuries.

“What’s happened over the years, in the early years especially, is that we saw them as largely a labour force, a commodity of sorts. You come build and go. You’ve agreed to this payment and you work for us. We have commodified a very relational contract. It becomes a very transactional framework.

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Dr Goh Wei Leong presenting a migrant worker with a certificate for a skills training programme. (Photo: Facebook / HealthServe)

“Everything is about the bottomline and KPIs. We think in terms of economic indicators, but what if there’s something more, a non-tangible. Perhaps if we’re able to have a relational society instead of a more transactional society…”

While many would criticise employers for not being “relational” in their approach and for not treating their workers as human beings, Dr Goh sees it differently.

“You can’t blame the poor employers. They are really responding to a much deep-seated cultural framework we have here.”

I ask him to explain since many may not be able to see the connection.

“Many of us who notice the poor treatment of the people doing menial work, cleaners or construction workers, be it Singaporeans or non-Singaporeans, when we say, ‘Let’s give them more pay. Let’s look into equity.’... while we are shouting out loud, advocating for them, are we ourselves willing to fork out a little more for cleaning services? Pay more for our buildings? Pay more for our conservancy, our monthly cleaning. We need to make that sacrifice. I think if all of us sacrifice a bit it would make such a difference to the poor and to the migrants.”

He admits that some employers perhaps do lack humanity, but many are merely reacting to the demands on them.  

“For smaller businesses, if one or two workers fall ill from an injury, they may not have insurance that covers everything. If there’s a spinal cord injury, it can run up to S$100,000 but the insurance may be just S$20,000 or S$30,000. So what does he do? We’ve had companies that have gone bankrupt because of an injury of one worker, so it’s a real problem. If we are willing to pay more, perhaps the business can buy better insurance for workers.”

I suggest to him that even though many Singaporeans might be willing to pay more for products and services so that workers can be better looked after, many doubt if employers will use potential profits to improve workers’ welfare. Will the money merely go towards fattening business people’s wallets?

He admits this could be a problem.

“We are very business-friendly in Singapore, but business-friendliness should also demand ethical practices for example, ethical recruitment. If consumers are able to demand ethical recruitment, ethical products, then the businessman would be forced to be ethical. If I demand that the businessman pay a fair wages, then I must be willing to not patronise his establishment if he’s found not to have ethical practices.The consumers themselves have a lot of influence and I think we have to exercise that influence for good.”

In fact, he suggests financial incentives in the form of tax breaks for employers who are able to show ethical treatment of migrant workers.

"For example, if you recruit from agents who don’t fleece the workers, maybe you should be allowed to get some relief for that." 

POLICIES AND ENFORCEMENT

Ultimately he says we need to focus on being “efficacious” rather than being “efficient".

Efficiency is getting from point A to point B, cheapest, fastest. Efficacious means that we take a longer route to get there but we are more human. For example, we have better work conditions, workers are treated well, employers are happy. At the end, you may have some tradeoffs - spending more money, taking more time, building relationships, having to learn how to live in shared spaces, learning how to share. But I think it’s more efficacious.”

Focusing on such values in schools is important, but he feels that each of us need to actively start influencing others to be more “other-centred".

“I think for too long we’ve depended on the Government. We say, ‘They have to look after this. Why aren’t they doing this? Why aren’t they doing that?’ I think we, as citizens must do something because what we do in Singapore could be that example and light for the world.”

However, several migrant workers’ organisations have pointed out that more can be done in terms of policy and enforcement too.

For instance, for many workers the waiting period for injury compensation or resolution of a workplace dispute may last several months to more than a year.

During this time, workers on Special Passes are not allowed to work and receive no income. This often discourages workers from making official complaints.

HealthServe offers a variety of social assistance programs to these unemployed migrant workers, including free meals, subsidised transport, an emergency shelter, and an emergency fund.

But can more be done on the policy level to make it easier for workers to stand up for their rights?

“I would say the regulations on employers are pretty tight. Some changes have also been made to the Employment Act when it comes to salary issues, but I think enforcement is a problem. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is engaging more on such issues over the last few years. MOM does have a Temporary Job Scheme that allows a migrant worker to seek alternative employer within a specified timeframe.  This is after a thorough investigation from MOM on the migrant worker’s situation, but approval for Temporary Job Scheme are few and far between.

“I think we need to have polices that are daring, that take some risk. Yes, with any new policy there might be loopholes that some might exploit, but we can’t let that stop us. If something goes wrong, I think we should be also gracious enough to say, ‘Okay, didn’t work. Let’s try again.’

“If it were up to me, I would urge the authorities to treat everyone as a special case, because I think the one-size-fits-all rule is the problem.”

I wonder how realistic this is.

“Yeah, we can’t have every officer go through every case. It is really very complicated so I think if we are able to change the DNA of our society, so that everyone thinks of others more, then these things will happen less.

“All the stakeholders need to come together – employers, MOM, the migrant workers themselves and NGOs. I think we need to have more conversations. We can’t have too many watertight policies. They stop us from doing something more creative or more humane.”

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Besides helping migrant workers, Dr Goh Wei Leong also actively contributes to community wellness programmes across Singapore. (Photo: Facebook / HealthServe)

For him, it’s simple.

“Let’s sit down and have coffee and say, how can we help, how can we contribute, I think that’s a better way of solving issues. It’s a community problem. I’m all for legislation and rules but what I’m saying is it should not be your only fallback. You need to bring in a much more compassionate, humane and community level relational framework. Without a relational framework, all these legislative steps are going to waste.”

WE SHOULD ALL BE INTERESTED IN SOCIAL JUSTICE

Igniting civic-mindedness can be a challenge in any society. However, he says we need to remember that inequity can be problematic for all of us, not just those directly affected by it.

“At the global level, the problem of inequitable societies where the divide between the rich and poor widens, you see political upheavals, increasing tensions. If the tensions here rise because of that or because of tensions within the migrant community it could come to the same thing. That’s why all of us should be interested in social justice.”

Going forward, he feels the mental health of migrant workers should be urgently looked into.

Several surveys over the last few years have shown that many suffer from depression.

“We are discovering more and more mental health issues. The workers are displaced from family, their own culture, from familiar landmarks. If their families are asking for money or their mother is ill or their daughter is sick and they have this constant threat of loan sharks, because they have borrowed money to come to Singapore, it can cause a lot of distress.

“A laceration or broken bone can be seen and fixed but the deeper problems of depression and suicidal tendencies among migrant workers are not easy. We’ve encountered migrant workers who actually wanted to kill themselves. I know of some who successfully killed themselves.”

HealthServe is currently working on a programme to teach volunteers, employers and migrant workers themselves detect signs of mental health issues. 

Connecting with migrant workers on these various levels has “enriched” him, he says.

“I have grown. What’s important to me now is so different from what was before.”

Today, while he doesn’t drive a sportscar anymore, he makes enough from his first clinic in Chinatown where he sees paying customers. He works there for half the week. He spends the rest of the week at HealthServe.

“I’m still making enough to keep me going. I think I could make a lot more, but I think that’s not the point already. I can’t afford a Porsche or a Maserati today, but I can enjoy the little intangibles. That’s enough.”

*Listen to the podcast of Dr Goh Wei Leong's On the Record interview with Bharati Jagdish.

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