SINGAPORE: The National Stadium usually welcomes the biggest of names, from rock group U2 to Mandopop band Mayday as well as international sports stars. But as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on this year, concerts and sporting events were cancelled, and the stadium soon played host to a different group of visitors.
In April, migrant workers began living at the National Stadium and other facilities around the Singapore Sports Hub - the OCBC Arena, the OCBC Aquatic Centre and the 100Plus Promenade (the track that circles around the National Stadium). The place was turned into a temporary migrant worker dormitory until the middle of August. Workers called the Sports Hub home for 138 days in total.
READ: IN FOCUS: The long, challenging journey to bring COVID-19 under control in migrant worker dormitories
Mitch Seeto, the senior director of venue and event operations at the Singapore Sports Hub, remembers getting phoned by government officials in early April, requesting to use the premises. Infections in the workers’ dormitories had ballooned since the end of March and the authorities were trying to reduce transmissions by moving some residents out.
Within less than 10 days of the call, the first 90 migrant workers moved into the OCBC Arena, which was the first venue at the Hub to be used. It could house 800 people.
“I was confident we could do it … in the speed that we did it,” Mr Seeto said.
As event organisers, they are used to preparing for anything from sporting competitions to music concerts to ice-skating performances, said Peter Brock, the Singapore Sport Hub’s chief of infrastructure and operations.
Getting the temporary dormitories ready involved installing partitions to subdivide the hall and keep 10 people inside one makeshift room, buying new beds and bedsheets, allocating space for a sickbay, and repiping the toilets and fixing in shower heads.
By the end of May, once the National Stadium was opened up, the Hub was housing about 2,000 workers.
The Hub representatives said they tried to make the workers’ stay as comfortable as possible, as many of them had come from a prolonged period of isolation. Their two main concerns were making sure there was ample WiFi coverage and food the residents liked.
Wi-Fi was already available, but its frequency had to be reconfigured - from 5 GHz to 2.4 GHz - after it became clear that most of the workers had older phone models that did not support the existing network, said Mr Brock.
As for food, the operators were fortunate they already had a catering company that worked specifically for them. SATS Delaware North, the company that provides the food & beverage and catering services for the Hub's venues, was given the task of cooking meals on-site.
To prepare for the stint, its general manager Mark MacDonald and a chef went to gather feedback from the cooks and residents at the S11 dormitory in Punggol, which was one of the first dormitories to be gazetted as a COVID-19 isolation area.
“We were lucky in that sense that because … we were activated later than the others, we were able to have a better understanding of the dos and don’ts from the onset,” said Mr MacDonald, who staffed the central kitchen with 20 to 30 crew members.
Since about 80 per cent of the Hub's temporary residents were South Asian, his team needed to know what curries to cook and made sure to alternate spicier, drier versions and sweeter, nuttier types to satisfy the culinary preferences of men from different parts of the region, as well as switching from cooking Jasmine or Basmati rice to offering the Ponni variety instead.
Sometimes, special meals were delivered, with mixed results - biryani was so popular the residents kept requesting for it. However, spaghetti was a miss, and the cooks ended up in the kitchen preparing popcorn chicken till 2am that night, Mr MacDonald recalled.
Remittance services, a minimart and pop-up barber were also set up for the residents. Facilities Management And Manpower Consultants’ founder David Selvah Rajo, whose business managing three factory-converted dormitories was affected since the residents had been moved out, called it a “win-win” situation when he was roped in to run these services.
His team would stock its van with anything from cigarettes to sarongs and drive down three times a week, and cut the men’s hair twice a month for S$5 per haircut - a $2 discount from the usual price since many of them were out of work, he said.
To keep the workers occupied, the Hub roped in trainers from ActiveSG to conduct exercise sessions, yoga classes and, sometimes, frisbee games. These were held during each worker’s half- to an hour’s recreation time every morning.
The Hub also took advantage of their huge screens inside their halls to broadcast not just safety messages and the news, but also anything from cricket matches to MasterChef India and Mr Bean.
“It was almost (like) we were running a TV channel on our screens,” Mr Seeto said.
He said he is proud of the work the Sports Hub did over the four-and-a-half months, recounting a particular moment when the first group of workers moved in. At first, he and his colleagues were nervous about how the setup would be received, and then they saw the expression of on some of the workers' faces.
“When they (came) here, we could see them as they come in and just look around at everything we built … and you see them look around, looked at the sky and give thanks. And that was just amazing,” he said.
“We (saw) that on the CCTV - they wouldn’t know that we saw it - but it was quite rewarding to us to know that we played a key part in make them feel, I guess, more at home and more comfortable during this period.”