By Elisha Lim
Part I: On social media, Covid-19 narratives eclipse human rights abuses, in Singapore and beyond
I’ve never heard so much about my hometown since the emergence of covid-19. I was excited to read the word “Singapore” in news articles, because it’s my father’s birthplace, my teenage home, and home of my beloved extended family. First I was proud to hear so much fanfare – Singapore as a model city fighting the pandemic through a web of high-tech apps.
So I was curious when the news turned ominous: Singapore hit by regression, large scale outbreak and mass city shut downs. I immediately looked up the story in more detail. I was surprised to see that the virus spread in Singapore is exclusive to a very specific population – migrant workers. This wasn’t mentioned in cursory Twitter discussions or initial newsbites, but it is extremely significant. This is not about the pandemic, it’s a human rights outrage.
But “human rights outrage” isn’t how the story is being told. Singapore was peppered into tweeted reports and articles about cities that had been exceptionally well prepared, and now face a relapse. That is all. Twitter users could naturally assume that Singaporeans just stood too close together. Or wore their masks all wrong. Or didn’t wash their hands enough. After all, this is a familiar covid narrative.
But there’s another covid narrative, which is that this pandemic is exposing graphic, sordid inequalities and abject living conditions that sustain the everyday conditions of “advanced” nations like Singapore. As my sister, novelist Thea Lim, wrote with feeling for Guernica, “like the casing coming off an enormous clock, we see how our way of life relies on millions of people, working together.”
Without a personal investment in Singapore, I wouldn’t have researched further into its scant Twitter mentions and learned its squalid underbelly. I would have scrolled past, like I do with the dozens of daily news headlines that amount to my daily news diet. My global awareness is based on social media algorithms, which means that it is extremely selective.
Social media algorithms are the focus of my PhD research, yet I didn’t notice my own algorithmic bias. Personally I circulate stories that my friends would read – Asian solidarity with Black protests, queer zoom party links, dystopic self-reporting app conspiracies. What I know is based on the principles of self-branding.
And stories about the starving global south are not ripe for branding. They aren’t new; they don’t have a fresh plot, clear conflict, or relatability factor. At least let’s see what I can manage here.
So – Singapore is an extraordinary story of wealth and success. If you saw Crazy Rich Asians, you saw Singapore’s best publicity promo – an opulent tropical paradise where the Chinese majority has emerged as a powerful and competitive economy and global debtor.
A great deal of Singapore’s wealth rests on the surplus cheap labor it extracts from surrounding third world countries under atrocious work conditions. Singapore imports the poorest populations from nearby Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand and China to work in ruthless wage bondage, inhumane living accommodations, race-based curfews and robust island-wide rhetorics of dehumanizing racist stereotypes. Construction workers, manual laborers, domestic workers and janitors come from impoverished areas of Asia, usually having made immense personal and family sacrifices to pay outsized agent fees, only to arrive to a much lower pay than promised. These laborers are packed together inside the construction sites where they work to live in makeshift clapboard buildings or dormitories converted out of old factories with minimal amenities.
Domestic workers are subject to the same and worse human rights abuses. Women from the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand are hired to live with families where they are sometimes granted separate rooms, but it is not unusual for them to be forced to improvise their beds in storage rooms or hallways. A very fortunate few get their weekends off, by law they are only entitled to one day off per week, which many families disregard. Their wages are often so minimal (typically 5% of the average household income) that some do sex work on their day off. This is infrequent, but spreads moral outrage amongst employers and spawn draconian rules like withholding workers’ passports and limiting phone time.
The pandemic makes these conditions much, much worse. On 21 April 2020, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower declared labour dormitories in full lockdown. This is extreme – labourers are not even allowed to leave for food. Some employers provide their labourers with food and medical care; others go without. For many others, this costs them their salaries and jobs. What’s worse is that these workers have few alternatives, without funds to travel back to their country of origin.
Domestic workers meanwhile report an increase in their workload, the cancellation of days off and the coercive reduction of their salaries. Advocacy groups like the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) have seen a spike in demand, as domestic workers seek shelter and support against increased surveillance and physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
To make matters worse, protest is illegal in Singapore and migrant worker advocates face official reprimand and public backlash. Reporter Kokila Annamalai’s public statements have drawn racist and misogynist attacks, while on May 16th, HOME’s founder Jolovan Wham was coerced into signing a public apology for anti-government critique.
Was that a good story? Will it track with my friends? Does it resonate with my brand reputation? Can I condense it into 280 characters?
Stories that don’t sell.
Covid-19 is a devastating global pandemic because the wealth disparity of neo-liberal capitalism is taking a toll at the scale of an ethnic purge. Global famine rates in 2020 will double those of 2019. Paltry, misleading news about Singapore brings home a world of crude selectivity of the Covid coverage in my own periphery. But this doesn’t change my online behaviour – because unless my friends care, I won’t share.
I could blame major news outlets for failing to do their jobs. Why doesn’t the mainstream press educate me about the objective bigger truth? But there’s no shortage of journalists attempting to illuminate Singaporean horrors, including this in-depth Guardian report. These stories however, don’t thrive in the self-interested buzz of social networks (unless your networks are specifically committed to third-world labour rights). The media, like the rest of us, use Twitter based on popularity principles, trending topics, the segregated tastes of programmed “homophily,” and ranking systems of edginess. So although urgent stories are reported, if they don’t bear enough social currency they don’t become news outlets’ main fare.
Social media platforms have repeatedly insisted that they are not publishers. Marxist social media critics like Tiziana Terranova and Christian Fuchs agree – they’re not publishers; they’re employers. As social media users we are workers, like golden geese in vast user-generated-content farms.
These platforms are smart employers too, because users work for fun, feeding their own egos, chasing a weekly fifteen minutes of fame, authority, validation and expertise. And as long as users observe the algorithmic principles of affinity, freshness and relevance – in other words, as long as they write catchy posts – they can freely and influentially express themselves to an appreciative audience. Social media teaches users to act on market principles and think in promotional terms. Once eccentric behaviours, like self-branding and personal promotion, have become norms.
For social media platforms, this works – advertisers flock to this rich landscape where users are primed to promote, exchange, represent and sell identities, ideas, lifestyles, values and sometimes commodities. Users learn to speak like advertisers, and advertisers learn to speak like users, until successful campaigns like Pantene transgender awareness make my cause indistinguishable from theirs. If users want to be visible, social media trains them to articulate even intimate statements like commercials, following the principles of supply and demand. These principles then determine how stories circulate, and this influences mainstream press priorities.
Critics have argued that Covid-19 exposes the brutalities of capitalism. Add social media platforms to the pile. Social media platforms train users to behave like individual billboards on a word-of-mouth highway. In Singapore, activists struggle to get migrant labour struggles into the public sphere. But as long as we do our learning on social media platforms, our knowledge will only reflect the principles of self-promotion.
To support Singapore migrant labour advocates, you can donate here.
Check out Elisha Lim’s latest research article, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Facebook: Updating Identity Economics” in Social Media & Society. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2056305120910144
Elisha Lim is a queer story-teller and comic artist, whose graphic novel 100 Crushes was published by Koyama Press and catalogues a generation of queer and trans stories from Toronto, Berlin, Montreal and Singapore. Lim has created award winning claymation films, solo and group art exhibits, and founded the annual anti-racist Montreal art festival “Qouleur.” Lim holds one Masters in literature, one in curating, and is currently a PhD student in Media, Technology and Culture in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, working on a dissertation provisionally called The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Callouts: From Identity Politics to Identity Economics.