The Bridge between Singaporeans and Migrant Workers

Opening Speech at The Bridge by Migrant Cultural Show Singapore and Welcome in my Backyard, 21 June 2020

Migrant Cultural Show Singapore Facebook Page

Thank you, Sangeetha. Happy Sunday everyone!

I’m grateful that Rubel still thinks I’m “honourable” enough to come back as his honourable guest especially since I already had my 5-minute fame at last year’s Migrant Cultural Show with Debbie and Shivaji at Aliwal Arts Centre.

My first experience as a migrant was when I was in my 20s. I took on a work assignment that no one in the international company I was with then wanted to raise their hands for because it was in Jakarta, Indonesia. It was considered ‘ulu’ (meaning ‘backward’). This was of course more than 25 years ago! My dearest Mama was especially worried about my decision.

I remember the excitement, the heady anticipation before heading over. But the novelty soon gave way to homesickness, loneliness and a general sense of displacement especially since I didn’t speak the language and I also had to get used to being the minority wherever I went. Don’t get me wrong, I was given much material comfort by my employer and most important of all, I clearly had the privilege of choice to leave if it got too difficult.

I not only stuck it out but thrived because my local colleagues reached out with wide open arms to welcome me into their homes and culture. They took turns to look after me when I contracted chicken pox whilst I was there — if you had chicken pox like me as an adult, you will appreciate how your body burns up and the bone-chilling pain! Yes, I was missing home so much especially Ma’s comfort food but I found comfort in the Javanese version of chicken soup except it’s not chicken, it’s oxtail called sup buntut.

As a young woman alone in a foreign land, I learnt so much about human behaviours from this first cross border and cross cultural assignment. It got me thinking about how easy it is to keep to our own kind because being tribal is very primal, like how animals stay in their herds. In other words, it’s ‘automatic’ to just take care of those who look or behave like us. Seeing differences is also so much easier than seeing similarities because science tells us that 80% of the information processed by our brain comes from what we see.

I will always be grateful to my Jakartan friends for opening their homes and hearts to me and for not seeing a Singaporean Chinese woman but a fellow human like them. However, I must admit that I do sometimes wonder if my experience might have been different if I was forced to live away from them and not be allowed to share and exchange meals and stories with them.

It should therefore be no surprise that Singaporeans’ relationship with our migrant communities has been a difficult one given our primal instincts to see and assume differences, whether in culture or class. This has been made worse by the physical segregation of housing our migrant workers far away from our neighbourhoods for so long which gives us no opportunities to learn about each other to understand our commonalities, our same humanity. We must therefore never trivialize the role of policies in shaping social attitudes and behaviours. Moving forward, we must choose courage over convenience in our policy design and our policy intent must always be underpinned by inclusion and integration.

With our migrant communities being rehoused into our local neighbourhoods, I think we have a grand opportunity for Singaporeans to do better as a society. When I heard the first announcement of rehousing migrant workers to Redhill Close, my immediate reaction was that we must do something immediately to engage the local residents. I shared this in a WhatsApp community chat. One thing led to another in a vibrant discussion and Welcome in my Backyard or WIMBY was formed, with my fellow founding members Michelle Yeo and Nicholas Oh bravely taking up the challenge of co-leading this community action with a growing and most amazing team of volunteers from all walks of life. WIMBY does not just focus on supporting our migrant friends, we also want to help Singaporeans develop a WIMBY mindset by bravely questioning our prejudices and stereotypes through understanding our migrant friends,

That’s why events such as Migrant Cultural Show Singapore are therefore extremely important in creating this bridge for Singaporeans and migrants alike to shed our lenses of what we do for a living and instead, appreciate what makes us come alive through our arts and culture. This year is extra special not because it’s a collaboration with WIMBY but also because this show used to be migrant friends sharing their culture with Singaporeans but today, we will also have Singaporeans share what matters to us with the migrant community. As with all bridges, this BRIDGE is, and must always be a two-way exchange.

Thank you for listening. Walk on this Bridge with us and have fun in today’s show!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.