From a starring role in the Hollywood flick Crazy Rich Asians to the backdrop of the science-fiction television series Westworld, Singapore has in recent times become a city for all sorts of fantastical projections. It is easy to see why. Skyscrapers such as the Parkroyal on Pickering hotel and the Marina One mixed-use complex are wrapped in lush greenery reminiscent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. There is also the neo-futuristic domes of the Gardens by the Bay and the swooping Marina Bay Sands next door. Singapore is a playground for architects from around the world to imagine the buildings of tomorrow.

But the glitzy architecture in the city centre distracts from another reality. On the edges of Singapore, some 400,000 migrant workers live in starkly different conditions to the fancy buildings they help construct and maintain. Many workers are housed in dormitories built by profit-seeking operators that meet state requirements to the letter but are hardly liveable. The need to provide a minimum of 4.5 m2 of living space per dorm resident, offer a toilet facility for every 15 residents and meet the needs of their cost-sensitive employers equals drab industrial housing, where up to 20 workers are housed in a room packed to the ceiling with double-decker beds.

For years, such congested housing was brushed off as an inevitable fact of life in a land-scarce city-state. If over 80 per cent of Singapore’s resident population has to stay in high-rise public housing, what more dare a lowly paid transient worker ask for? Plus, the community – largely made up of men from Bangladesh, India and China – engages in jobs shunned by many Singaporeans. Such attitudes further forced the state to banish dormitories to far-flung locations – out of sight and out of mind.

Architects are credited for Singapore’s urban development, but the thousands of workers who materialize their visions are rarely acknowledged

But COVID-19 exposed this inequality with a vengeance. Soon after Singapore was praised by the World Health Organization for controlling the virus, the cases in migrant worker dormitories skyrocketed. Their densely packed living conditions were perfect incubators for the infectious disease. In response, the government converted former schools, vacant factories and state properties into temporary accommodations to reduce living densities. In June, it also unveiled new Quick Build Dormitories to pilot improved housing for migrant workers.

Singapore’s architecture community has remained conspicuously quiet, even though migrant workers are the very people who realize their work. Some architects have raised funds and gathered supplies for the community, but there has been little public discussion on the profession’s responsibility and how it can do more. Instead, the dormitory operators and construction firms employing the workers have borne much of the blame. The situation reflects how divorced architecture has become from its construction. In building sites across Singapore, construction workers don yellow safety hats, whereas architects walk around with gleaming white ones bestowed to consultants and the managerial class. The divide is concretized in public discourse, too. Architects are credited for Singapore’s urban development, but the thousands of workers who materialize their visions are rarely acknowledged. They are further rendered invisible by a government that frames the construction industry as a manpower problem that must be resolved with increasing automation.

The assumption that construction work is simply a means to realizing architecture, or worse, not fit for human endeavour, is problematic

The assumption that construction work is simply a means to realizing architecture, or worse, not fit for human endeavour, is problematic. It takes craft and knowledge to materialize and maintain buildings, skills that machines can never replace completely. Architects must forge a more equitable partnership with their builders. They need to acknowledge the value that construction brings to their works and support the growth of the industry. It would make the profession more attractive to Singaporeans and help the city-state wean off an unhealthy addiction to cheap migrant workers. A stronger understanding of construction, materials and labour could even lead to better building designs.

The Singapore government’s ongoing effort to improve the living standards of migrant workers also presents an opportunity for architects to apply their minds and skills. Having dreamt up stunning buildings that have made Singapore such a livable city, designing decent living spaces for those who help build them should come easily. It is the least the city-state can offer given how it has benefitted tremendously from the architecture and urban development built mostly on the backs of migrant workers. No one is asking for dormitories with groundbreaking and innovative designs. But then again, why not? If Singapore is to truly become a model city for the future, then let’s build one that is more equitable and accessible to all.

This piece will be featured in our upcoming September/October 2020 issue, Frame 136.