Singapore’s Surveillance Experiments on Low-Wage Migrant Worker Dormitories: Implications for Singapore and Other Nations

Just Tech Covid-19 Rapid-Response Grant – Fall 2020

Abstract

The narrative of Singaporean exceptionalism has been globally reproduced in how the country has successfully managed the Covid-19 pandemic, where Singapore is self-branding as a model managerial SmartNation that has built an extensive digitalized and surveillance infrastructure for others to emulate. Many of these technologies appear to have been developed and tested in low-income migrant worker dormitories. Straddling science and technology studies (STS) and migration studies, this project examines the racialized and gendered processes of producing social exclusion and inequality in Singapore. Our aims are first, to understand whether and how low-wage migrant worker dormitories have become such experimentation sites, and second, to explore the differential implications of the surveillance assemblage for both the Singaporean “community,” other migrant workers, and other nations who may adopt Singaporean technologies. Our research questions are: (1) How have the purpose-built, private-publicly owned dormitories housing Singapore’s largely South Asian low-wage migrant workers (LIMWs) become experimental sites for testing Singapore’s rapidly growing arsenal of surveillance technologies (contact tracing apps, wastewater surveillance, CCTV, health surveillance through testing, etc.)? (2) How is the surveillance assemblage reproducing the racialized and gendered hierarchies of labor constructed through the nation’s immigration regime? With what implications for international would-be adopters? (3) How are LIMWs using technologies to counter-surveil their employers, the state, and NGOs? We expect to find that dormitories are testing sites, that surveillance is tied to the racialized and gendered hierarchies of the immigration regime, and that workers are attempting, with little success, to counter-surveil employers and the state.

Research Team

Principal Investigators

Monamie B. Haines

Assistant Professor, Nanyang Technological University

  • Bio ▾

    Monamie Bhadra Haines is an assistant professor of global science, technology, and society at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and before, was an American Council of Learned Societies Postdoctoral Fellow in Global STS at the Ohio State University. She has two major research foci. First, she studies the political and cultural implications of energy transitions in Asia with a focus on social movements and the relationship between science and democracy. Her current book project, Democratic Reactors: Nuclear Power, Activism, and Experiments with Credibility in India, examines how diverse Indian polities have resisted and accommodated different manifestations of nuclear energy from the 1960s to the present, with the aim of understanding the different practices and imaginaries of Indian democracy. Monamie's next project comparatively investigates how public-private partnerships in development communities are creating energy solutions and new markets in contexts of humanitarian crises to understand how power is centralized, vulnerabilities are reproduced, and alternative futures are made possible through the technologies of financialization and surveillance embedded in renewable energy systems for the poor. Her second focus, precipitated by the pandemic, investigates the implications of surveillance in nonliberal contexts such as Singapore, and is more oriented toward public scholarship and interdisciplinary collaboration.

Laavanya Kathiravelu

Assistant Professor, Nanyang Technological University

  • Bio ▾

    Laavanya Kathiravelu is an assistant professor of sociology at Nanyang Technological University. Her research interrogates the nexus of contemporary migration and cities, particularly how these two categories of analysis interact with each other in social and spatial terms. She has explored this in her PhD looking at labor migration and city-building processes in Dubai that culminated in her monograph Migrant Dubai: Low Wage Workers and the Construction of a Global City (Palgrave MacMillan, 2015), which examined the affective and non-formal modes of performative citizenship in the two city-states. The project suggests that ethnographic examinations of Asian migrations offer alternatives in conceptualizing the politics of urban integration in more processual and transnational terms. Her current research expands on her interests in migrants and urban areas by looking at middle-class Indian migrants and new citizens in Singapore—a group that has been largely under researched but has contributed to the increase in Singapore's minority racial groupings. Her work aims to disrupt the victimhood discourse surrounding marginalized migrants and broaden understandings of contemporary cities with a focus on more embodied and affective modes of everyday life, including friendship and social networks in contemporary city life.

Junjia Ye

Assistant Professor, Nanyang Technological University

  • Bio ▾

    Junjia Ye completed her PhD at the Department of Geography, the University of British Columbia, and is now an assistant professor in geography at Nanyang Technological University. Her research interests lie at the intersections of difference and diversity, critical cosmopolitanism, class, gender studies, and the political-economic development of urban Southeast Asia. Alongside ethnographic methods, she uses film and photography techniques in collaboration with research respondents to create visual narratives through her work. The fundamental question that underlies her research and teaching programs is: What accounts for how social and economic inequalities are constituted through people's mobilities to, through, and from diversifying cities? Her first monograph, entitled Class Inequality in the Global City: Migrants, Workers and Cosmopolitanism in Singapore (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), won Labour History's 2017 book prize. Her current study problematizes the notion of “migrant integration” by investigating how inequality emerges through forms of differential inclusion. She addresses the politics of diversification by showing how diverse peoples are incorporated through uneven modes of governance, ordering, and management. In all her interests, she aims to develop research that is timely, socially relevant, and always with the possibility of collaboration and public and student engagement both in and out of the classroom.

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