Technology has rewired the fundamental circuits of the way we live. There is perennial tension between two schools of thought regarding our understanding and conceptualisation of the effect of technology in our post-pandemic society.
One school lies within the Science and Tech Studies paradigm and believes that society shapes the acceptance of technology. Its final contours embedded within communities is known as ‘social construction of technology’. We can see how the digital is fully embraced by the urban poor to express via Tik Tok and access a marketplace of products and ideas. The power of the digital is the perceived paucity of middlemen and brokers for the margins to breach the mainstream. The digital refracts and amplifies realities.
During the national lockdown in India, marginalised communities are reaching out to their public representatives via Twitter to lodge a concern. Social media teams of public representatives are as alert to issues in their domains due to digital public engagement, as the world has taken a break to arrest the spread of a virus. Many Indian expatriates overseas have reached out to the Twitter handles of Ministry of External Affairs and Dr S Jaishankar asking for repatriation and redressal in the light of loss of jobs/wages due to COVID-19.
The other school of thought is popular with the Silicon Valley elite and is called ‘Technological Determinism’. It holds the view that technology shapes society and not the other way around. Tech becomes culture only when the digital is overwhelmingly adopted by most of the world, quipped Marc Andreessen of a16z, the iconic Sand Hill Road Venture Capital firm, during a fireside chat with Ken Kelly, the legendary founder of The Wired, a flagship technology publisher in August 2019.
Digital is turning a page and is nearly quotidian in character. However, human ingenuity will always cut the coat as per the cloth available.
An interesting user case of leveraging the digital is of the Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers caught in Singapore’s version of the lockdown termed in a technocratic manner as the ‘Circuit Breaker’. A vast majority of the COVID-19 infected in Singapore have been South Asian migrant workers, who live in dormitories or rooms which are densely crowded and perfect for the spread of the virus. The Circuit Breaker in Singapore lasts until 1st June, relegating migrant workers to their inhospitable dorm rooms of 10-12 people. Authorities have ensured food and wi-fi connection during the Circuit Breaker.
As an advisor to Banglar Kantha (Voice of Bengal), a migrant worker collective which works as a first responder for Bengali-speaking male migrant worker community in Singapore, I have observed the creativity with which these migrant workers communicate under the lockdown. They were effective in communicating various issues facing them, especially bad food quality, to the civil society, which was then picked up by global media.
Banglar Kantha is the only Bengali language newspaper in South East Asia, founded by community organizer and journalist Mr. AKM Mohsin. Mr Mohsin, originally from Bramhanbaria, Bangladesh, is now a Singaporean Permanent Resident. Mohsin Bhai, as he is popularly known, cuts a powerful presence in his bush shirt, trousers, and leather slippers.
He frantically paces down Little India in Singapore, meeting migrant workers and businesses, solving their issues with the administration and errant employers. Along with health communicator Dr Somrita Chaudhari, Banglar Kantha has been running live YouTube/Facebook conversations on COVID-19 matters in the ‘Bangal’ dialect which Bangladeshi migrants can grasp easily.
The central theme of the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore is the migrant worker crisis. It has brought into light issues that were brushed under the carpet for many years if it was convenient. These unfashionable, non-branded narratives have dimmed the shine off the textbook success story of the Singaporean Healthcare System.
The digital empowers the margins by dissolving barriers of text and literacy. Thanks to voice notes on Whatsapp and smart phone cameras, a person who has not been to school can communicate his/her concerns. Many migrant workers in the Gulf and Singapore/Malaysia are poor and, at times, semi-literate. Whatsapp messages and forwards are the preferred medium of communication through migrant networks. This information reaches the journalist community sooner than later as many cover the ‘migrant beat’.
Yes, there is a dedicated migrant reporter in the main Singaporean newspapers, contrary to the bland reputation of Singaporean media. With millions of migrant workers in India, how many Indian media houses have a migrant affairs reporter?
The migrant worker is also the central story of the global pandemic, from Bandra to Bishan to Bangsar. He/she is a marginal figure, muted in conversations from Singapore to Surat to Selangor. Visuals of migrants walking hundreds of kilometres have scarred the national consciousness and compelled the middle classes to ask uncomfortable questions. How are we treating the communities who work for/around us?
If they are expected to work, and even if they are not paid, they cannot complain. As they earn too little to pay taxes, they are considered lesser than other workers. But as the pandemic has shown, they are the very essential services that keep the system moving. We have not accounted for their contributions fully in our economic data and models.
It’s about time they are promoted in our policy conversations, way beyond the near clandestine means which the realm of the digital presents. If migrants stop working, the world as we know, the ‘Business as Usual’ scenario, collapses. Labour dignity, Singapore has learnt the hard way, pays at least from a public health vantage point.
Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.