SINGAPORE – When Singapore imposed the circuit breaker on April 7 last year to curb a growing number of Covid-19 cases, migrant workers were not allowed to leave their dormitories, not even to get food.
After receiving a text from a friend working with the Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition on April 8, Mrs Cherie Tseng and her husband Tseng Wun Hsiung realised the workers’ predicament and sprang into action.
The couple rang up friends and relatives for donations, looked for catering firms, as well as Grab drivers to deliver the food. The first catered meal went out on April 10.
In two weeks, the couple had raised more than $100,000 to provide over 10,000 meals to about 670 workers, who were mostly from India and Bangladesh foreign workers and were staying in the smaller dormitories. The funds also went towards topping up SIM cards for 1,500 workers.
Mr Tseng, 43, who runs a fintech company, said: “What was heartening to see is that there were many people that stood in the gap. There might not be many stories people know about, but the fact is that Singaporeans as a whole, they stood in the gap, they stepped up.”
One challenge was being accountable for the large amount of funds that they received, said Mrs Tseng, 40, who works in training consultancy.
Not only did she seek advice from her friends who were accountants, but she also created a Google Sheets document that documented how the money was used.
The document was password protected for donors to view.
The smallest donation – $30 from a group of primary school children who had saved up their pocket money during home-based learning – was “the biggest one in many ways”, she said.
“We did the numbers, and we were $30 out of pocket. We were thinking, it doesn’t matter, we can afford $30.
“But that $30 came in right at the end from these kids and it was the exact amount that we needed, and so we were very thankful, and to me that was a very special moment.”
Asked if they would consider themselves as the key people in this effort, the couple demurred.
“The only credit we would take, if at all, is that we were thick-skinned enough to ask our friends for money,” said Mrs Tseng.
The couple’s three children – Quentin, 11, Evan, nine, and Oliver, three – also helped to make cards to encourage the workers.
Mrs Tseng said that they received feedback that some of the workers teared up when they received the cards, which friends and family also contributed.
“For them to receive a note from the outside saying, ‘It’s okay, we’re with you and we’ll get through this together. Stay strong and healthy’; for some of them, it was just nice knowing that someone out there was grateful to what they have contributed to Singapore,” she said.
While the pandemic has been especially hard on migrant workers, some, such as Bangladeshi Rubel who goes by one name, have made new friends from Singapore.
He signed up for a virtual language exchange programme, called WeTalk, by the Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition in May last year.
The 29-year-old also keeps in regular contact with other workers and Singaporeans through a WhatsApp chat group, which has 42 people.
Mr Rubel, who first started working in Singapore in April 2016, said his interactions with Singaporeans have changed his opinion about them.
“I thought maybe they wouldn’t recognise us as friends because we came to work in this country as a worker. But when they spoke to me, they seemed like my friend and I felt very comfortable talking to them,” said the roofing specialist in the construction industry.
Asked if he considers his new friends as family, he said: “To be honest, I have my first family in Bangladesh, and my second family in Singapore.”