As the keynote speaker at the National Conference on Kindness held on October 20, Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh provided a checklist of signs of “kindness” and “unkindness” in Singaporeans.

According to a summary provided by The Sunday Times on October 21, Professor Koh cited cases of foreign workers being housed in unsanitary and inhumane circumstances, foreign domestic workers being sexually abused and barriers to opportunities and accessibility for the disabled as instances of unkindness. For instances of kindness, he raised examples of non-government organisations (NGOs) who helped foreign workers, an increase in volunteerism and Singaporeans who donate to humanitarian disaster relief efforts abroad.

While generosity and volunteering are laudable, I am mainly concerned with Professor Koh’s framing of “unkindness”.

Migrant workers often come to Singapore to work in low-end, low-income jobs, such as construction work. These workers are often vulnerable to ill treatment and exploitation from employers. As Professor Koh mentioned, many are subjected to substandard living conditions, late pay or no pay. Professor Koh himself referred to a case where an employer had left an injured worker to die.

These stories are horrific instances of dehumanisation and cruelty. For Professor Koh to frame them as “signs of unkindness” is a gross trivialisation of very serious issues.

Forcing your workers to live in unhygienic, slum-like conditions is not a sign of unkindness. Leaving a worker to bleed overnight is not a sign of unkindness. Beating up your domestic helper is not a sign of unkindness. It’s not just about a few individuals being a little bit mean. It is abuse.

The fact that there are so many cases of such abuse indicates a bigger, systemic problem in Singapore than a lack of “kindness”. It suggests that there is a problem with the way Singaporeans see migrant workers, so much so that there are people who think it is okay to exploit and abuse fellow human beings. It also suggests that we may need to re-look policies – and the way they are enforced and practically applied – to make sure that there is sufficient protection for workers who have suffered such ill-treatment.

The NGOs, social workers and activists – the very people Professor Koh single out as being a “sign of kindness” in our country – have their work cut out for them, and the difficulties may not always come from bad employers. When repatriation companies are able to function in Singapore and official mediation often works out so poorly for the disadvantaged migrant worker, we could even venture to say that there are systemic problems within the government’s framework that leave room for such problems to be repeated again and again.

It’s all very well to talk about fostering a kinder Singapore. But to label things like physical and sexual abuse as being merely “unkind” not only wins you the Understatement of the Year Award, it also trivialises issues that are in urgent need of real solutions.