Research Paper

This paper explores reactions toward the siting of migrant dormitories near residential areas in Singapore, focusing on Quick Build Dormitories (QBDs) that were built in response to the pandemic.


A 2015 opinion editorial from the Straits Times argues that Not in my Backyard (NIMBY) attitudes are signs of “a social backwardness” contrary to Singapore’s “forward-looking spirit of development” (What Nimbyism Says About Society). Citing the vision of Singapore’s pioneers, the article critiques the “politiciza[tion]” of land development and today’s “regressive” prioritization of individual interests over communal ones (What Nimbyism Says About Society). However, in the case of migrant dormitories, I argue that the values fueling residents’ NIMBY attitudes reflect rather than defy state objectives. For the purpose of this paper, NIMBYism is defined as objection toward the siting of public facilities —deemed communally necessary but detrimental to private interests—within one’s neighborhood. Crucially, it is an attitude that one only holds against developments in one’s “backyard”, but does not extend to similar proposals elsewhere (Wolsink 86).  Through my research, I investigate the ways in which Singapore’s Housing Development Board (HBD) policies, work permit regime, and Total Defense ideology have contributed to the logics that justify the spatial exclusion of low-skilled migrant workers. NIMBY attitudes toward the construction of migrant dormitories should not be understood as contrary to the country’s developmentalist spirit, but a consequence of it. Singapore’s developmentalist philosophy on immigration sees low-skilled migrants solely as economic actors with little to offer beyond cheap manpower, justifying their social, legal, and spatial exclusion (Neo 142). Furthermore, migration has not only been politicized, but securitized. Official rhetoric has framed migration as a security threat, justifying the use of extraordinary measures and preventative surveillance practices. The securitization of migration serves to reinforce workers’ social and legal exclusion while signaling to the local population that low-skilled migrant workers should be sequestered rather than integrated. 

Between the 1970s to 1990s, migrant construction workers mostly rented HDB flats or lived in private residential units (Jules). Other options included red light districts, old factories, construction sites, shophouses and more (Kirk). However, policies later changed in response to residents’ complaints and NIMBY attitudes. While Singaporeans recognized the workers’ contributions to Singapore’s economy, they wished for workers’ housing to be distanced from residential areas due to concerns around property devaluation and safety. In 1996, the first large scale migrant worker dormitory was completed, and starting from 2004 it became required for employers to house all work permit employees in dormitories or government approved housing (Jules). These dormitories were built away from HDB residences —largely owned and occupied by Singaporean citizens— but were still close enough that workers frequented shared recreational spaces. The increased oversight theoretically allowed inspectors to ensure that basic fire safety, minimum living space, and hygiene standards were met. However, inspections arguably led to minimal improvements while paving the way for abuses of power by the Ministry of Manpower (Kirk). In 2008, residents of Serangoon Gardens —an upper middle class neighborhood— signed a petition against the construction of a migrant dormitory nearby, citing concerns ranging from overcrowding and traffic management to increasing crime rates and real estate devaluation (Neo 149). The government ultimately compromised by reducing the number of occupants, establishing a separate exit leading away from the residential area, and building integrated facilities within the dorm complex, setting yet another precedent for the spatial segregation of migrants from residents (Neo 149).

Currently, workers are either housed in large scale purpose built dormitories (PBD), factory converted dormitories, or temporary quarters. As of 2020, around 200,000 workers were housed in PBDs, which are notable for their provision of comprehensive on site services, including gyms, basketball courts, foodcourts, supermarkets, clothing shops and more (Jules). While PBDs are arguably more spacious and hygienic, they have also allowed for greater control and surveillance. For example, Tuas View — a PBD that was opened in 2014— requires that all workers be fingerprinted upon entry and has almost 250 CCTV cameras (Kirk). PBDs provide social and recreational spaces away from the general population, disincentivizing workers from visiting areas like Little India on Sundays during their time off. This further limits opportunities for interaction with locals, contributing to the social exclusion of migrant workers.

While PBDs existed before the 2013 Little India Riots, they have since become more common (Kirk). The Little India riots, catalyzed by a bus accident and consequent death of construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu, led to a series of “recalibration measures” that involved the deportation of fifty-seven migrant workers, ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol, installation of surveillance cameras, deployment of police patrols with body cameras, fencing of bus terminals, and designation of migrant dormitories as public spaces (T. Teo 215-220). While the government stressed that the incident was “spontaneous” and “localized”, its responses were guided by fears of recurrence, leading to the securitization of migrant bodies and reinforcement of xenophobic prejudices (T. Teo 214). T. Teo argues that official labeling of the event as “exceptional” was problematic because it allowed for the use of extrajudicial measures and obscured the historical, legal, and social context that arguably led to the conflict (210). Critically, T. Teo also argues that the security measures that were put in place after the riot should not be seen only as “extraordinary” actions, but part of routine securitization that has normalized the segregation and stereotyping of low wage migrant workers (211). These routine measures include frequent police patrols and strict enactment of anti-littering laws in areas frequented by migrant workers.

Migrant housing is currently being reevaluated in response to public outcry over the conditions workers suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic. Migrant construction workers, packed into overcrowded dormitories with poor hygiene facilities, accounted for over 90% of Singapore’s cases and have since been relocated to 36 temporary locations. Due to spatial constraints, many of these locations are near residential areas and officials have issued statements asking that Singaporeans reject the NIMBY mindset. However, as pointed out by Alex Au, vice president of the nonprofit Transient Workers Count Too, there has been “mixed messaging” from the government (Chandran). Statements that praise workers for their contributions to the economy and condemn xenophobic sentiments are arguably gestural given that these new dormitories resemble “internment camps” with “prison-like” conditions (Chandran). My research focuses on the Quick Build Dormitories (QBD) that have been set up in Admiralty Street, Kranji Way, Choa Chu Kang Way, Choa Chu Kang Grove, 1 Tuas Ave 2, Jalan Tukang, Tuas South Ave 10, and Tampines Industrial Ave 2. These eight QBDs were constructed in response to overcrowding, and claim to house around 25,000 workers under low density conditions. These dormitories are semi permanent structures designed to last two to three years, and their successes and failures are likely to influence the development of permanent housing solutions in the future. They can be constructed quickly due to modular construction, meaning that all parts are prefabricated offsite then assembled on site. Currently, notable features include 24/7 security patrol, self sustaining facilities that provide for all of the workers’ entertainment and social reproduction needs, and point to point transportation (Tan). These security measures further contribute to the securitization of migration by barring all opportunities for integration.

My research draws from existing literature on NIMBYism, Singapore’s housing policies, work permit regime, and theories on the securitization of migration and urbanization of military doctrine. Wolsink’s critique on the language of NIMBY fundamentally informs the manner in which the topic is approached in this paper. Wolsink argues that the term lacks clarity and has taken on pejorative connotations that obscure the logic between resistance and uncritically delegitimizes the concerns of residents. Wolsink stresses that NIMBYists are not only concerned about costs and benefits, but also the processes that dictate how siting decisions are made (88-89). For example, who is involved, how objections are handled, the motives behind siting decisions, and whether decision-makers can be trusted (89). Wolsink explains that NIMBY was originally conceptualized as a logical response to siting proposals where costs are localized but benefits are spread among society, leading to imbalances that elicit opposition (87). Therefore, NIMBY attitudes should be seen as reactions to situations and injustices caused by the forces of capital and state actions rather than behavior reflective of individual dispositions (qtd. in Wolsink 86). Finally, Wolsink also criticizes the way NIMBY language has been used to characterize opposition as selfish and irrational, allowing legislators to dismiss residents’ concerns and cut them out of decision making processes (89). While Wolsink ultimately concludes that the term NIMBY should be abandoned for more neutral language, I chose to use it as framing concept due to its prevalence in Singaporean state rhetoric and conversations around migrant housing and QBDs. However, I am critical of the way it has been used to dismiss opposition and understand it to be reflective of larger state and economic dynamics. My choice to contextualize NIMBY attitudes toward migrant dormitories through exploring Singapore’s housing policies, work permit regime, and Total Defense ideology reflects this understanding, and questions the oversimplified dichotomy drawn between communal and private interests. 

Heteronormative Housing Development Board (HDB) Policies

Singapore’s current home ownership scheme was created in 1968 by the People’s Action Party (PAP). Under Prime Minister Lee’s leadership, the PAP expanded the Central Provident Fund (CPF)—a compulsory savings scheme that was set up by the British colonial government— and established the Housing Development Board (HDB) to enable workers to own their homes. This was achieved through allowing workers to fund their down payments and housing loans using their CPF savings. Recent statistics from 2021 show that 88.9% of Singaporeans own their homes, and 80% of residents currently live in public housing (“Singapore: Rate of Home Ownership 2021”). 

In his book From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, Lee Kuan Yew —former Prime Minister—argues that Singapore’s home ownership scheme has helped to create a “fair, not welfare, society” (Lee 149). His claim rests on the central assumption that national stability can be achieved through giving each citizen “a stake [in the form of asset ownership] in the country and its future” (Lee 150). Citing Confucian tradition, Lee affirms that fair treatment, as opposed to welfare, serves to ensure that citizens are self-reliant, and that “a man [as opposed to the state] is responsible for his family— his parents, wife and children” (162). He credits the CPF for Singapore’s successful cultivation of citizens who are “conscious of their strength” and “take responsibility for themselves and their families”(162). Tying positive characteristics of self reliance, strength, and responsibility with asset ownership and nuclear family living, Lee defines Singapore’s conditions of citizenship by drawing on heteronormative rhetoric and ideals.

Current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong claims that family —narrowly envisioned as “one man, one woman, marrying, having children, and bringing up children”— is the “basic building block of [Singapore’s] society” (qtd. in Oswin 257). As evidence, he argues that the way Singaporeans currently live within HDB flats, neighborhoods, and towns exemplifies general conformity to a norm of straight conventionality. However, analyzing HDB eligibility criteria through a queer theoretical approach, Oswin questions the extent to which these norms of nuclear family living are products of cultural traditions versus social engineering. 

Oswin argues that heteronormative ideals underpin many of the values the HDB promotes and its eligibility criteria for access to public housing. Narrowly defined forms of “respectable domesticity and proper family” are encouraged by Singapore’s housing policies, leading to the queering of subjects such as “gays and lesbians, the single mother, the migrant worker, and the unfilial child” (Oswin 257). Oswin claims that HDB policies are guided by a set of logics that not only polices the heterosexual-homosexual binary but also reflects the “geographically and historically specific coincidence of race, class, gender, nationality, and sexual norms” (257). Under HDB tenancy regulations, only Singaporean citizens and permanent residents over the age of 21 who “form a proper family nucleus” can purchase a flat (Oswin 257). Consequently, there is little room for low-skilled migrant workers within Lee Kuan Yew’s fair home owning society. Barred from getting married without the approval of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), bringing their families to Singapore, and owning HDB flats, migrant construction workers live as single men within crowded dormitories. Unable to participate in nuclear family living, male migrant construction workers are consequently characterized as low quality and distinctly un-Singaporean, incapable of practicing proper responsibility and self reliance.

Singapore’s Exclusionary Work Permit Regime

The role of heteronormative ideals of family in the queering of migrant construction workers can be better understood under the wider context of Singapore’s exclusionary work permit regime. Neo argues that discriminatory laws have led to the belief that unskilled migrants are “undesirable for inclusion” and can be “sequestered from the local population” (135). These laws are justified through two central premises. Firstly, immigration is seen as an issue of economic convenience rather than human rights (Neo 142). Secondly, limited resources are believed to necessitate the prioritization of Singaporeans’ “human right to look after themselves” (qtd in Neo 147). Neo argues that this outlook falsely assumes tradeoffs between the rights of “legitimate Singaporeans” and interests of migrant workers, fueling antagonism rather than recognizing possibilities for mutual benefit (147). Unlike professionals and mid-skilled workers who work under employment passes, low-skilled migrant workers are governed under work permits that are designed to ensure their transience. This benefits the government because it allows for the quick importation and repatriation of workers in response to changes in the labor market (Neo 143).

However, legally ensured transience limits both the social integration and employment mobility of workers, signaling their undesirability to the local population while permitting their exploitation. The aforementioned regulations on marriage, the sponsoring of dependents, and home ownership ensure that there is limited contact between the local population and migrant workers. Additionally, the law threatens unilateral repatriation, prevents workers from changing their jobs without the consent of their employer, and does not offer migrants on work permits a direct path to permanent residency (Neo 142-145). This leaves workers—many indebted to recruitment agencies—with very little bargaining power (Neo 150). The denigration of migrant bodies and labor as low quality and unworthy of protection serves to justify their social and legal exclusion while allowing for their exploitation.

Total Defense and the Securitization of Migration

Not only are migrant workers seen as undesirable for social integration and available for exploitation, they have also been positioned as potential security threats. This is implicit in both Lee Kuan Yew’s founding philosophy and Singapore’s Total Defense strategy. Evoking memories of the race riots during the 1950s and 60s, Lee argues that people who own homes are less likely to engage in destructive behavior due to an “instinctive” and “deep” sense of property (171). Furthermore, he argues that Singaporeans’ drive to defend their country and participate in National Service is rooted in having a stake in the country through home ownership (Lee 160). Unable to own homes, unskilled migrants are not given the opportunity to have a stake in the country. Therefore, they are assumed to have little vested interest in defending Singapore and more likely to incite conflict.

This is significant given the scope and messaging of Singapore’s Total Defense strategy. Total Defense was introduced in 1984 and encourages ordinary citizens to take part in defending the country alongside the Singaporean Armed Forces (SAF). It builds “people’s determination to stand up for Singapore under all circumstances”, contributing to resilience —during both war and peacetime—against military, civil, economic, social, digital, and psychological threats (Fact Sheet: Evolution and History of Total Defence over the Past 35 Years). The Total Defense logo resembles a house, symbolizing Singaporeans’ responsibility to protect their homeland. This imagery is especially resonant given the state’s emphasis on home-ownership as an instrument of nation building. However, it is less compelling to low-skilled migrants who have been excluded from the homeland through heteronormative housing policies and legally ensured transience. The word art on the 2016 Total Defense poster exemplifies this contrast. “Good jobs” is featured prominently on the poster in large bold font with the words “for Singaporeans” in smaller font below it, explicitly excluding migrant workers from its aspirations. The poster also represents more subtle forms of exclusion with phrases like “family matters”, “creating bonds that last”, and “home, truly” that have little relevance for migrants who can not participate in nuclear family living, socialize freely with Singaporeans, or gain permanent residence. Therefore, the role that migrant workers have to play in Total Defense is ambiguous. These tensions raise an essential question: for and against who does Total Defense aim to strengthen security and resilience?

Graham’s analysis of the urbanization of military and security doctrine sets the foundations for answering this question. Focusing on post 9/11 America, Graham describes the emergence of a new military urbanism that has normalized war and preparations of war, justifying the “permanent targeting of… urban sites, circulations, and populations” (136). He builds on existing literature around militarization: a process defined by its disciplining of bodies and identities that fail to conform to masculine notions of citizenship, tendency to exacerbate inside/outside dichotomies, and its propagation of military logics (Graham 137). Importantly, Graham describes a conceptual shift from “battlefield” to “battlespace”, resulting in the belief that war is relevant to everything, everywhere, all the time (Graham 138). Today’s most pressing threats are thought to be unpredictable and asymmetrical; no longer contained within identifiable battlefields, threats hide among everyday urban systems. They can never by completely neutralized or defeated, and must instead be managed through constant surveillance and tracking.

Similar to America’s War on Terror, Total Defense has been called an “exact antagonist to hybrid warfare” and has become increasingly relevant since 9/11 in combatting an unpredictable threat landscape (Fact Sheet: Evolution and History of Total Defence over the Past 35 Years). It has expanded over time to address traditionally non-military challenges such as pandemics, natural disasters, and economic recessions. The evolution of Total Defense can be mapped onto what Coaffee and Fussey describe as a gradual convergence of security and resilience policy, resulting in the creation of new security-driven resilience logics (86). This process has justified the use of security apparatus in pursuit of resilience while also allowing security practices to become more palatable as they take on the rhetoric of resilience (Coaffee and Fussey 86). Resulting security-driven resilience logics drive the deployment of security architectures —such as surveillance and knowledge gathering— on local populations under the guise of preemption and emergency-preparedness (Coaffee and Fussey 100). An article from the Strait Times observes that Total Defense’s emphasis has shifted from mainly military and civil defense to everyday resilience practices (D. Teo). In addition to SAF volunteers and NS citizen soldiers, recent posters depict office workers, school children, airport security staff, firefighters, communal gatherings and more, representing all six pillars of Total Defense. In a poster from 2016, word art in the shape of Total Defense’s logo displays security oriented phrases like “fighting spirit”, “staying vigilant”, “what you cannot defend, you do not own”, and “NS Men, our personal heroes” alongside resilience-oriented language like “emergency preparedness”, “sustainable growth”, and “keeping our social fabric strong” (D. Teo). The conflation of security and resilience has rendered them inseparable, contributing to ideologies of permanent and boundless war (Graham 136).

While, as suggested by Graham, war is imagined to be boundless, surveillance systems are often deployed unevenly. Bigo’s theory of Banopticon — which builds on Bentham’s Panopticon — captures this phenomena. Bentham’s Panopticon describes a prison system where active disciplinary action is supplemented with constant surveillance, resulting in internalized authority and omniscience among prisoners that gradually learn to discipline themselves. Foucault builds on Bentham’s theory, arguing that similar methods of social control have been deployed on civilian populations, infiltrating the everyday. Bigo’s addition of “ban” to the term describes a “proactive logic” that justifies the watching of selective populations, normalizing “exclusion founded on risk” (qtd. T. Teo 210). As argued previously, migrant workers are not seen as active participants or beneficiaries of Total Defense due to their lack of citizenship and stake in the country. Additionally, they are assumed to be more likely to engage in riotous behavior because they do not own property. Therefore, they are seen as potential threats to security that must be regulated in order to strengthen resilience, making them targets of stringent government control.

Analyzing state responses to the Little India Riots, Loong identifies three spaces that were discursively linked to justify the use of extraordinary measures. The “precise spot” where the conflict occurred was generalized to justify regulation of the “whole of Little India”, and was then framed as necessary for the security and resilience of Singapore “as a whole” (11). Loong’s analysis illustrates Bigo’s Banopticon and the ways in which security driven resilience logics are used to justify the deployment of enhanced surveillance measures on specific areas and populations. Adding an additional layer of analysis, T. Teo writes of the way racial and cultural explanations were used by the state to interpret the Little India Riots. A report from the Committee of Inquiry (COI) included statements on how “cultural psychology” might have contributed to the escalation of the conflict (T. Teo 231). While caveats were included to specify that the incident should not reflect poorly on “decent and cultured migrants”, they did little to remediate the negative perception of brown workers within the popular imagination (T. Teo 231). Citing Kirsten Han, T. Teo points out how crimes committed by high skilled expatriate workers are seen as “aberrations” that require an individualized response, while conflicts involving brown migrant workers are judged to require blanket responses over entire areas that implicate other workers (231). 

This expansive literature review attempts to untangle the dynamics at work behind both NIMBY attitudes and the motivations underlying state authorities’ and online commentators’ use of the term. Subsequent primary research uses these analytical frameworks to interpret and contextualize online commentators’ reactions toward a government announcement concerning the construction of QBDs near residential areas.


Traditional qualitative methods were adapted to analyze Facebook comments under a Channel NewsAsia post from June 1, 2020. The post announced the locations and estimated completion dates of new Quick Build Dormitories (QBD), and includes a short description, link to a longer news article, and map that marks Admiralty Street, Kranji Way, Choa Chu Kang Way, Choa Chu Kang Grove, 1 Tuas Ave 2, Jalan Tukang, Tuas South Ave 10, and Tampines Industrial Ave 2 as locations where dormitories were to be built by the end of 2020. The post is on a public Facebook page that can be accessed by all users. It has since received 656 reactions, 196 comments, and 239 shares as of August 12, 2022. This study aims to be exploratory rather than explanatory, and limitations of my methodology include social desirability bias and uncontrolled selection biases due to Facebook’s algorithm and the self selection of users who chose to comment under the selected post.

The article linked in the post was written by Rachel Phua and is titled “COVID-19: Singapore to build new dormitories with improved living standards for migrant workers”. It was first published on the CNA website on June 1, 2020 and was last updated on September 17, 2021. While the Facebook post highlights QBDs, the longer article also details other temporary and permanent housing solutions that have been proposed. These include locations where unused state property has been adapted to temporarily accommodate migrant housing, as well as plans for 11 new purpose built dormitories. The article also includes diagrams and explanations on how living conditions will be improved to increase resilience against public health risks. These new standards include increased space from 4.5 sq m per resident to 6 sq m, a maximum of 10 residents per room, single as opposed to double decker bunk beds, and more bathrooms and sick bay beds (Phua). Additionally, Phua writes of the possibility that the government will introduce a “build-own-lease” system where commercial operators run government built and owned dormitories. This is in contrast in the current system that allows commercial operators to bid, build, and operate dormitories (Phua). Finally, the article summarizes and embeds a YouTube video of a speech from Josephine Teo —the minister of the Ministry of Manpower—who asks residents to reject the NIMBY mindset and describes dormitories as “big household[s]” (Phua). 

The post was selected due to its direct relevance to QBDs, and the attached map was predicted to elicit comments related to the locations of the dormitories. Facebook was chosen because it is one of the most commonly used social media platforms in Singapore. Statista estimates that Facebook’s penetration rate in Singapore was 79.4% as of the third quarter of 2021 (“Singapore: Most Used Social Media Platform 2021”). Channel NewsAsia is a Singaporean public, state-owned news channel, and was chosen for its wide and relevant audience base. 

All comments as of July 9, 2022 were manually extracted, and copied and pasted from the Facebook page onto a spreadsheet. The identities linked to specific comments were not collected and only publicly available data was analyzed. During the extraction process, the entire dataset was a given cursory read and potential themes were brainstormed. This supported an initial familiarization process that aided subsequent efforts to interpret the data (Franz, Daschel et al). A manual iterative coding process was then used to identify themes among the comments. The coding process was repeated three times, with minor adjustments made between each round. All replies were interpreted in relation to the original comments they were attached to, advertisements and links to other articles were filtered out, and due to Facebook’s settings, only comments that were deemed the “most relevant” by the platform were able to be accessed. Google searches were used to understand Singaporean slang that was included in some of the comments. 


Theme 1: Concerns over costs

Comments express concerns over costs, both monetary and non-monetary in the form of direct and opportunity costs. Multiple comments question where the money needed to fund new dormitories will come from and are critical of the possibility that taxpayers will incur the bulk of the burden. One commenter argues that dorms should by financed through increasing foreign worker levies that employers must pay to the government. This is because contractors and businesses—not regular taxpayers— are predicted to profit from new construction. Others argue that priorities have been misplaced, citing opportunity costs of Singapore’s over-reliance on foreign workers. One commenter evokes the 10 million population plan —a controversial plan to eventually allow Singapore to accommodate a population of 10 million people—and critiques how the construction of new dormitories will allow the government to bring in more foreign workers, leading to overcrowding. Several commenters believe that funds should be redirected toward training and providing opportunities to unemployed Singaporeans as opposed to foreign workers. One commenter argues that the root cause of the issue is actually “over-reliance on cheap labor” and “exploitation by employers/dorm operators”, neither of which can be solved by simply building new dormitories. These concerns should not be considered NIMBY attitudes as they convey a general dissatisfaction toward how resources are being allocated and do not address the specific locations of dormitories. 

Theme 2: Suspicion toward the motives of decision-makers and supporters

Many comments are skeptical of the motives behind new construction and those who support it. Private contractors, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), government officials, wealthy housewives, and residents of districts 9/10/11 are all targets of mistrust and criticism. Many suggest that the government would not have taken action if not for the pandemic. Others joke that operators will soon be able to buy more houses in Sentosa Cove, wonder which “grassroots taitai [housewives] will flaunt their wealth again”, and accuse online activists on news sources and Facebook of virtue signaling. All of these criticisms are founded on the assumption that supporters of new dormitories are doing so out of self interest, and will gain monetarily or socially while incurring minimal costs. Another category of comments proposes alternative locations for QDBs and questions why most of them will be concentrated in Choa Chu Kang and western parts of the island. Proposals—many of them satirical— suggest building dormitories near Little India, on Orchard Road or Shenton Way, beside the parliament house, in district 9/10/11, in Changi Airport, beside the Manpower minister’s house, and near the Prime Minister’s ward. These are all prime residential and recreational areas frequented by wealthy residents and government officials that were not selected to be sites for new dormitories. While these comments may be indicative of NIMBY attitudes, it is unclear whether commenters hold general equity concerns or oppose specific siting decisions due to private interests. 

Theme 3: Living Conditions

Living conditions are a primary subject of concern. Comments under this category either address the personal hygiene and living habits of migrant workers, control measures and oversight that should be implemented, or the physical attributes of new dormitories. Many commenters question whether migrant workers will be able to maintain the cleanliness of their improved dormitories, and argue that they must either be educated or disciplined to change their “mindset”. Attributing the poor conditions of previous dormitories to workers’ poor hygiene rather than government mismanagement, commenters sarcastically claim that workers could cause covid clusters even if they were housed in a hospital or the Fullerton Hotel. Some propose that workers should be sacked or fined if they do not properly clean their dormitories. Counterclaims argue that workers are responsible grown men capable of cleaning their own spaces. Others stress the importance of creating audits and checks to ensure that contractors comply with government standards. Finally, some question the longevity and structural integrity of QBDs, which can be interpreted as confusion about the modular construction process. Most of the comments on living conditions betray unfair prejudices —namely that migrant workers are irresponsible and incapable of maintaining proper hygiene—echoing the messaging behind Singapore’s exclusionary work permit regime and housing policies. 

Theme 4: Property Value

A few comments observe that the value of property around new dormitories will drop, leading to complaints from nearby residents. One commenter points out that many of the new dormitory locations are in areas that already house a disproportionate number of foreign workers. These comments reflect a rational NIMBY concern given that property devaluation due to nearby land use is one of the biggest uninsured risks of home ownership. This is an especially widespread and relevant concern in Singapore given that most citizens own rather than rent their homes. 

Theme 5: Comparisons to Army Standards and Living

A significant theme across many comments are references to army standards and living. A commenter recounts his positive experiences from living in cramped army barracks to strengthen his ethos in arguing that personal hygiene and good living habits can allow people to make the best out of any living situation. His comment argues that the solution to poor living conditions should be discipline and education rather than misguided activism and new construction. Another commenter observes that national service conscripts are able to maintain the cleanliness of “min 14pax [person]” living spaces, and foreign workers should be held to similar standards. One comment responds in stressing that staying in barracks should not be equated with foreign worker dorms, but does not elaborate on why. One comment simply states “defense for Singapore”. The securitization of migration and normalization of targeted surveillance practices provides context for why some believe workers should be housed and disciplined under military-like conditions rather than treated like regular citizens. 

Theme 6: Positive Endorsement

Positive endorsement, though notably underrepresented, is present in the comments. One comment expresses support for new dormitories, arguing that it signifies movement toward being “first world” and a reprioritization of happiness and freedom over money. Another comment points out the importance of foreign workers in Singapore’s economy, and their role in the construction of HDB homes. A commenter explicitly addresses NIMBYism, and claims to be supportive of increased social integration, greater mutual understanding, and the construction of dormitories beside their own HDB block. 


My research discovers that among the comments, only a fraction of opposition can be classified as NIMBY concerns. Most comments address systemic issues such as the exploitation and over reliance on foreign labor, government and contractor mismanagement, virtue signaling, and general land use equity concerns rather than specific sitings near individuals’ homes. The results support Wolsink’s observation that opposition does not always equate to NIMBY attitudes, and shed light on rational concerns that pejorative NIMBY language otherwise obscures. Reflecting on the large amount of comments that communicate suspicion toward the motives of decision makers and supporters, future research should address negotiation processes between different stakeholders and the impact they can have on outcomes and attitudes. Conversations around NIMBYism toward migrant dormitories in Singapore should acknowledge the role of state practices and objectives rather than solely focus on the biases and personal interests of effected residents. 

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Wolsink, Maarten. “Invalid Theory Impedes Our Understanding: A Critique on the Persistence of the Language of NIMBY.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 31, no. 1, 2006, pp. 85–91. JSTOR, Accessed 20 Aug. 2022.

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