I live in Singapore ’s Holland Village with my wife and nine-year-old son, in a Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat built in 1974. It’s a fairly central neighbourhood, neatly divided into three segments and walkable end-to-end in a leisurely 30 minutes. On one end is Chip Bee Gardens, where a cluster of terraced houses and condominiums are flanked by a row of hipster cafes and bakeries. This is where the professionals and many expats live. Then there is the town centre, with its MRT station, shopping and food centres linked by a boulevard of restaurants, bars and shophouses. The tenants of these shophouses – bank outlets, beauty salons and gyms – are perennially changing due to the high rent. Finally, there is the public housing estate of Holland Drive – my side of the village – where four coffee shops, a wet market and a community centre serve as social nodes for the neighbourhood’s more “heartland-ish” and elderly denizens. How did migrant worker dormitories become Singapore’s biggest coronavirus cluster? With its array of shops and services catering to different cultural and socioeconomic groups, I’ve always felt that Holland V, the affectionate shorthand used by locals, has all that it needs. Yet in my 12 years as a resident and my son’s entire childhood, the neighbourhood soundscape has been dominated by one thing: the daily pounding and drilling of demolition and construction works. The town centre has been scarred by a huge sand-and-cement wasteland for the better part of a decade. In this regard, Holland V is a microcosm for the rest of Singapore, where old landmarks and relatively new buildings are constantly being torn down to make way for even newer ones, in accordance with the state’s ever-evolving Master Plans. From the late noughties to the early years of the next decade, half a dozen HDB flats on the “wrong” end of Holland Drive were razed. Its residents were relocated to smaller – but newer! – units in 40-storey monoliths built on the other side of the street. My block, located on the “right” side of the tarmac, was one of only two buildings in that cluster that was spared. In recent years, the reverberations of piledrivers and compactors have persisted as a new mall, doubling as a medical centre, materialised opposite the existing Holland Village Shopping Centre. Meanwhile, a large car park was swiftly and noisily constructed, then just as swiftly and noisily closed, for the next phase of vertical expansion: a massive mall-and-condominiums project. Coronavirus: Singapore’s Covid-19 cases to rise as not all migrant workers are being tested But in the past month, something occurred that drove a spanner in the works of this mammoth operation – indeed, of all construction work across the country. The coronavirus outbreak that Singapore suppressed so well during its early onset surged in mid-April, metastasising in scores of overcrowded dormitories housing the bulk of the island’s 320,000 construction workers, most of whom are from India and Bangladesh. As of yesterday, nearly a month after the state enforced a nationwide lockdown, Covid-19 cases linked to migrant worker dormitories account for nearly 90 per cent of Singapore’s cases, which at more than 17,500 is the highest in Southeast Asia . Some 180,000 migrant workers have been placed in isolation. The death rate has remained mercifully low, though one infected worker was notably found, alone and dead, in a hospital stairwell last Thursday. Alagu Periyakarrupan, 46, had been toiling in Singapore since he was in his early 30s and leaves behind a wife and three daughters in India. Government regulations such as the minimum space criteria for housing migrant workers – a woeful 4.5 square metres per worker – are partly to blame for the calamity. But so are the employers who exploit those regulations, as well as the public who have tacitly accepted for years that living conditions unfit for ourselves are more than adequate for men like Periyakarrupan. These deeply ingrained social and systemic prejudices, which existed well before the current crisis, remain at play when the government distinguishes between “high migrant worker cases” and “low community transmission” – a distinction that merely reflects the wider public’s separation of such workers from mainstream society. They are also at play in the hand-wringing and mudslinging accruing on social media and in the local press, including news of a contractor locking up 20 workers in their room; a racist article deriding migrant workers for unsanitary habits; and the literally tone-deaf community singalong of a national song, Home , to thank those who have virtually no option of ever making Singapore their true home. Surreal life in Singapore, from Covid-19 to ‘circuit breaker’ and migrant workers’ plight Beyond these dubious events, the question now hanging over the silence of our construction sites is whether conditions, practices and attitudes vis-à-vis migrant workers will change after the crisis has abated – more generally in society, but quite specifically in the building sector. This is not only a matter of top-down policy, but also of what Singapore citizens and residents want for their neighbourhoods and their city. In January, not long before the first Covid-19 case was reported here, the Building and Construction Authority estimated that construction demand in 2020 would hit a value of up to S$31 billion (US$21.8 billion), including S$1.4 billion in public projects brought forward to mitigate the slowdown of previous years – that is, when Holland V was being deracinated for its latest urban makeover. A month later, Singapore Business Review reported a projected 3.3 per cent growth in the construction industry from 2019 to 2028, driven by government megaprojects such as the Thomson-East Coast MRT line. Even before the present lockdown was extended to June 1, the HDB on April 9 announced that the building of 3,700 Build-To-Order flats would be “quickened” to meet deadlines when the suspension on construction work was lifted. More-qualified experts will better explain these figures and their significance within Singapore’s economy, whose high-growth model is greatly dependent on cheap imported labour. But until the conditions for migrant workers are radically improved, I see little benefit in hastening a relapse of Singapore’s addiction to voracious growth. Coronavirus: Singapore urged to consider migrant workers’ mental health amid ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown As a lived experience, the quiet that permeates Holland V these days serves only as a reminder of how crowded and polluted my neighbourhood already was, and how many lives were abused for the sake of its “development”. Holland V has no need for another mall or mixed-use skyscraper. What its people need are more recreational public spaces, like the Buona Vista Swimming Complex, which was also demolished in 2014 and turned into the temporary car park mentioned above. That hundreds of migrant workers were hired to destroy that complex is a crying shame. That many of those low-paid workers are now probably sick from Covid-19 is a national disgrace. Help us understand what you are interested in so that we can improve SCMP and provide a better experience for you. We would like to invite you to take this five-minute survey on how you engage with SCMP and the news.