by Bhawna Sharma
UPDATE: The situation surrounding the KTV has led to a rather viral piece of satire published on The Straits Times, describing KTV bros as ‘victims’ of the charms of foreign ladies.
The recent explosion of COVID-19 cases linked to KTV lounges with Vietnamese hostesses has drawn the wrath of many Singaporeans, who blame patrons – specifically middle-aged “uncles” – for undoing all the deliberate efforts of the Singapore government overnight. They were quickly cancelled on social media while becoming popular among meme artists as netizens continued their gibes.
But there is yet another group that has become the target of people’s not-so-mild xenophobia and frustration: Vietnamese hostesses. Within a week, people shamed their entire profession, their supposedly undeserved entry into Singapore, and the generally sleazy nature of their jobs.
The COVID-19 situation
Although people’s grievances are understandable, they cannot be used to justify undue accusations and humiliation. For starters, that the cluster erupted at KTVs known for Vietnamese hostesses is incidental; as most of us know by now, none of us are immune to COVID-19. The cluster could have well originated from a family-friendly KTV and people would still find fault.
More importantly, let’s not forget that until a few weeks ago, swarms of people could be seen out and about, even if only in groups of five, to take full-advantage of the eased restrictions (just like those patrons at the KTV did). The only difference is that when KTVs pivoted to being F&B establishments, they didn’t really follow the rules.
This then led to the massive outbreak of over 200 COVID-19 cases, which also linked it to the newer Jurong Fishery Port – it recorded more than double the cases as the KTV cluster and is expected to have more confirmed in the coming week.
Despite the Delta variant being identified as the variant in the Jurong Fishery Port cluster which could have been introduced via the sea route from Indonesia, the focus went back to Vietnamese hostesses: it was found that a Vietnamese working at Jurong Fishery Port also worked at one of the KTVs, and a number of the fishery workers also frequented KTVs.
Missing the forest for the trees?
The reaction to the rise in cases was swift on the part of the government – instead of enjoying eased restrictions, we are now back to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) until August 18.
A disproportionate amount of blame has been placed on KTV hostesses, many of whom are in Singapore on a Social Visit Pass. Despite not knowing the circumstances and potential hardships under which the Vietnamese hostesses came to Singapore, netizens were quick to belittle their profession and point out Immigration Checkpoint Authorities’ questionable procedures (that one Vietnamese entered Singapore via a Familial Ties Lane sponsored by her Singaporean boyfriend). No one seemed to care about the same workers and establishments before COVID-19.
Of course, the patrons have also helped spread the virus as they hopped from one KTV to another. The number of cases will probably continue to increase for a while, since some them may not get themselves tested and lie low, hence continuing the chain of transmission.
Perhaps the biggest culprits of the spread are the KTV owners/operators who enabled this outbreak. While the entire populace has to endure Phase 2 restrictions for almost a month, it seems a bit unfair to have all pivoted KTV lounges – the ones responsible for the outbreak in the first place – only close for 2 weeks.
These nightspots were allowed to pivot to F&B outlets in order to help them earn enough to pay their rents and their staff. But many smaller KTVs don’t actually hire foreign hostesses themselves anyway, since they’re mostly brought in by “mamasan” agents. The fact that KTV lounges were allowed to function as “F&B outlets” already raised a lot of red flags, and you don’t need to be a policymaker to know why it’s a bad idea. Already, three nightlife operators had their licences revoked for breaching the rules.
Yet many continue to paint Vietnamese hostesses as the main culprit.
Playing the blame game
If no one seemed to complain or even talk about seedy KTVs hiring unessential workers prior to this outbreak, what changed? Well, nothing actually—except that we are selectively choosing who to blame, not because we should, but because we can. That meant targeting one particular group of outsiders. This isn’t the first time some people have played this blame game amidst a rise in COVID-19 cases.
While the source of the cases stem from the KTVs, the wider Vietnamese community is feeling its impact as insinuations are made based on their nationality alone. For instance, Jolin Dang shared her experience on Facebook page Complaint Singapore.
If there are any public health lessons to be drawn from Singapore’s experience with COVID-19, one of them has to be that repeatedly overlooking the most vulnerable parts of the population (migrant labourers, sex workers) is just bad policy.
As we continue to grapple with what is COVID-in-flux, we must remember to be kind to the people around us. The choices we make have the tendency to set a precedent in society, and it is up to us to decide whether it is for the better or for the worse.