Nicole Ooi is the leader of Welcome In My Backyard (WIMBY), a migrant worker initiative that aims to challenge existing prejudices against migrant workers and create a safe space for them within their neighborhoods. Nicole has a background in Psychology, and shares a strong passion for mental health and the arts. She hopes to create a welcoming and genuine society for all people living in Singapore.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
KrASIA (Kr): What are the goals set by WIMBY? How will the organization achieve this?
Nicole Ooi (Ooi): We started WIMBY in April when it was first announced that migrant workers were going to be moved into rehousing sites, close to residential areas. Some people were unhappy, previously there had been a petition against it in 2008. Hence, we wanted to counter these negative sentiments, so we started our first initiative, where we got people living in different residential areas of Singapore to write notes to these migrant workers, welcoming them into their neighborhoods.
From there, we started panels and discussions with the main goal of humanizing migrant workers in the eyes of Singaporeans. We want to foster interactions that will allow forming close relationships between Singaporeans and migrant workers. We also formed a Facebook community group and ran events like karaoke sessions, and afternoons out with migrant workers and the local community.
Another key issue we wanted to tackle is the mental well-being of migrant workers. Even after they started going back to work, some still felt quite trapped as they couldn’t move around freely, while others were facing financial difficulties. Hence, we ran a campaign about mental health for both migrant workers and domestic helpers, and partnered with the domestic worker organization ‘MaidForMore’.
Kr: How did you start getting involved in WIMBY?
Ooi: During the circuit breaker, I was on a Zoom call with some close friends, one of them being the co-founder of WIMBY. He asked if I was interested in joining, and I was, so he brought me in immediately as their social media manager. Eventually, he handed the reins over to me, and I’m now running WIMBY.
Kr: Before you started, were you aware of the plight of migrant workers?
Ooi: I would say I was a little bit clueless at first. I had returned from the UK, and just started working right before COVID-19 happened. Most people knew nothing about the experiences of migrant workers until some stories about them started to appear in the news. It was really eye-opening, and I felt that with the position of privilege I have, I really wanted to do something about it.
I’ve definitely learned a lot from my friends as well through conversations with them, and I think this aligns with our aim at WIMBY, which is to reach out to other Singaporeans. We’re not experts, so we want to hear more from migrant workers, their views on important problems they’re dealing with that Singaporeans are unaware of.
Kr: What are some of the biggest misconceptions among Singaporeans about migrant workers which have led to certain barriers?
Ooi: There are a lot of negative stereotypes that are so untrue. I think a lot of them come as a result of distance. If you’ve never met and interacted with a migrant worker before, you will tend to listen to how others in their community portray them. This has resulted in fearing something different, or foreign, which has lead to some Singaporeans to not easily open up with migrants.
Kr: What are some of the challenges that migrant workers face daily, which the general public may not be aware of?
Ooi: The restrictions placed on them, in terms of mobility, really has impacted their mental health, and also the lack of control they have because so much of their work is being dictated by their employers. There are also different levels of control based on their employment passes. For example, if you’re on an S pass, then you can move around more. But if you are on a work pass, for example, you cannot go anywhere besides your dorm and the recreation center, which is limiting. There are also very different living conditions across the different dorms, so, it’s really a case by case thing, and every migrant worker has very unique and different challenges.
Kr: What has WIMBY done to alleviate the difficulties that migrant workers face?
Ooi: Our work mainly involves trying to build a more welcoming society for them, especially as they start to integrate with the community. I remember that very early on, during one of the panels, a few migrant friends mentioned that they feel like Singaporeans need a reminder that migrants are also humans, and just like us, they are complex human beings.
Those who have managed to participate in our initiatives have also started to build really good relationships amongst themselves, and we hope to encourage that on a larger scale. We also have people in the community who come and approach us for help to make a change, so not everything is coming from us.
Kr: What would you like to see happening to ensure a better quality of life for migrant workers?
Ooi: Even our basic goal of integration is quite difficult because is quite an uphill battle. There are still some people who might not be that open to our message. I guess our main hope is to be able to demystify and humanize migrant workers, and allow people to give them a chance, and not pretend they don’t exist. Just a simple conversation, or acknowledgment that they are more than just someone who cleans the street, or fixes the piping. I think that’s a small step, but that’s where we hope to start from, and from there, more can happen.
Kr: You mentioned quite a few initiatives, but what are some of the other bigger plans that you have?
Ooi: Our biggest thing is always going to be our afternoons out initiative, where the migrant workers and locals go out to do sports, or take a walk together. Besides that, we have a documentary series. Our first one is out, and we’re in the process of doing a few others. The way it works is, we call in a migrant worker who wants to be featured, and we let that person tell us their story.
We also have been partnering up with some schools. We give a short presentation, and then we get students to volunteer by creating welcome notes, care packages, or other activities for the migrant workers in a site near them.
Also, as we are living in the time of social media, we do a lot of social activism, like national advocacy, and hence, we use that as our medium to provide information and start conversations in our community.