Yesterday (22 Apr) there were 1,016 new cases of COVID-19 infection in Singapore with 967 involving foreign workers residing in dormitories.
Of all the dormitories, 2 run by the S11 group, S11 Dormitory @ Punggol (2 Seletar North Link) and Changi Lodge II (80 Tanah Merah Coast Road), currently have the most number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among foreign workers staying there. Together, they had 2,422 cases as of yesterday.
The S11 Group Managing Director is Jonathan Cheah. According to his LinkedIn information, he described himself as an “adventurer at heart, a techno-geek by nature, a fighter by spirit”. He is said to be “equipped with relentless energy to pursue the success of the task at hand”.
S11’s dorms generate $70 million a year in revenue
In an interview he gave to Business Times (BT) in 2015, Cheah said that Changi Lodge II was started in 2010. At the time, he was working for his parents recruiting foreign workers for the maritime, oil and gas, and construction sectors.
When a government tender came along in 2010, he and his business partner Lawrence Lee put in a bid. Even though they had no experience in operating worker dormitories, he told BT that he was confident about the prospects “after doing their sums”. Thereafter, they won the tender to build Changi Lodge II. “We knew that at the end of the day, when the government awards you a contract, you have to do it,” said Cheah.
The dormitory, spread over 1.7 hectares of land in Changi, became operational in October 2011. It was able to maximise its 4,000-person capacity within nine months, and the company was on track to repay its bank loans within two years. Cheah disclosed that Changi Lodge II generates an annual turnover of S$15 million.
With the success of Changi Lodge II, Cheah became more “confident” to take on and build an even bigger dormitory. S11 then bid aggressively for a new dormitory tender in Punggol and won. This massive dormitory, called PPT Lodge 1B (2 Seletar North Link), would be more than 3 times bigger than Changi Lodge II. It covers 5.8 hectares of land and has a housing capacity for 14,000 workers. It became operational in 2015.
The Punggol dormitory even has a two-hall cinema inside. S11 collaborated with cinema operator Golden Village to run the cinema showing Indian movies. Each hall seats 200 people and there have been nights when the halls were sold out, Cheah said. One of the S11’s business development manager added, “This way, they don’t have to go all the way into town to catch a movie – this option is just not feasible when you’re situated out here in Punggol.”
At full capacity, Cheah revealed that their Punggol dormitory would hit an annual turnover of S$55 million, at least more than 3.5 times of the turnover from Changi Lodge II. So, together, these 2 dormitories of S11 would help to generate some S$70 million a year.
He boasted, “We can’t simply tell our clients that our dormitory is better, but when the workers are the ones telling our clients that they prefer staying with us . . . it just made this venture all the more meaningful for us.”
Workers tell a different story
Two days ago (21 Apr), Reuters sent reporters to interview workers staying at S11 Dormitory @ Punggol.
Habibur Rahman, a Bangladeshi worker told Reuters, “If one is infected, it would easily spread among others… Currently we are confined to our room. Everyone is scared. We are just praying to Allah… praying five times a day.”
Rights groups have said the dormitories have highlighted a weak link in Singapore’s containment effort and critics said that such mass quarantines could increase the risk of infection in the blocks. But the Singapore government said the quarantine measures on foreign workers were necessary.
Some of the interviewed complained to Reuters about the sanitation, the lack of precautions and monotony in the dormitories. But all were afraid of catching the virus.
Nayem Ahmed, another Bangladeshi worker said, “Dormitories are crowded and dirty. No wonder the dormitories have become a hotbed for coronavirus infection… Now we are paying the price.” But Ahmed did say he is thankful to the government for providing healthcare and food, and most important of all, making sure quarantined workers are paid. But he said more should have been done to address the risks of outbreaks in dormitories. Others also flagged hygiene issues in the dormitories shortly after quarantine measures were announced on April 5.
Since the start of the outbreak, the government has said it has been advising dormitory operators to monitor workers for fever, but worker Nizamul and others who declined to be named, said that temperature checks were rare at S11 and that a fingerprint scanner was used for entry and exit into the complex just days before the government quarantine.
Reuters noted that S11 advertises itself as having the “cheapest dormitories in Singapore”. It tried to contact S11 but the company failed to respond.
Another newspaper SCMP also tried to contact the company but reported, “Efforts to contact the operator of the S11 dormitory – which has the largest cluster of infections in Singapore – were not successful, but owner Jonathan Cheah in 2015 told local media his second dormitory, Changi Lodge 2, had an annual turnover of S$15 million and S11, if full, could hit an annual turnover of S$55 million.” It appears that Cheah has been dodging the media since reports of the massive coronavirus outbreak broke out in his dormitories.
In any case, S11’s Changi Lodge II was given a Dormitory Award in 2018 for its “exemplary efforts” in creating a conducive living environment for foreign workers. In the award presentation ceremony, Zaqy Mohamad, Minister of State for Manpower, said, “The winning dormitories have all demonstrated how they have been actively engaging their residents to co-create a conducive living environment.”