So what? It’s just a few people: how research can change policy in Singapore

Anja Wessels is a research scientist and psychologist with over 18 years of applied research experience. A charismatic individual with a crystalline sense of empathy and intent when you engage her in conversation, Anja has been working as a research consultant with Singapore NGO, HOME, since May 2013. We pick her mind about the ways that research can influence thoughtful and empirically-grounded policymaking in Singapore. 

by Kellynn Wee

A picture of what Anja looks like.
A picture of Anja.

Hi, Anja! Can you tell us a little more about you and your work with HOME?

I wanted to concretely contribute to the improvement of working and living conditions of migrants in Singapore, so I’ve been working with HOME as a research consultant since 2013. At HOME, I’ve managed research interns, collaborated with external parties, worked on government-targeted recommendations with the intention of influencing policy, and overseen a number of mixed-methods research projects.

One of our most recent projects with a mental health study of foreign domestic workers (FDWs)—it was the first of its kind in Singapore. Its results indicated that, compared to Singaporeans, FDWs are twice as likely to be at risk of developing mental health problems. One in five FDWs can also be classified as having poor mental health.

There are clear correlations between FDWs’ mental health issues and exploitative and/or abusive working and living conditions. For more information, check out the abbreviated report here, and the full report here.

What’s HOME’s approach to policy-oriented research?  

HOME’s approach tends to be a mixed-methods one. We need to know the ‘why’—which is what qualitative research can give us—but for us to convince the general public or the Singapore government, we also need generalizable data that is valid beyond the investigated sample, so that we can assess the situation (i.e. ‘what is happening on the ground?’). If we go to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) with a qualitative study, they will tell us, ‘so what? It’s just a few people.’

We need big numbers, conservative analysis processes, and systematic measurements and standards. We also need to have a participatory approach with key stakeholders from the very beginning. To allow for research to make an impact—which, in our case, is applied research with a strong component of advocacy—we need more quantitative and generalizable research, both longitudinal and cross-sectional, that goes beyond the ‘why’ of migration.

It is also important that we are allowed to do pressure-free research, unrestricted by political considerations.

How receptive is the Ministry of Manpower to research data about low-waged migrant workers in Singapore?

From my personal experience, they are very receptive—as they will benefit from accurate information as well!

We take a hand-in-hand approach. The more collaboration we have with key stakeholders, the more effective we will be at our work. For example, before the public release of the results of the mental health study, we met with MOM so that we were able to make meaningful and targeted policy recommendations. Their reception was good, and their feedback helped us to refine our current advocacy efforts and future research.

During the meeting, we also pointed out the benefits that stakeholders had in implementing these recommendations—for example, it is likely that improved mental health for FDWs would lead to increased productivity and better well-being.

Anja celebrates HOME's anniversary in 2015 with Bridget Lew and others -- she writes, "there was a dress code according to the country you are from, that's why I look like Oktoberfest ;-)"
Anja celebrates HOME’s anniversary in 2015 with Bridget Lew and others — she writes, “there was a dress code according to the country you are from, that’s why I look like Oktoberfest ;-)”

How should the results of policy-oriented research be presented for maximum impact?

Be neutral, don’t just blame, be constructive. Always compare with a meaningful reference population to increase the relevance of the results.

And keep it simple (keep Miller’s law in mind!). No layman will read many numbers!

What are some of your thoughts about the way that the results of the mental health study have been received?

Overall, good. We were able to provide relatively objective information on the prevalence of mental health issues amongst FDWs, and identified areas of concern for different stakeholders.

In terms of the public, based on what we saw on social media, the topic was widely-discussed and employers were able to express their views. The study helped to improve the general knowledge of mental well-being (especially by providing reference numbers for Singaporeans so that they could visualise the results).

Also, since the release of the results, we have also seen an increased interest in mental well-being by the government… which may or may not be influenced by the topic being in the media, due to our study…

Do you think the study helped to advance some of HOME’s advocacy goals?

Yes, by:

  • Increasing the existing knowledge base (e.g. the derivation of precipitating factors for mental health);
  • Allowing for meaningful implementations (e.g. training FDWs as paraprofessionals in cognitive behavioural therapy so that they can help other FDWs);
  • Positioning HOME as a key player within this research field and increasing our influence and credibility; and
  • Fostering networks and collaboration with other key players in migrant and mental health research.

Tell us a little more about your personal experiences and stories while working on the mental health study.

It was a challenge wearing two hats at once—I had to balance between being a researcher (i.e. maintaining quality criteria) and being an activist (i.e. collecting and analysing disturbing information). I think migrant work researchers also need to learn how to develop new and innovative recruitment strategies that are specifically adapted to this user group.

I also learned about the importance of permits in Singapore when collecting data. Once, we were called off by the cops for ‘loitering’ at Peninsular Plaza and Lucky Plaza! 😉

Part of the data collection process for HOME's 2015 mental health study.
Part of the data collection process for HOME’s 2015 mental health study, held at City Plaza.

What do you think is the link between research and action (or public policy change) in Singapore?

To allow for successful (both effective and efficient), impactful research, we need more systematic and participatory research. The aim is to have a well-thought-out model of FDW migration in Singapore that is based on empirical evidence, and which includes adjustment to the specific population’s characteristics and needs. We need to focus on successful policy measures and increase collaboration between key stakeholders, and improve data-sharing and transparency. We can’t simply adopt a Western approach, but we need to take into account the political structures and the cultural specifics of this country. Basically, we have to support each other in migration research!


Thanks, Anja! Follow us on @ari_moop at Twitter or on the Migrating out of Poverty Facebook page for more updates.

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