This senior gentleman is scrutinising the back of Debbie Fordyce’s name card. He’s probably wondering: What exactly does this woman do? What mischief does she get up to?
Meanwhile, she’s seated less than two metres away, smiling politely, but silent as a cat on velvet – as the saying goes.
The back of the card gives little away:
The top photo was taken in Bangladesh, where Debbie, our executive committee member was touring, together with her sister. Taking the opportunity to visit some of the workers whom she had met and helped through the Cuff Road Project (TWC2’s free meals programme), she was at Masud’s house that day.
Masud’s father was there, as was the 88-year-old gentleman pictured above – his father’s friend.
“He had served in the civil service during the colonial times,” she recalled on her return to Singapore. And being from that generation, “he lets slide off his tongue such delightful sayings as ‘fine words butter no parsnips’.” She’s still amused as she remembers the occasion.
But why was she tightlipped? Why was she pirouetting on a few fine words?
Masud had been seriously injured while he was working in Singapore, and TWC2 had been his lifeline. However, workers who have been cheated or injured are often guarded about what they tell their families. Partly, they don’t want to worry their loved ones, but partly too, as Debbie explains: “These are men who are supposed to return with glory and wealth. Never did they imagine that they might have to resort to free food provided by a charity while they wait for months – even years in the case of injuries – for their cases to be settled. This is hardly fitting for strong young men in whom their families’ hopes lay, men who had sold family assets or borrowed to pay the fees to obtain jobs in Singapore.”
Even when they have finally gone home, sometimes with an all-too-obvious permanent disability after an accident, “they may say nothing about the injury or the deception they suffered, let alone the difficulty they faced finding a place to stay when the employer has tossed them out.” Or, for that matter, the indignity of being penniless, unable even to feed themselves or find spare change for transport for the regular MOM (Ministry of Manpower) visits and hospital appointments.
Adds Debbie: “They wouldn’t want to talk about the loneliness, the occasional illegal jobs, the worn-out clothing, the bedbugs, and [being at the mercy of] seemingly capricious decisions of MOM.” That’s in the past, and members of TWC2, when visiting, will want to respect the custom. Discretion is the better part of valour. “Masud would not want to put too fine a point on how I came to know him.”
Here is Masud and his wife, ecstatic at the privilege of hosting two visitors from afar to his home:
Others in the neighbourhood became curious too, gathering around the visitors for a group photograph. Many of them work in the garment factory in the vicinity; Masud himself rents out four rooms of his house (visible behind the laundry line) to families of the garment workers.
Yet, all is not rustic bliss. The land around has become barren; the villagers believe the garment factory is polluting the area with its dyes and chemicals. One cannot help but wonder about the quality of the water supply.
The perils of greedy capitalism visit their lives still.