By Davina Tham
Ever since recent events in Little India (see Riot in Little India after bus knocks down pedestrian), the tendency to depict migrant labourers as a matter of statistics, a numbered but faceless crowd, has only worsened: 28 charged, 53 deported and another 200 “issued a formal police advisory” (Today newspaper, 18 Dec 2013, 28 charged as police complete riot probe). It is tempting to take these anonymous numbers as representative of the whole, and as substitute for an understanding of the experiences and motivations of the individual human beings.
Why do migrant labourers choose to come to Singapore, rather than any other country? What do they feel towards this temporary adopted home? What do they do on their days off? For those who’ve faced setbacks here, how has their opinion of Singapore been affected? In order to put faces and stories to the migrant worker population in Singapore, this writer spoke to a few workers at the Cuff Road Project to gain insight into their lives here and back home.
The question ‘What do you like about Singapore?’ is rarely asked of these men. It is also far removed from the usual writer’s interview about the specifics of their injury or wage cases, which nonetheless loom at the back of their minds even as we speak with them about Singapore generally. Rabiul Mola Md Lutfor Molla (pictured above) injured a finger in a work accident in September. Still recovering, he has also been waiting for his employer to pay him for the months of work done before the injury. Despite this errant employer, and the frustrating wait to receive his wages, Rabiul tells me he likes Singapore because of our ‘rules and regulations’. He has faith that his situation, although unfortunate, is still being handled better here than it would be in other countries where he could have worked.
Nikhil Chanra Dash likes Singapore for the same reason. ‘Everybody have security,’ he says. Nikhil has friends who work in Malaysia and Dubai, but he chose to come to Singapore because of this impression of our country. It is surprising to me that, having had errant employers whose neglect of their employees often breach the law, these men still think to bring lawfulness up as the thing they like most about Singapore. I quietly hope that the system does not betray their trust.
Aside from ‘rules and regulations’, there is no beating around the bush about why these men have left their homes in Bangladesh to come to Singapore. ‘Money-making mah!’ says Md Aminul Islam Abdus Salam, matter-of-factly. ‘Malaysia no good, money less,’ he says, laughing. These workers’ living and working conditions may be poorer than the average Singaporean’s, and many pay agent fees amounting to a few thousand dollars to come here. But even so, what they stand to earn in Singapore goes a long way once it is remitted to their families.
Many of these families have made material sacrifices for their sons to work overseas. Rabiul, who had to pay $3,500 in agent fees, got the money through a bank loan, for which he had to tender his family’s plot of land as collateral. Several times throughout our conversation, Rabiul raises his hand to his earlobe, emphatically making a gesture for ‘earrings’. It turns out his mother’s gold earrings were also put up to obtain the money for placement fees. Now that his injury has temporarily prevented him from working and he is waiting to receive the wages for work already done, those gold earrings weigh heavily on his mind. ‘I very scared,’ he says repeatedly, referring to his responsibility to earn back the agent fees at least, and to make his mother’s sacrifice worthwhile. ‘I don’t want because of one man mistake my family suffer.’
When I ask if they have wives back home, both Rabiul and Aminul become a bit shy and smile. ‘Because I no money, how to marry?’ asks Rabiul. But all of them have parents and a few brothers and sisters to support. The expectation to earn back the amount that it took to bring them here, and then some, weighs heavily on them. When I point out to Nikhil how much older he looks compared to the photo on his pass, he says, ‘No, because this injury, so I worry.’
They perk up, however, when I start asking about their days off in the past. ‘Everyday go out happy,’ says Nikhil, who smiles when telling me about how he liked moving into his more centrally located company dormitory. ‘Last time I stay Tuas nothing down there.’ All of them seem to enjoy the bustling, comfortable atmosphere of Little India. Nikhil also says that watching movies in the computer in his dormitory was a favourite way to pass the time. Aminul recalls fondly the company-sponsored trip to Sentosa that he and 200 other workers from Bangladesh, India, and China went on last year. ‘Bangladesh have beach,’ he says, ‘But very expensive,’ so he enjoyed the chance to go swimming in Sentosa. The year before that, there was a trip to Johor Bahru.
Rabiul, Nikhil, and Aminul are all recovering from injuries, and are waiting to receive compensation and wages before going back home. I end off by asking whether, despite the difficulties they have faced here, they would come back to Singapore to work.
‘See how,’ says Nikhil. It is also ‘no confirm’ for Aminul. For both, it is more a matter of whether they can scrape together the resources to come here again. Only Rabiul is quite sure about wanting to return to Singapore to work. ‘I like that Singapore I can come back also very happy,’ he says.
For these men, Singapore is a land of great hopes and disappointments. Despite their problems, it is evident from talking to them that they have opened up to the experience of living in a new country, have made supportive friends, and found small pleasures that they can enjoy amidst the daily grind of stress and anxiety.