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By Jacinta Leow
“When they saw the bungalow,” recalled Irene Ong, the co-leader of TWC2’s Discover Singapore team, “they were delighted, saying ‘Wow, it’s just like home.'”
‘Home’ was Discover Singapore’s overnight field trip to St John’s Island.
It was logistically a lot of work, Irene added, “but seeing how happy they were made it all worthwhile.”
For most migrant workers under TWC2’s care, life all but stops once they file complaints against their employers, and they often sink into anxiety and despair. Discover Singapore, led by Irene and Marcel Bandur, organises activities to lift their spirits. July 2017’s highlight was to take 21 men away from their worries to an island a boat-ride away.
Most foreign workers live in cramped dormitories. Even if only for a day, to be able to enjoy the wide spaces of sand, sea and sky would be a treat.
“We could have taken up to 30 workers,” said Irene, “since that was the maximum capacity of the boat.” Unfortunately, the name “St John’s Island” is unfamiliar to the workers, and during the lead-up when the organisers were promoting this event, almost no one knew what a wonderful change of scene it would be. Take-up was a little underwhelming.
“But those who went are now talking about it,” notes Irene, “and interest is building up for a second similar trip.”
Wednesday morning, a chartered bus took the men to Marina South Pier, then onto a ferry to the island.
Once there, the workers split into teams and embarked on an island-wide photo challenge, in which they competed to photograph in two hours as many items as possible off a list of ten. Among the tasks they were challenged with were: photographing themselves next to a message drawn in the sand, photographing as many of the island’s stray cats in one image as possible, and taking a team jump shot.
Well, not everyone could jump. Some had leg injuries, but it was still a lot of fun.
Palani, the only Indian worker in the otherwise-Bangladeshi group, loved the afternoon’s activities and the quiet of the island. He said the beaches of India were comparatively more crowded. “Today going see flower, water, climbing trees also very nice,” Palani said. “OK, OK, quite happy.”
Singapore weather being the way it is, sunshine didn’t last. It began to pour around midday, but the men were not to be deterred. A projector was set up in the bungalow’s living room and music videos were screened onto a wall. Others preferred to remain outside, seeking shelter near Lazarus Beach. A group of three workers played badminton with Marcel in the verandah while waiting for lunch.
Food however had to be prepared by the men themselves. A team of three set to work in the kitchen, preparing enough rice and chicken and mutton curry to feed an army. The aroma of marsala and onions wafted through the air, but it took a while to get the meal ready. The waiting men were compelled to munch on biscuits and fallen mangoes to satiate their hunger in the meantime.
But where’s the spatula? Oh no, it was left behind on the bus. How do we stir the pot without one?
Improvisation to the rescue. Take a bamboo stem, cut it down to size and voila, a biryani pot stirrer. Eventually, the workers tucked into a heaping lunch alongside some refreshing homemade iced bandung.
The weather cleared up enough in the afternoon for the workers to head to Lazarus Beach for a swim — arguably the highlight of the entire trip — and to play beach games. There was also a mini prize presentation for the teams that performed best in the photography competition.
After an evening watching a Bollywood movie, listening to Bangla songs and getting stomachs filled with a scrumptious barbecue, the group snuggled into bed. The more adventurous ones opted out to camp on the bungalow’s verandah in a tent, with conversation and laughter late into the night.
“Good experience,” was how Bangladeshi worker Rana described it. It was particularly enjoyable in that he was with friends he had found at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project. A sense of community builds up among the men we help, especially when they’re all in the same boat, being stuck in Singapore while their injuries heal or their cases move slowly through the bureaucracy.
“Want to enjoy, all friend injury together,” Rana explained. “TWC2 very good.”
Rana’s cheery mood briefly darkened as he recounted the details of his case. While Palani is lucky to be able to see a clear end-point to his case, Rana has no idea when his case will be finished.
“Doctor say, I cannot do construction work,” Rana explained. “I say, this is my life. Now, my God only help. Many people no help. TWC2 very good. Many people coming, very helping.”
The one worker who stood out was Sankar — because he was still on crutches, with his injured foot in a medical plastic boot. That didn’t deter him to getting onto a boat and up a path to the bungalow. Sankar had had surgery 50 days prior, after a beam fell on his foot over a year ago. Although his foot continued to hurt whenever he placed weight on it, he gamely participated in all the activities on St John’s Island.
Asked if it was inconvenient for him to be participating with an injury, Sankar smiled and shook his head.
“No problem. Problem also happy,” Sankar answered.
TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our