“I’ll suicide tomorrow,” Masum says from behind his doleful eyes. “I can’t go home, I have no money… family very, very poor.”
Ever since he arrived in Singapore Masum’s life has been something of a soap opera filled with characters who have walk-on parts that include accusing him of homosexuality, exploiting him, beating him, and leaving him to stew while the state’s slow bureaucratic wheels turn.
In two months he’s been kicked out of a job for reasons he can’t fully explain and has been left picking up odd jobs in restaurants and, briefly, in Singapore’s sex industry. He tries to convince me that he’ll be killing himself tonight, and I’ve no reason to doubt him.
Masum arrived in Singapore around the same time as Kamaruzzaman, a baby-faced young man who looks no older than 17 years old. Both men paid huge fees to their Bangladeshi agents – around $8,000 each – to secure work here. They were both assigned to the same company, and immediately struck up a friendship, comrades in arms, venturers on the quest for fortune.
Young and eager to earn money, they took up their positions on 7 April 2012 in the construction industry. By the second week of June they had both been repatriated back to Bangladesh. In three parts, this is the story of their misadventures and the involvement of one other migrant worker, who was the subject of a brutal assault in June.
According to their passports Masum and Kamaruzzaman are 25 and 20, but in actual fact Masum is 19 and Kamaruzzaman is 18. Young men are taking risks to come to Singapore; forged documentation eases the passage to the city where the streets are paved in gold. But this isn’t a place for young kids.
The boys arrived in Singapore and were taken to their dorm – which was jammed with 12 men – eight Bangladeshi men, two Indian and two Thai men. As is procedure for migrant workers in Singapore, Masum and Kamaruzzaman sat through their two-day safety course which gets them up to speed on the dos and don’ts of the construction industry; they also completed a one-day welding and grinding course and a medical exam.
By April 20th there were due to go for fingerprinting at the Ministry of Manpower – a necessary step before being issued with formal Work Permits. But something then happened. They woke early that morning to chat about the day only to find themselves in serious trouble. The company’s driver arrived and took the 10 other men for fingerprinting; he left Masum and Kamaruzzaman behind and said he’d be come back for them. Neither of them are certain about what occurred and why, but they think they may have disturbed some of the other construction workers with their jokes. Masum likes to joke around, but Kamaruzzaman is much more introverted and shy – maybe they brought the best out in each other, which in the circumstances was not in their best interest.
One of the Thai men in the dorm complained about them; from interviews his complaint isn’t clear but according to witnesses from the company who spoke to the police, Kamaruzzaman and Masum had been sharing a bed. He tells me that they were cautioned not once, but three times, about this, but didn’t listen. The company’s boss insinuated to police that there was a homosexual affair going on, which the other men in the dorm had complained about. Although Masum vehemently denies this, his boss was clearly not prepared to accept this behaviour or his denial.
In Singapore it’s quite common to see young Indian and Bangladeshi men holding hands or touching one another affectionately. It’s akin to a couple walking down the street arm in arm, it doesn’t mean the men are necessarily lovers: it’s more of a local custom that sits uncomfortably among the Singaporean locals and expats alike. In small, sparsely-furnished cottages of poor families in Bangladesh, sharing a bed or sleeping space would have been something nearly everyone did.
When the company driver returned from dropping the other men off, he told the two boys that they would have to apologise for their poor behaviour. Neither of them fully understood what they were being punished for; they were brought into a room (whether it was the company office or another location, they couldn’t tell) and were instructed to get down on their knees and beg for forgiveness at their boss’ feet. In turn they were beaten, first Masum, around the head, face and back, then Kamaruzzaman.
The boys made police reports about the beating, and the police gave them three sheets of paper each, a form called a Notice Concerning Non-Arrestable Case Report. The form also stated the offence as “voluntarily causing hurt under section 323 of chapter224 which is a non-arrestable offence.” As for the other two pages of the form, the boys were told that they should take them to a doctor for a medical exam in order to substantiate their complaint.
Here is a part of the medical form for Masum:
As you can see, the doctor made a referral to Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), with a request for an X-ray for certain possible injuries he had noticed (not legible). Kamaruzzaman too was referred to Tan Tock Seng Hospital.
The case was left with the investigating police who deferred it to the Ministry of Manpower. Both men were issued with Special Passes after receiving a letter from the police saying the case would be investigated. Notwithstanding this, their job was finished and by extension the livelihoods of themselves and their families were now up in the air.
Yet, things would get even worse from there.