In theory the Special Pass is a good idea – workers get to stay in Singapore until their disputes are settled and possibly to retrieve compensation from employers, but the extended period of uncertainty is draining on a guy’s spirits – each day that passes they know they’ve missed another chance to pocket a much-needed paycheck to send home. Young Bangla men will look to make money if they can find it, even if it is illegal and dangerous. In the case of Kamaruzzaman and Masum the Special Pass seems to have only led them into more trouble following their run-in with the police.
Desperate to earn money they both were forced down different paths in order to survive. When I speak to Masum he tells me that since he was issued with a Special Pass he has slept in three different hawker centres or minimarts in Little India in case one or the other is closed or busy. (He is pictured at one such place above.) He can’t afford food and has been supported by the food programme run by TWC2. He spends most of his time with fellow workers in the room that serves the Dibashram worker community, doing odd jobs when they come up for a pittance. But when Dibashram locks up at 1 am, he’s on his own.
“I no have money… around 1 am I go to the minimart and I sleep there,” he says.
He does have companionship though, with other migrant workers who are similarly forced to sleep rough on Singapore’s streets. Far from the image that is presented to the world, there are dozens of out-of-work migrant workers strewn around the enclaves of Little India’s back streets.
Small jobs come and go, enough to earn ‘makan’ money – money for food; Masum says he picks up cleaning jobs and restaurant work when it’s available – all of it illegal since a condition of the Special Pass is that persons on it must not work, but desperate is as desperate does – whatever it takes to keep oneself fed and housed.
Kamaruzzaman, however, took a different path. He was recommended a well-paid job by a friend based in Geylang. He was befriended by an ‘uncle’ and offered work ‘cleaning’ at a restaurant.
But Kamaruzzaman’s job in Geylang actually involved much more than that. He worked for a man called Peter, who ran a brothel. Kamaruzzaman’s role was to recruit other migrant workers to help entice customers; he would bring in workers to walk the streets looking for potential customers and would get a commission for each recruit. Babu, a migrant worker who was later recruited by Kamaruzzaman, tells me he was instructed to use just five words when trying to lure men into Peter’s brothel: “Girls from Thailand, come up,” he says laughing.
Inside Peter’s house were a group of Indonesian, Thai, Tamil and Filipino girls. Babu and Masum tell me that they both lasted about a day in the job and left. They said Peter got intensely angry that they weren’t bringing in enough customers.
“He was very angry,” Masum says of Peter, whom he described as a short, bespectacled man with a scar on his upper lip.
Unlike Masum, Kamaruzzaman stayed on of his own will and a keen desire to make more money. He was paid well and the money he was making would be enough for him to eventually take home after his case was closed by MOM. Besides ‘client’ recruiting, Kamaruzzaman’s role at the brothel also included gatekeeper duties. If he spotted police he would text Peter to warn him of imminent danger. Before long however, Kamaruzzaman ventured even further into the murky criminal world of Geylang.
He decided one day to lure a fellow migrant worker into a trap, a trap that would get his friend heavily beaten and robbed. From interviewing him I can’t work out why he did this, apart from being incentivised by more money. The target was his friend from the migrant community, Nurul (not his real name).
Nurul helps fellow workers with translation at the Dibashram drop-in centre in his free time. Kamaruzzaman had confided in Nurul before, but as part of some plan, approached him on another day to complain that his boss in Geylang had not been paying him his wages. According to Nurul, Kamaruzzaman appeared upset and distraught.
“I went to see his boss with him. There was one Bangladeshi man there at the house in Geylang,” Nurul recalls. “I entered the house, I knew it was wrong what was going on there: there were seven girls in the room mainly from Thailand, but more girls soon came in too – these others were from Indonesia.
“I wanted to confront his boss about this job… but I also told Kamaruzzaman to stop this job, I knew he shouldn’t be doing this work, and that it would ruin his chances of staying in the country or having his first case resolved. He looked at me and knew he was in trouble, so between him and this Bangladeshi guy they decided to call their boss.
“Five minutes later the man came into the room and he said to me ‘Why do you come here?’ That was all he said. I told him ‘listen to me first,’ but he refused. He suddenly punched me hard in the face and I was on the floor. Then he took the hammer and smashed it over my head. I looked up to Kamaruzzaman and said: ‘Open the door, I want to get out,’ but as I begged his boss kept hitting my head with the hammer. Kamarazzamun looked at me and smiled. I tried to talk around the Bangladeshi man who was in the room too, but he said he couldn’t help me.”
As he found his feet, dazed from the beating, Nurul was then asked for money. Two more hits followed to the head and he was now scared that he wouldn’t get out of the house alive.
“If I didn’t give him the money, he would have killed me. I took out my wallet and pulled out a bunch of notes. I had about $870 on me, money which I was supposed to send home last week. Eventually he kicked me out of the door; my eye was so swollen, I couldn’t see out of it.”
Nurul flagged down a cab and went straight to hospital.