Continued from part 2

This is the last of three parts: 

A week after the attack, which left Nurul with a bloodied right eye, I sat down with all three men to discuss the events of the last few weeks. Kamaruzzaman won’t talk to me about what happened in Geylang, stonewalling all questions about brothels – denying ever having set foot in that part of town. The hammer attack we know he witnessed he claims to know nothing about and he repeatedly accuses his compatriots – Masum and Nurul – of lying.

“No Geylang, sir… I clean. Not Geylang. No Geylang.” It’s a believable act, but there are simply too many contradicting accounts of his involvement. I have spoken to two men, Masum and Babu, whom he had recruited for brothel scouting (but didn’t last more than a day in the job), and then there’s Nurul, who describes with anger Kamaruzzaman’s ‘assassin’s smile’ as he was getting beaten with a hammer by the brothel owner, Peter.

Nurul would like Kamaruzzaman to be kept in Singapore to help lead police to his money and the man who beat him. But Singapore Police have told him that Kamaruzzaman isn’t the person that assaulted him, and therefore his presence isn’t necessary for the police case to proceed.

“But he took me there and he was the only person who witnessed what happened to me… and now they’re letting him go,” Nurul says.

Kamarazzaman’s motives aren’t difficult to ascertain: like all the other men who have travelled from their villages to seek their fortune in Singapore, he is looking for money. During the interview, both Nurul and Masum ask him how much money he amassed while working for the Geylang brothel owner. He pulls out a pile of notes and places it on the table. It’s not a fortune when you add it up, hundreds rather than thousands, but it’s enough to draw scorn and bewilderment in equal measure from the rest of the migrant workers in the room.

“He’s very bold and clever,” Nurul remarks. “He should have a much softer heart. But I think there’s poison inside of him.”

Since the attack Nurul has been contacted by Singapore Police who invited him in to look over some criminal profiles to see whether he could point out Peter, the man with the scarred upper lip. All of the nine mugshots were at least a year old, he tells me while laughing, and most of them were fat men as opposed to Peter’s leaner frame, which he described in detail after his assault.

The police did have Peter’s mobile number, which Nurul also provided, but he doubts they have even bothered to make the call. The phone is now dead, the house is now empty.

Ironically, as we’re finishing off these interviews the police have launched a clampdown, arresting 18 people in Geylang in a multi-agency joint operation, targeting criminals like Peter. The operation, which was led by Bedok Police Division, where Nurual reported his attack, covered entertainment outlets, hotels and back lanes in Geylang where Kamarazzman walked the streets looking to entice new clients, and where Nurul himself was assaulted.

“I told them that they sent back the only witness who could identify him [Peter]. My money is gone,” he says.

As for Masum, he was repatriated to Bangladesh early in June. Back at home his dad isn’t working at the moment; he has three sisters, all younger than him who are heading to school now. Money is urgently needed to support his family.

Before he leaves Singapore I ask him to show me where he has slept since he was placed on a Special Pass; he takes my hand and walks me through the back streets of Little India, pointing at the spots on the floor where he would curl up.

“Is it just you that sleeps here?” I ask.

“No. Many, many,” he says.

Masum indicates that dozens of transient migrant workers sleep around the back of Mustafa department store every night: out of sight, out of mind. He smiles at me.

In the village of Fuldetak, where Masum’s family herald from, men work as rice farmers. In a population of barely 20,000 people, if you’re not toiling the land you’re a wasted resource. For Masum, Singapore was, by family and village consensus, the place to make the kind of money that could support a family, pay for a house, fund his sisters’ education.

As is the case with many young migrant workers who end up making the decision to move to the golden pastures of Singapore, his father didn’t think the village would offer anything for Masum – ‘You’d only cause trouble in Fuldetak,’ he would say.

On hearing of Masum’s repatriation, his father had a stroke. To raise the necessary $8000 for the agent’s fee to send Masum to Singapore, he sold his home, four cows and a plot of land. Clearly, this is burdening Masum as he thinks about returning: he feels sad that he’s let the family down, all the money they raised to send him has been worthless. On top of the shame he feels, Masum’s relatives are also expecting gifts. Part of the prestige of leaving to seek your fortune overseas is the promise of returning with evidence of your newfound wealth. In ideal circumstances Masum would have bought some gold for his sisters. That won’t happen now, he’ll be leaving much poorer than the day he arrived and with diminished prospects.

Kamaruzzaman (L) and Masum (R)

Hence why his thoughts have turned to suicide. “My heart only wants to make money to take home for my family,” he tells me before I say goodbye.

During our interviews Kamarazzaman talks about his ambition to buy his own house and one day maybe a car too. But he has to pay off his agents’ fee first, and the money he made in Geylang won’t cover that. Workers can try and retrieve the huge agent’s fees they pay before they leave Bangladesh for Singapore, but it’s a long shot.

Kamaruzzaman, who left Singapore few days after Masum, doesn’t seem as sad to be going home – at least he has some money to show for his misadventures.

Working abroad, especially in menial jobs, is no bed of roses. Anywhere, migrants have fewer protections than citizens – this aside from the abuses and regulatory lapses that characterise the construction labour scene here. Sometimes the seeds of tragedy are planted even before the men leave their home villages, sown by misinformation and unrealistic expectations about return on investment, and often cultivated by recruiters’ tales of a city paved with gold. To survive the travails that will surely come, workers will need fortitude and maturity, otherwise they will be flotsam drifting with the current, sometimes colliding with each other.

Masum and Kamaruzzaman should never have been sent by families here. At 19 and 18 respectively, they were too young and their families too deeply in hock. If Singapore’s rules on employer behaviour had been stricter, they might have survived rather than be thrown out into the streets without even working  a day. But once things went wrong, neither had the means to find their way out of the hole. The labour trade is no place for boys.