This is Aminul’s first time going to the Singapore Zoo and he has spent the night before tossing and turning in his bed.
“I am very very happy,” he says. “This is great opportunity.”
Aminul (pictured above) is normally introverted, does not talk much and often trails behind groups when walking. However, when I mention this outing his eyes brighten and his whole face breaks into a broad smile. Like many other workers who have gotten up early that morning to be in time for the 8 am registration near the bus pick-up point in Little India, Aminul cannot contain his excitement.
“Last night I cannot sleep, keep thinking!” he beams, almost embarrassed at this little confession. His happiness is not unsurprising, because for the past one-and-a-half years that he has worked in Singapore, this is actually the first time that Aminul is stepping into the Singapore Zoo.
It is a great treat. The 26 August 2012 event, organized by the TSMP Law Corporation, takes a hundred Bangladeshi and Indian migrant workers for a day out at the Singapore Zoo. Each person is given a goodie bag – containing items such as $10 phone cards, energy bars, water bottles and battery-operated mini-fans – and a wristband that assigns them to manageable-sized teams.
For 26-year-old Aminul, a construction worker who suffered a work injury two months ago, going to the zoo is a “new experience” and “very exciting”. Like many injured workers, Aminul can no longer work for the time being, and has to stay in Singapore until his case is properly resolved. A day out at the zoo with friends provides a nice distraction from what is usually a prolonged and uncertain wait.
At the zoo, we are divided into teams based on the color of the wristbands distributed earlier that morning. Every team of workers is led by several TSMP lawyers, dressed in red, and followed by a few TWC2 volunteers.
Aminul, in red cap and polo tee, is smiling as we enter the zoo. He tells me that he has been to the zoo in Bangladesh, where the tigers are “the biggest in the world”. However, the Singapore Zoo is something quite unknown and mysterious for him, although while strolling along, he observes that the pathways here are “cleaner” and “more orderly”, though narrower. We continue our conversation until Ebrahim, another worker, calls us to catch up with him.
Unlike Aminul, Ebrahim is loud and uninhibited, and very much enjoys being the centre of attention, at intervals telling all of us to “hurry, hurry”. Like his companion though, this is also Ebrahim’s first time at the zoo.
Ebrahim has been working in Singapore for the past three years, and recently suffered a back injury, documented by TWC2 in the article “Worker may need operation for back injury, employer wants to send him home“. So while he, like Animul, waits for a resolution to his case, the zoo outing provides something interesting to stave off the boredom.
“Bangladesh zoo all covered!” he declares to me, expressing slight surprise that the animals in the Singapore Zoo are in open enclosures.
We move from enclosure to enclosure. Each time the workers pause, conversing loudly among themselves and repeatedly raising cameras to snap the moment: Giraffes moving through the trees,orang utans swinging from branches, tigers bathing under the afternoon heat… Throughout my conversations with both Aminul and Ebrahim, I cannot help but notice the frequent comparisons drawn to the Bangladesh Zoo. Perhaps being in some place foreign only sharpens our understanding of home, and with it, longing, and a touch of resignation.
At signboards along the enclosure, Aminul will pause to read the English descriptions of the animals. Sometimes he’ll ask me what these words mean, and when I answer he’ll nod quietly to himself.
Then we reach the mongoose enclosure (pictured in header, right), and his eyes brighten. “Mongoose are paid animals in Bangladesh,” he points to the signboard, referring to the fact that mongooses are often kept as house pets in Bangladesh. “Mongoose and snake fight a lot!”
Sometimes in the process of taking down workers’ stories at TWC2’s Cuff Road Project, one slips easily into a habit of seeing the men in two-dimensional terms, parading by as two-dimensional victims of similar circumstances. But it is a picture that is far from complete, for snatches of conversation such as this remind you that each is an individual with his own personality, history and distinct social background, and that each has his story to tell.
The most popular enclosure must be the snake enclosure. On coming across it, the men crowd animatedly around the exhibits, whooping and pointing in undisguised exuberance. Ebrahim finds interest in the green tree python exhibit, and edges close to take a further look. This is the first time he’s seeing it, he says. “This is very good!”
I notice Ebrahim is perspiring heavily and point it out to him.
He nods. “But working is also very hot,” he says, fanning himself. “So I used to it.”
One of our last stops is the Elephant Show, and we are hoarded, the whole lot of us, onto the tram to take us there. In the row behind me, Ebrahim leans on his left arm and snaps photos on his digital camera. Beside me, Aminul gazes quietly at the scenery moving past him. He doesn’t say a word. I wonder what he is thinking: if he is thinking of home, if he misses it, if he is drawing comparisons to what he has before, and what he sees now.
I wonder if Singapore is considered a home, even if a temporary one, to these workers, or only a battleground for survival? When mouths at home are waiting to be fed, and dreams and aspirations are often made or broken here, do they have time to enjoy the moment as it comes? Would this piece of memory be something precious to them when they later recall their times in Singapore?
I do not know. But later, at the Elephant Show, as the elephant steals a treat from behind its trainer’s back and applause rises from the audience, Ebrahim turns to me and assuages my unvoiced thoughts.
“First time I’m so happy,” he says. He believes his injury case is being resolved and it won’t be long before he gets to go home to Bangladesh. But he intends to come back as a tourist. “Next time,” he declares, “when I come back to Singapore, must come here.”
After the Rainforest Fights Back show, our last stop for the day, we have a lucky draw, with prizes sponsored by TSMP Law Corporation, such as NTUC vouchers and the grand prize of a digital camera. As a gesture of thanks, some of the men gather in front, and begin to dance for us. Shouts and claps fill the audience seats as their friends cheer them on, while curious bystanders hover in the background, bewitched and bemused.
I ask what the dance is about. One of the workers sitting next to me explain that it is common Bangladeshi folk dance.
“What does it say then?” I ask.
“It is about young men,” he says. “Blessed young men.”