By Wajihah Hamid
Watching what happened on Sunday in Singapore’s Little India made my heart sink. At one end of the line of fire were fellow Singaporeans while at the other end were Indian migrant workers – a group whom I followed closely for about 3 months, going to Little India every other day, doing field work there while spending a whole year studying about them and the phenomenon of migration as a whole. Guilt overtook me yesterday, despite having spent hours, speaking with these low-waged Indian migrant workers and understanding them better, how have I contributed to people understanding them better?
Today I sat down and addressed the white elephant in my room – my MA research which was dedicated to all the Indian transient migrant workers and the people in Singapore who have been striving for their equal treatment. Though I thought I had given them a voice through my research I may have failed.
These Tamil migrant workers from India have been performing the essential dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs and contribute to the nation-state of Singapore in more ways than one. Labouring for more than two decades, they have been estimated to be one of the largest groups of construction workers in Singapore hailing from villages around Tamil Nadu, have formed the bulk of migrant workers from India (ST, 1994 6 Aug) and continue to do so (ST, 2008 26 Jan).
I fully acknowledge the gravity of the riot and do not condone the actions; we need to address the white elephant of how we have overlooked the existence of transient, low-waged migrant workers. As a Singaporean I myself have been guilty in the past of just passing by the migrant worker and ignoring their existence.
We see them labouring on tall scaffoldings all over the island, we ride on the MRT – tracks they laid risking their lives, we live in the flats they built, we show the world over the amazing skyscrapers that they built for us making us the leading global city in Asia BUT what do we know about them – except that they gather in Little India and get drunk on Sundays? Representations of them have often been through the ‘lens of urban social problems’ (Schiller and Caglar, 2011).
The incident on Sunday illustrates the need to understand the workers better beyond treating them as commodities that should be herded every weekend. While Sunday’s incident might prove otherwise to some but there is a need to understand the sentiments that caused the reaction, some of which may be deep-seated. There is a need to acknowledge and accept these transient migrant men beyond them being ‘faceless’ (Schiller and Caglar, 2011) labourers. Acknowledgement and acceptance should lead the way to improve the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ divide.
My research had looked into various aspects of their position within Singapore but for this purpose, I hope to share a part of the visual research done by the migrant men themselves as part of participatory research activity to do a photo diary with some photos taken by me. For the diary project, I gave them a disposable camera and told them to take pictures of their daily life to capture their favourite spots, moments, of Little India or Singapore.
When told of this photo diary project, some acquaintances and friends laughed and commented that I might not see the cameras again! All of the men returned the disposable cameras with pictures taken and some took lovely photographs which I would like to share and hope we could see through their eyes.
Photographs taken by the migrant workers:
“ Confronted by images on television, the immigrant worker
does not have the same critical or creative elbow-room as
the average citizen. On the same terrain, his inferior access
to information, financial means, and compensations of all kinds
elicits an increased deviousness, fantasy or laughter.”
(De Certeau 1988:xvii)
Çağlar, A. & Schiller, N. G. (2011) ‘Introduction: Migrants and Cities’ In: Schiller, N. G. and Çağlar, A. (eds.) Locating migration: rescaling cities and migrants. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp. 1-19.
de Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: California University Press.
The Straits Times (2008) ‘A passage from India’, 26 January.
The Straits Times (1994) ‘Foreign workers here find a homely niche in Little India’, 6 August.