By Elizabeth Zhou
Cleanly shaven, he is dressed in a tight-fitting dark blue T-shirt that betrays a physique built by hard labour. A pair of trendy earphones is slung around his neck. It is my first time at Transient Workers Count Too’s free meals point, known as The Cuff Road Project. I am unsure how to begin an interview, what to say, and what to expect. But Kamal Mojiban, 29, is clearly the more experienced one.
Sensing my apprehension, he expertly unfolds a worn and weary piece of paper that he had keeps tightly sealed in a plastic bag. Smoothing its creases, he lays it on the table to show me the evenly pressed rows and columns of blue-inked stamps — each one prohibiting him from returning home to his family.
Technically, they’re stamps (‘chops’) authorising an extension of his stay on the Special Pass — except that he doesn’t want to stay. It is officialdom that wants him here for its own purposes — purposes not explained even to Kamal — and meanwhile a condition of the Special Pass is that he is not allowed to work. So he’s here at TWC2’s soup kitchen for a hot meal.
A victim of the bureaucracy, Kamal has waited more than eleven months for an air ticket home.
“When boss plane ticket come, then go home. No plane ticket, no go home,” Kamal says matter-of-factly as though rehearsing well-worn lines.
Employed as a general worker by Hock Woon Shipbuilding Repairs, Kamal’s boss had promised him a basic salary of $468 per month. For 26 days a month, beginning at 8am every morning and leaving the site only at 8pm, Kamal worked diligently. With only four days off per month, he hardly had time for himself. But all that mattered to him was that he could send a portion of his salary home to support his large family of four brothers, two sisters, and his beloved wife of more than four years.
Early 2013, Hock Woon defaulted on his salary for four months. Those months took a toll on Kamal; it was agonisingly hard explaining to his family why he could not remit money. It must have been equally hard for the family too as they relied on his monthly contribution to survive. As Kamal speaks of that period of uncertainty, I watch him hang his head into his lap, “they no pay me, how send money home?”
It was with sad but also indignant tears that Kamal filed a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower. His work permit cancelled, he was put on a Special Pass to legalise his continued stay in Singapore pending resolution of the issue. However, with work prohibited, each ‘chop’ extending the validity of the Pass is a State-sanctioned extension of enforced idleness and misery.
Yet here’s the twist in his story: Kamal’s salary arrears were actually paid up in May 2013. One would think that at this point, the story of Kamal’s salary dispute would have met its closure, but the bureaucracy had other plans — Kamal was told he still had to wait for his plane ticket home.
It has been eleven long months now. Every week, Kamal wends his way to the Ministry of Manpower to get another chop.
“You mean he didn’t say when you can go home?” I ask.
Kamal simply shakes his head. He does not know. All he can do is wait.
“So what do you do in your free time?” I ask as our interview concludes.
“Jalan-jalan” he replies.
I smile, lighting up at the familiar phrase. He catches my smile and smiles back.