By Walter Wadiak
As I sit down to do my first interview with a migrant worker, I’m looking for problems. Perhaps a story about an uncompensated injury — I have already seen plenty of these in my few visits here. Maybe I will find a man whose meagre salary has been either underpaid or not paid at all. I look around, but the man sitting closest to me, at my table in fact, is Feroz, so I start talking to him. I quickly decide that this will be unrewarding, in terms of story, because Feroz — though pleasant and clearly willing to talk — has no problems. He sits there with obvious contentment, smiling and chatting away. This is his third time in Singapore. He has been here this time around for just a few days, working to make the hydraulic jacks that go into SBS buses Unlike many of the other people around us, he’s just here “for makan.”
As we talk, it becomes even clearer to me that Feroz is not the victim I have been expecting to meet in this soup kitchen in Little India. He is an optimistic, photogenic twentysomething, an accountant by training, with delicate hands and a trim beard. His father owns a materials-supply business in Bangladesh, selling steel and cement. It was his father’s money that allowed him to go to university in his home country. It was this same money, I reflect, that allowed Feroz to come to Singapore in the first place. When I ask Feroz why he would choose to come to Singapore to do manual labor, he gives me the answer I expect: he can make about three or four times as much money here as in Bangladesh, even as a laborer. Yet there is no tale of woe here. No starving family, no wife back home with seven or eight mouths to feed. Though he has been “married already” for several years, Feroz has one child. He and his wife—who also has a university degree, I learn in passing—have bought a few acres of land and are building their own house, but they need the money to finish it. So here Feroz is.
It takes me a while to realize that here is the story I’m looking for. I had been searching, without quite realizing it, for something exotic, and instead what I see is an educated, middle-class professional who has made a shrewd choice. He could easily have stayed home and gone into business with his father-in-law—also an accountant—but instead he’s come here to make extra money for a few years. “Bangladesh salary not so high,” he admits, but he doesn’t say it like someone for whom the decision to come here was inevitable. He sounds more, in this moment, like the many expats I know who simply got a better offer here than they did anywhere else. He’s clearly grateful to be here, but he’s no more a refugee than I am. Somehow nothing he goes on to say after this can quite shake my sense of the essential likeness between Feroz and me. True, I have not slept in a dirty room with twenty other workers, or been forced to pay a bogus series of “renewal fees” for my employment pass. I do not get a recurring pain in my shoulder simply from doing my job. I do not worry that one day my luck will run out—that I will be injured and sent home (as Feroz puts it, “the money is so much better here, but if body no good, how to better?”). Unlike Feroz, I have taken a vacation sometime in the past five years. But Feroz and I really do have things in common—things I probably wouldn’t have even noticed before he told me about his surprisingly “normal” background. We both miss home, especially our families. We miss truly fresh food, and I sympathize with his lament about its lack here: “Singapore everything is not here originally.”
Including you and me, I think. And yet here we are, not so different in some ways, though our experiences of Singapore are indeed worlds apart. Feroz smiles genially as we shake hands. I wonder if, behind that smile, he is a little amused by my inability to diagnose him as somehow different from me. He saunters off to get his food, and I realize that Feroz does have problems after all. But it isn’t the problems that interest me anymore. Instead, I think of that half-built house and wish him well.