By Shona Loong
It is a sunny Saturday morning, and I am having a coffee with Jamail—a 32-year old Bangladeshi migrant—in a kopitiam on Veerasamy Road. As we talk, I can sense the uncle at the next table sneaking glances at us. Surely this is a curious sight: there are other Singaporean women and Bangladeshi men in this place, but none of them are sharing a table like we are.
It was Jamail’s idea to stop here for a drink. As part of an undergraduate research project, I had been asking Bangladeshi migrant workers to bring me around Little India, to help me see the area through their eyes. After walking for about two hours, Jamail worries that I am tired and insists on buying me a coffee; he seems to forget that he is in fact doing me a huge favour by agreeing to this interview.
These walkabouts always force me to learn as much about myself as about the hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi migrants that drive Singapore’s economy. They are also rife with mixed feelings. With Jamail, I cannot help but feel self-conscious under the gaze of uncle at the kopitiam, yet I know that I have no reason to. I fight the feeling with all I have. I also find myself surprised by their warmth and generosity.
But, most of all, I am invariably struck by a sense of my own privilege. When I began to volunteer for TWC2, I was surprised by how much there was to learn: I had seen men with startling work-related injuries in the flesh before, had never considered that there might be unscrupulous lawyers in Singapore, nor had I ever considered the importance of detailed salary slips. This sense of disparity is heightened when I speak to these men one-on-one. A 33-year old Bangladeshi man, waiting for his injury compensation, tells me that it has been an arduous process—“I thinking two months, three months can settle. Now eleven months already. Always thinking the makan, sleeping, a lot of problems. Life no good.” I do not know how to respond, except to tell him that I hope he receives his compensation soon.
‘My heart inside, so many dreams’
For as long as I can remember, I have had dreams for myself. Jamail has dreams too. “My heart inside, so many dreams,” he says; he wants his seven year-old daughter to “have nice character, study hard, go to university.” Jamail cannot stop talking about his daughter. We walk past a shop selling hair accessories, and he asks me to pick one that she might like. Towards the end of our walk, Jamail asks me if I have any studying tips he might relay to her. As we talk, I am struck by the somber realization that the ‘dreams’ Jamail professes to have are hardly his own. In pursuit of a good education for her, Jamail had to spend seven years working in Jurong Island. This is not enough. “I need to come back,” he tells me, “but don’t know future.”
Jamail’s story is not unique. Migrant men often tell me that they had to come to Singapore to support their family. Often there are not enough jobs back home: in some villages in Bangladesh, only a handful of men out of hundreds have found salaried jobs; the rest absent themselves for years at a time to work in a foreign country. Agricultural work provides little opportunity for upward social mobility, is an unstable source of income, and is increasingly being threatened by environmental change. Sandir, another 32-year old Bangladeshi man, tells me that he has a degree in psychology, but can’t seem to get a job back home. This surprises me, because Sandir seems like a sensible and articulate man; he is one of the most fluent English speakers I have encountered of the hundreds of men I have met through TWC2. Following a work accident, Sandir was sent home at the end of the 2014. He is still looking for a job.
People sometimes ask me why Bangladeshi men seek work in Singapore given the exploitative conditions that TWC2 has done much to expose—shouldn’t they know better by now? The answer, I think, is rooted in circumstances that are difficult for Singaporeans like myself to apprehend. Labour migration is often a necessity rather than a choice. Migrant men do not accept long hours of manual work and pay exorbitant placement fees—often selling assets and borrowing money in the process—in a gamble to attain wealth; rather, labour migration often presents itself as the outcome of a calculated decision when all other options have been exhausted.
For me, crossing borders is—and probably will always be—a choice. I leave Singapore from time to time to go on holiday. The migrant workers I know have never been on an overseas holiday, but they wish me a good trip without fail. For them, crossing borders is primarily a livelihood strategy necessitated by a changing national and global economy. Crossing borders is about getting by, not about wants and desires. To live in Singapore today is to live in a society that often thrives from exploiting global inequalities in its drive for taller buildings and brighter lights. It is to live in tacit acceptance of a system that makes migrant lives overwhelmingly dependent on employers and agents, so that Singapore’s economy can thunder along in pursuit of ‘progress’. Labour controls are even alive in on Sundays in Little India, where migrants seek a one-day respite from the demands of manual work. To volunteer at TWC2, to have been able to speak to migrant men on a regular basis, is to be able to put a face to a few of the hundreds of thousands of men that now inhabit Singapore’s shipyards and construction sites. It is to be struck with how different their worlds are from mine: I will never have to face the long hours of work and lack of occupational mobility that these men live with; for them, these are facts of everyday life.
In May 2014, delivery drones roved around construction sites in Singapore dropping boxes of Coca-Cola and messages of gratitude written by Singaporeans to our migrant worker population. On 7 Dec 2014, International Migrants Day, an installation was unveiled that contained thousands of heart-shaped appreciation notes for migrant workers. Several school projects have cropped up that once again hope to express gratitude to migrant men. Appreciation for migrant workers seems to be very much the tenor of the times; a commonplace way of acknowledging the injustices and sacrifices that migrants have had to put up with to grant us the hyper-modern city we live in today.
Yet, no man I have ever spoken has ever complained that Singaporeans dislike people like themselves. Most of these men have been participating in TWC2’s food programme as they await injury compensation or to resolve a salary dispute. They have every reason to be disgruntled. They are not new to Singapore either; some have spent more than ten years in the country. I am remembering Faruk, a 29-year old man who told me that he has spent more than eleven years here. Faruk had laughed, joking that I was a child when he had first arrived. “From young life come to Singapore,” he tells me, yet the bitter reality is that he will never be able to settle in a country he has become accustomed to.
Gratitude itself is not a mistaken sentiment. For one, I am glad that we talk about migrant workers so much more today. When I was in secondary school, I learnt little about migrant workers in Singapore. Today, there are many school projects that hope to better the lives of migrants in various ways. But gratitude alone is not enough. What migrant men want—what they need—is a livelihood, to be able to remit money to families, and the assurance that they can work in Singapore for long enough to offset the exorbitant sums they have paid to get here. One of the men that brought me around Little India—Tarif, 33-years old, a third-time migrant to Singapore—was far more keen to complain about salary problems and agent fees than about the area I was hoping to find out about. Another man asked how he might convert his work permit into an S-Pass so he could work in Singapore for longer. I knew he could not—for one, Nadir does not hold a diploma or a degree—but it was difficult to break it to him. I had felt helpless, futile in the knowledge that for all the kindness I might show to Nadir, his life continues to hinge on visas and papers.
Gratitude may make migrant life momentarily bearable, but it does not make it better in the long run. What migrant men need is not for their contributions to be recognized, but for policy change. Grand shows of appreciation may be heart-warming, but change that lasts must attend to the dreary realities of migrant life so foreign to Singaporeans who can find good, fulfilling work in a place they call home: visas, salary papers, overtime work, project deadlines, injury compensation.
A different Little India
As I walk around Little India with migrant men, a different landscape begins to surface. Behind the colourful façade of shophouses are cramp bedspaces shared by ten to twenty workers. They share a single toilet; their lives are packed into a single bed. Above restaurants are banks, where migrants send money home to aging parents and schooling children. In open spaces, thousands of men gather on Sunday nights, sharing food and chattering away. This may seem odd to Singaporeans, who might prefer to meet their friends in an eatery, or at the very least in an air-conditioned area. But a quick stroll around the area will reveal that there are hardly any sheltered areas here, and to have to sit at a kopitiam for an extended period of time would be expensive for migrant men, most of whom earn less than $20 a day.
This migrant landscape—governed largely by the practical concerns of migrant life—is one that I miss because it is hardly ever talked about. It is also a landscape that I struggle to understand because I will never have to live off a work permit to support a family from far away, will never have to think about sustaining a crippling injury at work, and will never have to keep silent for fear of repatriation when my salary goes unpaid for months (see ‘What plagues the migrant worker?’). Yet, these bread-and-butter issues lie at the heart of migrant worker issues in Singapore. In Singapore, we often talk about xenophobia or being thankful to migrants, as if discrimination and under-appreciation are the most pressing problems that migrants face. These efforts are valuable, but true improvements in the lives of migrants must go beyond appreciative sentiments to encompass deep-seated change labour laws and soul-searching debates about whether or not development is worth it when it comes at the expense of so many. Only then might Jamail’s dreams be achievable.
 See Rahman, M. M. (2000), ‘Emigration and development: the case of a Bangladeshi village’, International Migration, 38(4), 109-130.