By Kan Ren Jie
Traffic jams are indeed a major source of irritation for many Singapore commuters. However, when I talk with two workers from Bangladesh, Pandit Rubel Chandra and Sofikul, they tell me that the jams that we have here are really nothing compared to the crazy traffic in Dhaka! Pandit tells me that jams can take one to two hours to get through; Sofikul agrees, telling me that there are ‘many many jam’ in his country — definitely not an understatement!
Our conversation drifts on to other differences between Bangladesh, India and Singapore. An Indian worker, Arumugam Govindaraju, informs me that the public buses in his hometown of Chennai were quite run down in the past. Arumugan tells me: ‘last time door don’t have, man sell ticket’, but now ‘a.c. (air-con) have, [but] man still sell ticket’ — indeed similar to Singapore 40 years ago when our old rickety buses had bus conductors on board. Pandit tells me that the buses near his hometown in Bangladesh are also non-air conditioned but don’t use tickets; you’d have to pay in ‘cash money’. According to him, air-conditioned buses in Bangladesh are all long distance ‘VIP buses’, covering up to 400km.
With the great differences between Singapore and their country of origin, it is expected that foreign workers would face some difficulty adjusting to life here. This was indeed Arumugan’s experience; with a self-deprecatory smile, he tells me that ‘first time [I boarded the train] I don’t know… North-South Line, East-West Line, I don’t understand.’
He also tells me a rather amusing anecdote: once, when he boarded a bus, he asked the driver: ‘This bus go Kallang?’ The bus driver replied that: ‘[this bus] go Geylang.’ Arumugan, confused by these two similar-sounding names, ended up taking the bus to the middle of nowhere! Now, he jokes, ‘I don’t trust driver’.
In spite of the cultural differences between our countries, the three men agree that Singapore is ‘very good’. Pandit tells me that ‘Bangladesh not rich, Singapore very rich’. Agreeing, Arumugan says: ‘Singapore good country… no problem’, because by working here ‘my family can [have] money’. Sofikul adds that ‘Here, law is very hard’; because of our strict laws, there is ‘no corruption’.
He then relates to me how his ‘Boss try to send [me] back to Bangladesh… [but] law cannot [allow]’. Indeed, it is heartening to know that while many migrant workers still face the threat of unfair termination, the labour laws preventing this have protected Sofikul in the past.
However, in spite of their optimistic view about Singapore, Pandit and Sofikul both have deep-seated worries about their families back home. Both men are on Special Passes due to their on-going injury cases, and are therefore prohibited from working. Pandit wonders if his family can afford his three sisters’ dowry: ‘[my] three sisters… [are] talking… married how?’ He complains: ‘so much money [to get married]. How can?’ Pandit’s anxiety seemingly overshadows our conversation. Frowning, he repeatedly tells me: ‘I come this country only one year… cannot send me back!’
Sofikul had initially tried to hide the news of his injury from his family, but a family friend who was also working here informed them about the devastating news. As a result, ‘my family ask: what happened to money? Why no give money?’ Because he was unable to send money back, his father became angry, telling his mother: ‘Your son bad. How long already, no money? What happened?’
His mother has already had two heart attacks, and he bitterly wonders: ‘who take care of family?’ As the eldest son (he has four brothers and a sister), he is burdened by the obligation to be the main breadwinner; already, he has had to give up schooling to provide for his family.
Sofikul also longingly recounts his school days to me, telling me about how he always tried his best to be a good student: ‘I must follow the rules… I cannot do wrong,’ he says resolutely, ‘because I don’t have money.’ He greatly treasured the limited opportunity he had to learn, leaving me to question if I have taken my own education for granted! He tells me that ‘I love my family very much’, and it is indeed saddening to see a young, bright man hampered by an education cut short and now by a work accident, much like being stuck in a never-ending traffic jam.
Talking with these men has allowed me to understand the vibrancy of the lives they left behind, and the great difficulties they face when working in a foreign land. Perhaps it is time to realise that foreign workers are people like us, with fears and hopes and dreams that are just as real as the ones we call our own.