By Katia Barthelemy

Photos by Dipti Nagpaul-D’Souza, a journalist with The Indian Express

One of the nice aspects of volunteering with TWC2 is the reward you feel contributing a bit to restoring migrant workers’ faith in Singapore. The tougher side is that more often than not, you are only confronted with real bad stories and cases. That makes the more positive story I will tell you now even more special!

Parthiban’s vocation for drawing dates back to his primary school days in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. He would get scolded by his teachers when found scribbling on the school bench.

His two sisters and parents though were impressed by his first drawings – copies of images out of the school books and altered pictures found in newspapers. But in his little village, there was not much space or acceptance for an artistic occupation. And even less money to dedicate to it.

parthiban_6Sent to a boarding school for college, Parthiban did not pursue drawing much. Only when studying for a mechanical engineering diploma — a course he didn’t finish because of financial problems — did he resume drawing in his free time.

Obliged to support his family financially, he came to Singapore in April 2013 where he suffered so much from loneliness that he started smoking. It hurt his conscience, and before long, he willed himself to swop this expensive habit for drawing again. He draws at night and on Sundays and educates himself with videos found on the internet. In its own way, “it became an addiction, too,” Parthiban says.

On 1 April 2016, he was assigned to cut wood with a machine. But he was asked to do so with an inappropriate tool: a machine meant for cutting steel. The cutting wheel slipped to his left wrist. With 4 nerves cut and his thumb permanently numb, working in construction is a thing of the past for him. In a small way, he was lucky that the injury was in his left wrist, not his right.

Parthiban is currently stuck in Singapore, awaiting the decision for a permanent injury compensation.


I meet Parthiban one morning after he had his free breakfast from TWC2. Almost 25 years old, speaking very good English, I listen to a man who has dreamt about becoming an artist for years but never dared to. A man who was meant to send money back home, as millions of other migrant workers around the word do.

A man who is now experiencing, unexpectedly and despite being injured, spontaneous local support regarding his talent.

parthiban_1bOne can clearly sense the gratitude he has for those who are helping him:

First, there is Marcel Bandur. Marcel is a volunteer with TWC2’s Discover Singapore programme, who organizes outings and activities for injured and out-of-work men waiting for their cases to be solved. During one event with students at the National University of Singapore, Parthiban showed Marcel his drawings, raising the idea of asking students to help him improve.

Marcel posted a “call for support” onto social media. The success was impressive! One response came from a local artist* who has been active and volunteering for the cause of migrant workers for many years. Reading about Parthiban on Facebook, she promptly offered support: a free one-on-one lesson a week. On top of that, she gave him free access to her studio every afternoon during the week, thus providing the needed space and environment for drawing. This successful and kind-hearted artist tells me that “Parthiban had no technical or theoretical knowledge” but that “he is learning really fast and definitely talented.” She adds that “Parthiban is very grateful and humble”.

Another source of support was offered by an American artist* who settled in Singapore and who says “The decision to help out Parthiban came without a second thought. It was an easy opportunity to make a difference.” The artist has granted Parthiban participation in various group lessons he conducts and confirms he “definitely shows great promise”. The spontaneous volunteer furthermore states that Parthiban “is a dedicated student and a hard worker. With the foundational training he is receiving, he’ll be able to build upon his natural ability and hopefully continue his journey to become an artist.”

parthiban_2bBesides these very skill-based contributions helping Parthiban to professionally develop his talent, a Singaporean marketing professional read the Facebook post and spontaneously raised some money among her friends. The group of three friends purchased Parthiban an easel and quality pens that he is not able to afford.

Last but not least, a father saw some of Parthiban’s drawings posted on Discover Singapore’s social media wall and spontaneously sent him a picture of his little girl asking him to draw her portrait. He then made a small but so valuable donation to Parthiban – giving him both a little financial help and the much needed recognition any artist longs for!

*both artists wish to remain anonymous