By Lim Jia Ren

I wove my way through the busy crowd on Dunlop Street, doubling my pace as I lugged my bag clumsily after me, hoping not to leave the first impression of being a latecomer. Being an amateur ‘reporter’ only one session old, I was still adjusting to the unfamiliar environment of our rendezvous point; a thick smell of Indian curry hung in the air and a barrage of foreign languages filled the streets and stores. While it was not the most pleasant place to be after a long day at work, the friendly banter, sometimes recognisable as broken English, and the laughter floating in the air announced to me that this was a place of recreation and respite. Here was a place where migrant workers forgot their problems with a joke transported from their hometown, and forged community a faraway land with new friends.

Standing by the restaurant’s entrance was a young migrant worker whom a newbie like myself would have easily missed were it not for his outstanding fashion sense. Decked in a brand new shirt with the creases still visible, his collar was flipped upwards. The first few buttons were left undone, the better to let a wisp of chest hair signal to the ladies, I suppose. If being a ‘fashionista’ was not enough reason for me to approach him, the spanking new iPhone that he whipped out casually from his pocket sure did.

“Good experience makes better stories, because they are harder to find.” These words from Alex Au, a senior volunteer with TWC2, rang in my ears. Approaching him, I was certain he was dying to share some good experience he had had in Singapore.

He was fondling his phone and seemed to be mulling over whether to call someone. Naturally, I was grateful for this conversation starter. I asked him, “Brother, are you calling your friend?” His reply put me on alert and had my curiosity spike to dangerous levels. “I’m calling Debbie Aunty,” he said casually.

Debbie, another senior volunteer with TWC2, often takes on the more serious cases – contacting her can hardly suggest that he was having any good experience. From there, I quickly caught up to speed with his predicament – the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) was charging him for making a false work injury compensation claim.

For a year before that, Mia Mukles was another statistic among the thousands of other migrant workers working in a shipyard far away from home in search of a better-paying job to support his family in Bangladesh.

During the time he worked, Mia was able to send home a steady amount of $300 – 350 every month. That comforting routine came to an end when, one day, he was instructed to continue working despite him being unwell.

That was 17 May 2015. Mia fell from a ladder at work, injuring his back and knocking him close to losing consciousness. To Mia, the fall meant more than physical pain,  it also meant the emotional agony of knowing that his family too would be penalised by his reduced income.

Recounting his experience vividly, Mia gave me a quick lesson on the genuine challenges working in Singapore as a migrant worker – in staying, not in arriving.

Mia went to Tan Tock Seng Hospital the day following his injury after being handed just one day’s worth of Medical Certificate from West Point Hospital, where he was sent to by his company. He footed his own medical expenses.

Just when things appeared to Mia that it could not go further downhill, Mia found himself locked in a battle between himself and the MOM, with the MOM challenging the truthfulness of his work injury claim. He was called up twice by the MOM: the first time was a simple interview to ascertain facts. The second was not as smooth-sailing. As Mia recounted, he was handcuffed and asked to confess to the charge of making a false injury claim – after which the case would be closed and he would be sent back to Bangladesh. Mia told me he refused their offer and he continued to vehemently deny MOM’s accusation through our interview.

Sensing Mia’s emotions beginning to stir, I quickly capitalised on his heightened emotional state to reach into a subject close to the hearts of all migrant workers far away from home: their families.

Now, his watering eyes belied the cheerful disposition he exuded when I saw him earlier. He lamented how his “family cried every day” and still couldn’t believe how their son “go to Singapore to earn money and end up in big problem.”

I recalled a line from the TV series “Suits” by the character Harvey Specter, “A lawyer is like a doctor. You have got to push until it hurts to know where the problem lies.” I thought, then, to be a journalist was to be like lawyers and doctors too. I wanted to push further, stretch the limits beyond what he was comfortable sharing.

Pressing on, I asked him, should he found guilty: “If you are able to choose, will you choose a fine or a jail term?” Without hesitation, he retorted loudly like I had asked the most foolish question possible: “How to pay money?” I lowered my eyes in embarrassment like a student reprimanded by his teacher for not doing his homework. There was no choice for Mia.

Under the Work Injury Compensation Act (Chapter 354), those convicted of making fraudulent claims may be fined up to $15,000 and/or jailed up to twelve months, while those convicted of furnishing false information may be fined up to $5,000 and/or jailed up to six months.

While many of us are conditioned to be repulsed by the idea of serving a jail term, to the likes of Mia, it was the obvious ‘option’. The prison provides accommodation, food and water – free of charge. A fine takes away money that they do not have, only for them to be sent back to their home countries, ironically and devastatingly poorer than they first set off. The option was but an illusion of choice.

Mia’s story is only one of the many that I had been privileged enough to discover.

Regardless of the outcome of the legal proceedings that Mia will be going through, I gained much from our short conversation. I caught a glimpse of the emotional turmoil migrant workers and their families go through when separated by thousands of miles. Sometimes, their burdens are exacerbated by “big problems” that challenge the feeble faith that a migrant worker had brought with him to Singapore. I have had my perspective widened from nonchalance to appreciation, from appreciation to empathy.

Indeed, the next time I come across a migrant worker, whether he be slogging at the construction site or squatting by the road side consuming his lunch of plain rice with curry, I will always wonder about his story – and what I can learn from him.