By Sun Hanchen, based on an interview in March 2018

Money is not important, they say. Chase your own happiness, they say. Live for yourself, for life is meant to be enjoyed.

As a middle class, soon-to-be-university educated, Chinese (read: majority) person, I often hear this advice from my more carefree friends – who are, coincidentally or not, also of a similar background and socio-economic status as I am. I have taken in these “words of wisdom”, so much so that they are as unquestioned as the gospel truth. After all, who would want to be toiling away in front of a computer screen for 100 hours a week, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but unable to spend them, and eventually succumbing to stress?

My meeting with Alam Mohammed Shahin was a wake-up call: The only reason I was able to think in such a way was that I was fortunate enough to be born in such good circumstances that finances were not as high a priority in my life. It was humbling to hear from him, and it was a stark reminder that for many people in the world, my vision of life is nothing more than abstract idealism to them.

Supporting an entire family

Alam is the second oldest in a family of six children – he has four brothers and a sister. He has been working in Singapore for four years, and his salary provides for all of them. “I Singapore coming, 100, 200 [dollars, of his salary] to pay for his university,” Alam tells me – referring to his third brother. He helps out in the education for his other siblings too, and living expenses for his parents – his dad and eldest brother cannot work, and his mum has to take care of the other children.

Alam is one of the many Bangladeshi workers who come to Singapore every year, doing the jobs that local people shun – either due to the stigma, or more likely, the unacceptably low wages. He works as a lifting supervisor, and gets paid just $500 – 700 as a month, inclusive of overtime. Even for a migrant worker’s salary, that is still very low. “This one boss also no thinking [not sympathetic],” he laments, elaborating that his expenses in Singapore reach $300 a month, reducing what he can remit to his family.

Even with his meagre salary, he says his employer continually tries to extract money out of him. His work permit has been renewed yearly since starting work in 2014, and by law renewal should be free of charge to the worker. Yet, he recounts to me that his superiors insist on him paying for his permit to be renewed. All in all, Alam has paid $6,500 to his employer as “renewal money”, over three years. While this practice is explicitly illegal (under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, offenders convicted of collecting kickbacks are liable to a fine of up to $30,000 or jailed up to two years, or both, per offence), in the immediate term, it puts the workers into a spot.

It should be rather well-known that these workers have to pay an agent fee in order to even start working in Singapore. In Alam’s case, he had to pay $10,000, which he borrowed from his family and banks. Unfortunately, his meagre salary, combined with the renewal money demanded by his employers, led Alam’s financial woes to worsen. There was no way he could choose not to pay the renewal money, To refuse would mean losing the job and being sent home, which would create even bigger issues as loans remain unpaid. “Now, the situation is very difficult, if I go back Bangladesh, anything may happen.”

Pay increase

Alam touches on previous promises of pay increase. There have been several such occasions, he says. The latest was around the time of the most recent renewal of his work permit, at which he was told his monthly salary would go up to $900. Perhaps the promise was necessary to induce him to pay the “renewal fee”.

Yet, his salary in the subsequent months were no different from before. That’s right, there was absolutely nothing done! When he questioned his superior why he was not receiving the expected salary, he was just waved off.

“People will cutting,” he makes a throat slashing gesture, talking about his financial problems and his view of how others treat him. “Mother, father, sister have, how can I makan [eat], this I also very difficult.” Ironically, coming to Singapore to improve his family’s fortunes seems to have only made it worse for them – now with the banks demanding the loans be repaid.

After all, Alam is in Singapore right? Earning big money? Why isn’t he sending it back? — that’s how folks back home would think.

If only life worked out so perfectly! The money issues are starting to take a toll on Alam’s mental health too, as he worries about himself, but more importantly, his family.

One last hope — injury compensation

Through his predicament, he still praises our authorities and our country. “Singapore government is very good… Singapore laws are very good.” Yet, I can detect he’s saying this more as prayer than confidence.

“I tell you,” he begins but then stops. He looks at me, and turns to gaze at his surroundings. He heaves a sigh, closes his eyes, and buries his face in his forearms.

A moment later, he looks up, and puts his head down again.

“I injury already, the Singapore government must give…”

Clearly, his circumstances are reaching breaking point. Probably too, it’s been a while since it has all welled up.

I request some tissue paper from other volunteers who were close by. Alam takes them. It is far from full-on crying, but tears need not be shed. The sombre, breaking tone of his voice is enough for me to want to just straight up clear his debts for him – if only I have the financial ability to.

Back injury

Did I mention that Alam was injured too? It happened in January 2018. Under the rain, following instructions from his superior, he and a fellow worker were carrying heavy boxes (45kg each, he says) up onto scaffolding when his clothes caught onto the structure. He tripped and fell.

Fortunately – if that word can be used after all that has happened – the cost of his medical treatment has been sorted out. Under the law, it is the employer’s obligation, but apparently, based on what Alam hinted in the course of our conversation, it still needed much pushing from the Manpower Ministry. This small silver lining, however, does not a better situation make. Currently still awaiting compensation and not allowed to seek new employment, he is without a source of income. The burden of debt and feeding his family is becoming heavier by the day.

Essentially, Alam has paid a five-digit sum of money for possibly permanent physical damage and emotional toll on himself and his family. He simply wanted an opportunity to move up the social ladder, but the greed of his employer made him fall even further down. Not only that – the systems in place make it very difficult for him to climb out of the pit he has fallen into.

I recall the life advice given to me again – being born in fortunate family circumstances, it is only normal I seek further self-fulfilment in my life. But let’s not kid ourselves, there are many people who still have problems obtaining basic necessities for survival. I personally think it is a prerogative and an obligation that society as a whole can empathise for these people, and render whatever assistance required to better their well-being.

See also a statement by Debbie Fordyce, a board member of TWC2: On emotional health