By TWC2 volunteer Shien-Min Teo based on an interview in August 2020

Kader Mohammad Abdul is enjoying his dinner on his own when I walk up to talk to him. He carries with him a light and joyful aura. I just have to ask him what’s making him so pleased.

“Today was my first day back at the construction site! So happy!”, Kader shares as he goes in for another mouthful of rice.

Kader has been working in Singapore’s construction industry for the past twelve years, primarily in the building of public housing. He proudly asserts that he is currently helping to manage four such projects.

“How did you spend your time during lockdown?”, I ask even as he busies himself tapping away on his smartphone, clearly mastering the art of multi-tasking. He immediately brings the screen up to my face, on which is the landing page of a video-calling and instant-messaging application called imo. I haven’t heard of it before and Kader proceeds to share a little about the application’s popularity amongst his community back at home and here in Singapore.

Exclaiming that he cannot do without a phone, he says in Singapore patois, “This! No phone, cannot tahan! How?”

He chuckles as he continues to show me the functions of imo and then scrolls through the pictures of his two young children.

When Kader first arrived in Singapore twelve years ago, he bought his very first smartphone as he knew that it would serve as a lifeline to his family. He knew that he would not be able to write letters as it would take too long to reach them, prolonging the uncertainty of his family’s daily whereabouts and vice versa.

It first started out with only messaging and voice calling, since his family back home did not then have smartphones themselves. By about seven years ago, Kader had saved enough to buy smartphones for his family. He took them back on one of his annual visits home, and video calls have been the main mode since.

“Everyday must talk, only can sleep after”, is how he describes his daily routine in the evenings.

However, signal coverage in Bangladesh is uneven. He realised during the lockdown that because of this, smartphones have their fair share of limitations after all, especially during the weeks when his wife returned to the village for greater support from her parents. The poor internet coverage limited video calls and Kader would end up not seeing his family for days in a row. Voice calls and pictures were possible but made poor substitutes.

Kader shares that initially he had plans to take home leave this year, but as Covid-19 travel restrictions have made it more challenging, it’s probably not practical for now. He misses his wife and two children very dearly — obvious from the way he repeatedly brings them up in our conversation. He is pulled by a sense of responsibility to share in bringing up his children and perhaps a sense of loss, not being able to see his young children grow up.

In fact, he left Bangladesh (after his last trip home) before the birth of his younger daughter and has yet to hold her in his arms.

The lockdown was hard. It would have been much harder without his phone, especially the period when he was in isolation at SwissHotel.

Kader’s daily routine consisted of eating and using his phone. It was the same dual activity over and over again. But it was vital for keeping in touch with fellow colleagues and friends during the lockdown, where they would video call one another. It was how they coped when dormitory outbreaks were skyrocketing. It was a relief to at least be able to be informed through video calls and instant messaging that people were recovering, he says.

“Phone was like my girlfriend, my wife, my baby!” Kader laughs. The power of imo.