Sharkar and his purchase

Mustafa Centre is perhaps the most iconic landmark in Farrer Park. Behind its multi-building facade lies a megamall that sells just about anything you could need. Its labyrinth of narrow aisles are flanked by household items, clothes, electronics, and even groceries. It is somehow always packed with customers; and Singaporeans, tourists, and migrant workers alike leave with the signature Mustafa plastic bag: tightly ziptied, with a green fanlight logo.

The megamall is so prominent in the neighbourhood that our meal program (The Cuff Road Project), located two streets down, is sometimes described by migrant workers as TWC2’s ‘Mustafa office’.

Clients who visit us there sometimes appear with Mustafa bags, whose thin plastic always yields hints of what’s inside. Small boxes hold electronic devices or jewellery; gold-brown spheres mean a gift of Ferrero Rocher chocolate for a wife back home; and balloon-esque bags could contain a daughter’s dress (the size of which is usually the father’s best estimate, for the children they have not seen for some time grow so quickly at that age).

Toiletries with papa’s love

It’s the last week of May. Sharkar turns up at the meal program with one such plastic bag. It looks heavier than average, and I faintly make out the label of a shower product.

“Brother, you buy so big bottle of shampoo?” I venture.

“Ya, for my daughter in Bangladesh,” is his cheerful reply. Sharkar’s family lives in Ghajipur, just north of the capital city Dhaka. Someone from his district will be flying home from Singapore, and will be able to take the items back to Sharkar’s family. It is common practice for Bangladeshi migrant workers to use friends’ luggage space to send items to loved ones, rather than to pay for postage or courier services. 

But I soon come to realise that this gift is no ordinary package.

Bangladesh’s annual tropical cyclone season has begun, and with a serious storm too: Cyclone Remal. Many Bangladeshi workers in Singapore have been unable to contact their families for a good half of the week. And Sharkar, like many others, must have been missing and worrying about his family.

“I three days no talking them already,” Sharkar admits, but he seems rather unfazed by the deadly weather phenomenon. His house in Bangladesh, made of tin sheets, is apparently not in huge danger because cyclones weaken as it travels northwards, over land.

Families in the South, closer to the Indian Ocean, however, are not so lucky.

Awash

An ex-client of ours lives in Bhola district. He sends us links to Youtube videos and news reports of the storm with the limited signal he has.

In the above video, the mud-brown water surrounds everything, and it is difficult to make out if what I’m looking at is the sea or the town. A young man is swimming with a small raft in front of him, where a toddler sits. In another scene, the waves shake the doors of a room, and dark water surrounds a child’s colourful mattress. 

“Our life first time I see this,” our ex-client tells us.

Faced with a storm most Singaporeans may describe as catastrophic, he seems strangely calm. After being out for six days, his electricity and signal network have since been restored; all seems back to normal. I don’t dare to ask if his house is still standing, or how much it will take to repair the damage wreaked by Cyclone Remal.

I have long been aware that Bangladesh is one of the worst-affected countries due to climate change, but I rarely pause to think what exactly this means for these men and their families, to whom we as Singaporeans are connected – from the simple fact that our economy relies on their labour.

How do the men retain their focus on their construction jobs here building homes for us while contact with their families is lost, with the possibility of their own humble tin-roofed houses being washed away? How many months of the meagre salaries we pay will they need to rebuild their lives?

15020, 7131.