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Engaging migrant workers through art and adventure

Channel News Asia - 4 December 2014 - One year after the Little India riot, more ground-up initiatives have emerged to engage with the migrant workers in Singapore. But those involved say challenges remain.

SINGAPORE: It’s Sunday evening in Little India – one year to the day since the Little India riot - and a group of migrant workers are having their usual weekly meet-up session at the Dibashram centre at Rowell Road, talking about their passion - writing.

The centre was started in 2011 by migrant worker advocate, Ms Debbie Fordyce, and Mr AKM Mohsin, editor-in-chief of Bengali newspaper Banglar Kantha. Besides helping to hone workers’ writing skills, the centre also hosts other cultural events, including movie screenings and plays. The shelves lining one wall are filled with Bengali books, a rare resource for reading materials for the 30-odd Bangladeshi workers who visit the centre every week.

These men write whenever they can, stashing paper and pens on them when they go to work, snatching pockets of free time to scribble down ideas that flit across their minds. One says he often writes when he is waiting for the lorry to take him back to the dormitory. Many post their work on Facebook, to get feedback from friends and family – a form of connection that was not available to workers in the past.

Ask them what they write about, and the answers come in faltering, but eager English. “Our working lives in Singapore,” one said. Bangladesh politics and religion, others offered. “The seasons,” another worker said. “There is only one season here, but in Bangladesh, there are more.”

One answer that kept cropping up is ‘love’. Some gave this answer a little bashfully, others with wide-eyed solemnity. “Only love can change the world,” one worker said earnestly. Construction supervisor Zakir Hussain Khokhon, 36, won the inaugural Migrant Workers Poetry Competition last month writing about love. His poem, titled Pocket 2, was inspired by his saying goodbye to his wife when he left for Singapore. “My wife hugged me, and she was crying,” he says. “Her tears touched my pocket, which was right above my heart.”

It felt good to hear his translated poem read in English to a Singaporean audience during the competition recital, he said. “After the riot,  many Singaporeans think differently about us. We want to show that workers are not just go to work and go back and sleep. We also have creativity. We not only sweat, but we also make plays, short stories, poems.”


Mr Mohsin, one of the organisers of the poetry competition, says the event attracted “exceptional” attention this year, and hopes to make it an annual affair. “Some people don’t believe workers can write, that they are all illiterate, uneducated people. But many come here because there is no political stability in their countries, and no jobs,” says the Bangladesh-born editor. “Their writing shows that maybe the cultures are different, but humans everywhere are the same.”

Since the Little India riot, he believes there has been an improvement in the engagement of migrant workers by the general public. The Dibashram centre has been working with drama group TheatreWorks on writing workshops for the workers, and students from the Nanyang Technological University have also come to interview workers about their experiences in Singapore, for a project on tackling xenophobia.

Singapore-based management consultant Shivaji Das, one of the organisers of the poetry competition, said the event received strong support from many Singaporeans: “I was surprised by the enthusiasm of Singaporeans to support this event, from judges like Alvin Pang and Kirpal Singh, to volunteers like Safiah Sulaiman and Daniela Monasterios Tan - both well recognised  in their own fields and yet so humble to manage often mundane tasks for the event. I was most surprised when we received requests from all sections of Singaporean society offering donations towards prize money and to help as volunteers for the event.”

Mr Das is also a volunteer with migrant workers advocacy group TWC2, and he has noticed more young volunteers coming onboard, as well as more cultural initiatives centred on migrant workers.

One of these is Gone Home, a documentary by Bernice Wong and Ng Yiqin that will be screened in Singapore next week. It traces the lives of two Bangladeshi migrant workers as they return home. Wong and Ng are two of the co-founders of the group Beyond The Border, Behind The Men, which aims to expand the narratives about the migrant workers in Singapore. Another campaign started by Singaporeans, AnOther Angle, strives to get Singaporeans to appreciate and understand migrant workers through platforms like YouTube videos.


Despite growing receptivity from Singaporeans, not all of these efforts are smooth-sailing. Ms Irene Ong is one of the founders of Discover Singapore, which has been organising excursions for migrant workers since 2013. Several of the participants are often workers who have been injured in workplace accidents and are waiting here for their cases to be resolved.

The group seeks out events and locations that do not require admission fees, as they often have trouble finding sponsors. “It became even more difficult to find funding after the riot, as the workers became typecast,” said Ms Ong. In her attempts to look for sponsors and partners, she has encountered rejections that are often phrased very harshly. For example: "Why should these workers enjoy such outings? They should just be sent home if they are injured."

Strange looks from passersby are also not uncommon when they go on their outings, said Ms Ong, but the group just takes this in their stride. “We take them to places where they would not venture to on their own. Some of them have been here for years, and it's the first time they have been to places other than Little India,” she says. “It’s a chance for them to bond with their friends, forget about their troubles. They can also take photos and share the experiences with their families. Many of them are mad about photography.”

Receptive partners have included the Esplanade, which invited workers to attend performances at its Kalaa Utsavam, the Indian Festival of Arts. "It all depends on the individual in charge," said Ms Ong.

It is still too early to say whether these various initiatives have changed the situation on the ground substantially, said Mr Das. "I suppose the Government's role is more to do with having policy and enforcement on issues related to housing, compensation etc. But eventually, the ground condition will change only when the general public is willing to engage with migrant workers."

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