Ours are the streets

In Singapore, nearly three years after the Little India riot, migrant workers from Bangladesh and India attempt to create a semblance of home, through music, poetry and cricket.

Written by Dipti Nagpaul D'souza | Published:November 13, 2016 1:00 am
Corner of a foreign field: Migrant workers at one of the several open grounds in Little India. Corner of a foreign field: Migrant workers at one of the several open grounds in Little India.

Nazrul, Nazrul!” The tiny room erupts with the demand for a song by the late Bengali poet and musician. “Let’s sing a Nazrul! Let’s sing his Pechhon theke daaka (A call from behind)!”

AKM Mohsin, editor and publisher of Banglar Kantha, looks up from a pile of papers on his desk and at the group of young men playing music. A smile plays on his lips. The men, Bangladeshi migrant workers in Singapore, have gathered in Mohsin’s office for their weekend music session. After a week of gruelling work, this is their spot of entertainment.

Mohsin’s office in Little India, from where the 52-year-old brings out the Bengali bi-monthly newsletter, is a place of refuge and recreation for many Bangladeshi migrant workers in Singapore, who are adrift in an alien land. They pick up the harmonium and flute that Mohsin keeps in his office, and soak in the nostalgia, memories of home and a family left behind. For those few hours, this tiny space becomes “home” to those forced by economic compulsions to live away from their homeland, sometimes for years.

In the 1980s, Singapore opened its doors to foreign workers. It had been two decades since its separation from Malaysia. With its focus on infrastructure development, it attracted unskilled and semi-skilled labour from a number of countries across Asia. The economic opportunities in the city-state continue to provide jobs in the construction, manufacturing and shipping industries. There are over three lakh foreign workers in the construction sector alone. Indians, chiefly Tamilians, and Bangladeshis form a dominant part of this important but invisible workforce.

Most of the workers do 12-hour shifts for six days a week and live in dormitories, each room shared by four to eight workers. With very few spaces for recreation in the expensive country, a large number of them visit Little India on weekends. The neighbourhood, informally divided into a “Bangladeshi side” and an “Indian side”, is home to a large number of establishments and eateries that cater to people from the Indian subcontinent. There is Saravana Bhavan for those missing their adhais and rava kesari as well as Kailash Parbat with its chaat and north Indian cuisine. Shops sell yam and tiny sambar onions, as well as vegetables and spices from home. Saris, lungis, chappals or gold jewellery — you can find almost anything from the subcontinent in the lanes, where the market spills on to the streets, as it would back home.

On weekends, the streets of Little India teem with people, much to the displeasure of the authorities, which ensure heavy patrolling and police presence. “There is a perception among locals that when off work, the Bangladeshis womanise and the Indian boys like to get drunk and riot,” says Christine Pelly, a volunteer with the NGO Transcient Workers Count Too (TWC2), which addresses issues faced by migrant workers in Singapore.

The perception Pelly speaks of is rooted in a December 2013 incident in Little India when a “riot” broke out after an inebriated Indian worker died under the wheels of a private bus. According to the records, 27 people were injured and 40 arrested.

While the official version of the events has been questioned several times over the last three years, albeit in hushed tones, the consequences have been long term. Drinking was banned in all public places from 10.30 pm to 7am. Retail shops were not allowed to sell takeaway alcohol in that period. Stricter rules apply in the neighbourhoods of Little India and Geylang, known for its red-light district. There has been a concentrated effort to build self-contained dormitories and recreation centres outside Little India in order to discourage migrant workers from collecting there, especially on weekends and other holidays.

The violence also forged a stereotype about the “boys of Little India” that has been tough to shake off. That had played on Sri Ram’s mind two years ago when he launched Thanjai CC, a new league-level team in Singapore’s burgeoning cricket scene. The team largely comprises Indian migrant workers from the low-wage sector. Santhosh Nickson, the team’s captain, speaking on behalf of Sri Ram, who also owns the franchise of Saravana Bhavan in Singapore, says the only idea wasn’t to counter a bias. “These boys leave home and come here to work. But everyone needs a respite, and a sense of home away from home, in order to continue. And cricket is a passion for most Indians,” he says.

AKM Mohsin, the editor of the Bengali newsletter Banglar Kantha. AKM Mohsin, the editor of the Bengali newsletter Banglar Kantha.

That passion is evident at the open ground in Jurong East New Town’s Pandan Gardens neighbourhood. From sunrise to sunset on weekends, it turns into a bustling cricket ground. Today, Thanjai CC is scheduled to play Ceylon Sports Club, but the morning match between two other teams is still on. As on most Sundays, TS Muruga is the first to arrive. He seats himself on a plastic chair a few metres away from the ground. His impatient eyes follow the game, a cigarette dangling from his lips.

Even before he set foot in Singapore in 2015, Muruga had heard of the thriving cricket scene there. A number of his friends and distant relatives, neighbours from Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu who were employed in the country, would talk about their weekends spent on cricket grounds. Muruga would hear their stories and sulk. “I used to play district-level cricket in India but gave it up when financial conditions at home forced me to move to Chennai for work,” recounts the 24-year-old.

At the time, he had been continuing his diploma in electrical engineering too, but dropped out after his sister committed suicide. “Everything changed at home, and I decided to take up a job in the electrical department of a construction company in Singapore,” he says. Initially, the change in food and environment made Muruga homesick. “I still miss home but cricket makes me look forward to weekends after working like a robot through the week.”

Thanjai CC is a part of Singapore Cricket Association governed by the International Cricket Council (ICC). Its success has since inspired several other teams to look for talent among migrant workers, many of whom spend weekends playing cricket matches with tennis balls in the open grounds across Singapore or in their dormitories.

Cricket holds no charm for Panneer Selvam Parthiban, 23, who followed his father to join the migrant work force in Singapore. In January this year, he injured himself at work after his supervisor insisted he use a metal-cutter to cut wood. The blade slashed his wrist, leading to permanent damage.

He not only lost his job but also received a paltry amount as compensation from his employer. He took his case to Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MoM), which has swapped his work permit for a ‘Special Pass’, meant for those who are in dispute with their employers or are injured. According to the rules set by the MoM, a person with the pass cannot work or return to his home country until the case is resolved.

With too much time on his hands and little to keep him from worrying about where his next meal will come from, Parthiban bought himself a sketchbook and a few pencils to pursue his hobby: art.

It was a collection of portraits he drew in those months of unemployment that Singapore-based artists Biddy Low and Clayton Hundall came across on Facebook. The images had been hosted on TWC2’s Facebook page by a volunteer (Parthiban came in touch with the NGO through the free meal programme it runs in Little India).

While Hundall took Parthiban under his wings to “help hone his raw talent”, for Low, Parthiban’s case offers an opportunity to give back to the “unequal” society she inhabits. Every year, hundreds of cases like Parthiban’s are reported to the MoM. Low, who was once a volunteer with an NGO that works for migrant workers, realises that little has changed in the last decade, that the exploitation of the workers continues.

A new life: A bird’s eye view of Little India as migrant workers queue up to return to their dormitories in private buses. A new life: A bird’s eye view of Little India as migrant workers queue up to return to their dormitories in private buses.

Her concerns find voice in the experiences narrated by Parthiban’s father, Panner Selvam, who recounts his early years in Singapore, living in shipment containers on construction sites in the 1990s. While the 2013 violence resulted in curbs, it changed things for the better on one front: the government brought in laws that has improved housing for migrant workers like him. “My company moved us all into a dormitory, which offers facilities like a gym, playground and a common kitchen,” says the 57-year-old.

Alex Au, one of the most prominent activists of migrant worker rights, argues that the diktat for improving the dormitories is driven more by the intention of keeping workers off streets. “These dorms provide everything under one roof so that it discourages workers from stepping out,” he says. “They don’t need to go anywhere. This isn’t a prison but they have to be kept under control,” says V Ranjan, a senior manager at the Tuas View dormitory.

Unlike his son, Selvam didn’t find any need for recreation. Instead, he opted to work seven days a week so he could make enough money to support Parthiban’s education in an English medium school, which he feels has “gone waste” after his son dropped out of an engineering diploma programme. “All I ever look forward to is speaking every night with my wife, children and two granddaughters. I don’t get sleep the day I can’t do that,” he says.

Singapore also has a large population of domestic workers, largely women, from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar, among others. A shared loneliness and the lack of emotional support system in a foreign land often leads to friendships that cut across religion, language and cultures. Not all of them stand the test of time, what with the uncertainty over renewing work passes and the constant financial strain.

Hossain Mahabub, from Bangladesh, and Murtikah, from Indonesia, are an exception. The couple met a decade ago at the restaurant where the former used to work. Murtikah, a 32-year-old domestic worker, was working for a family living nearby. For a month, Mahabub did nothing but notice her come and go. One day, he gathered courage and handed her a chit with his number written on it. A few weeks later, she called. The two have been dating since and hope to get married soon. “She has been my pillar of strength in difficult times. A few years ago, I moved to Dubai but she trusted me to return and waited. She could have found a higher paying job in Taiwan or other such countries, but chose to stay back to be with me,” says Mahabub, 37.

Murtikah adds that their parents know of their relationship and have no objections. “But the law in Singapore doesn’t allow us to marry here and stay together. Nor have we met each others’ families because during the course of employment, we can’t go back. Our employers keep our passports with them,” she says.

Those employed in the construction industry in India and Bangladesh are largely educated, often graduates or diploma holders. What compels them to live in exile are the lack of opportunities back home and the promise of a salary higher than they would earn even if they put their education to use. While Singapore doesn’t have a minimum wage system, most low-wage workers join at USD 25-35 a day.

It’s the promise that led Sameer Bhattacharya to leave his village near Dhaka and take up a plumbing job with an engineering outfit in Singapore. He was offered SGD 1,200 a month but realised after joining that the pay was based on a daily-wage system. Typically, Bhattacharya does not have work on more than two days a week. With no more than SGD 150 in his pocket every month, he struggles to survive, even as the interest on the loan he took by mortgaging his land back home, piles up.

Parthiban at the Red Dot museum. Parthiban at the Red Dot museum.

In such difficult times, music provides the much-needed respite. Even when he is not seeking help or advice from Mohsin, who works for the welfare of Bangladeshi migrants pro bono, he comes and spend hours in his office with others like him.

The newsletter, Banglar Kantha, offers a platform to the literary talent of many migrant workers, whose poetry it publishes. What began as a hobby evolved into a cultural movement after some Singaporean artistes recognised the talent and introduced an annual poetry festival for migrant workers. Encouraged by the response, several poets have published their work. Rajib Shil Jibon, 30, for example, finds time between his 12-hour shifts at the construction site to not only write poetry but also study. He recently graduated in mechanical engineering from the University of South Australia through a distance-learning course.

For a large part, though, most of the workers don’t look at Singapore as home. “Some of us make friends, build a parallel life through activities like music and poetry but this is a foreign land that will never accept us as residents. So, I will wait till I can make enough money to repay my loan and build a house for my parents. Once that happens, I will return home,” says Jibon.

The light outside Mohsin’s office has changed from bright yellow to orange and then deep blue but the music hasn’t stopped. Having exhausted the list of songs they had drawn up before upon everyone’s request, they once more call out for suggestions: “What song do we sing next?” Mohsin says, “Why don’t you sing Rabindranath Tagore’s Shudhu jawa asha (These comings and goings)? It’s quite apt.”

The author was in Singapore for the Asia Journalism Fellowship 2016 and researched the subject as part of the programme.