Ah, the siren call of Singapore, promising riches should you make her great. But who actually builds the country? So we got three locals and three migrant workers, put them together and told them to find out more about each other. After all, conversations forge bonds and understanding. This is the result.
PHOTOS DOMINIC PHUA/DAYDREAM GROOMING ZANN THIANG/27A.CO
Little India was a hive of activity. Women were haggling with shopkeepers at the market. Down the road, a Tamil film was playing to a group of customers in a coffeeshop, all transfixed by the dramatic action sequences while their hot drinks slowly cooled. It was a wonderfully vibrant and friendly atmosphere, and felt like we were in a different country altogether.
In fact, on that particular Sunday, the six of us were the only locals around.
MP Denise Phua once said in a 2016 Parliamentary speech, given after the riot incident, that the crowds in Little India were “walking time bombs and public disorder incidents waiting to happen”. And although she later apologised for her remarks, it was telling of the subconscious attitude that she and probably much of the country held towards migrant workers: we appreciate what you do but do stay away. So we brought together six Singapore-based professionals to Little India, dressed them up, set them in pairs and told them to find out more about each other. Because when you put away the suits, the ties, the hard hats and the yellow boots, we are all the same, wishing to build a better future for ourselves in Singapore. And really, you wouldn’t be able to tell who’s local and who’s not, until you discover these migrant professionals’ woes here.
THE FOOTBALLER AND THE SUPERVISOR
Writer’s Background Notes
Search Fabian Kwok on Google and you’ll find a YouTube video of him (below) from 2014, scoring an amazing goal from the halfway line. The video has garnered close to 150,000 views and Kwok was featured on international websites that lauded his strike. The S-League midfielder now plies his trade for Hougang United but also pulls double duty as a marketing executive for Komoco Motors. Kwok knows that being a football player in Singapore is a tough gig that doesn’t last so he has to make plans to ensure his future’s survival.
I met Sikdar Ripon at Isthana Restaurant at Rowell Road on a Friday evening. He was there for his free meal, courtesy of TWC2. You wouldn’t know he was down on his luck, considering his cheerful demeanour and spiffy haircut but he told me he’s in a bit of a tangle. He spoke terrific English. During the shoot, he was eager to take wefies with everyone present. He even introduced us to his uncle who runs a fruit and vegetable shop. Away from home, they’ve created their own community.
As children, we were led to believe that if we didn’t study hard, we would suffer the terrible fate of working a menial job with little hope of a good future. On the flipside, youth from other countries, such as Sikdar Ripon, are more than happy to come to Singapore to do laborious work as a means to a better future.
FABIAN KWOK, 28, FOOTBALLER
“Last year, we had a friendly match with the Bangladesh national team and I became Facebook friends with some of the players. Some of them later messaged me on the social media platform to ask if I could connect them with agents in Singapore so they could come here to work. I honestly was surprised. They said that they could earn more as a construction worker here than playing football in their home country. Can you imagine? I’ve always felt that they came to Singapore in search of a better life but after the shoot and talking to them, I realise it is not much better. Their living conditions are a lot worse than the average Singaporean and all just to make a few hundred dollars a month. It’s not easy.”
SIKDAR RIPON, 28, SUPERVISOR
“I am from Tangail, a city in Bangladesh. I came to Singapore by myself seven years ago to work. I have no wife and no children. No, I have no girlfriend here also (laughs). I have been working in construction sites here my whole career. I’m usually helping to build the bungalows around the country. I did work on some HDB flats. I know I have been here a long time but the money here is good. I want to return to Tangail one day. Do I plan to stay here? Honestly, if I can, I will but your government won’t allow me to stay.”
THE FINANCIAL PLANNER AND HIS HDB SAVIOUR
Writer’s Background Notes
Filbert Oh is a born salesman, possessing a glib tongue that has sold everything from plumbing to houses. Now he peddles insurance plans. Married just over a year ago, Oh has finally got the keys to his new flat and is neck deep in renovation woes. Little did he know that the migrant worker he was talking to had a part to play in his apartment.
Hasana Abul is a quiet man who rarely spoke unless someone asked him a something. But it was not due to his deficiency in the English language. Being the youngest of the three migrant workers in this story, he usually deferred to his elders. Similar to Sikdar, he too is embroiled in a battle after suffering a workplace injury. But the smile never left his face the whole day despite the sweltering heat.
FILBERT OH, 32, FINANCIAL PLANNER
“I’ve always admired migrant workers. They must be such brave souls to take such a huge risk coming to a foreign land just to eke a better living based on hearsay. If you think about it, what they hear about Singapore and its supposed riches is just what people tell them. They never really knew what lay ahead. After the shoot, my respect for them has grown by a broad margin, especially after knowing that they have to pay an agent between $7,000 and $12,000 just to come here with no guarantee that they will be able to work. Sure, the incredibly cramped room that Hasana stays in might have an air-con but it’s a small mercy. There is no spring mattress, just a shelf that acts as his bed. The Singapore that we live in is thanks to their back-breaking work. Heck, I’m beginning to view them in an even better light than I view most Singaporeans because they come here to build the house that I am going to live in now.”
HASANA ABUL, 21, LABOURER
“I paid an agent in Comilla, Bangladesh, which is my hometown, $12,000 to come to Singapore three years ago. That’s the average most of my countrymen pay to come here. Some pay more, some pay a bit less. I had to borrow money from my family and friends. I haven’t fully paid them back yet. I’ve never returned home since coming here because it’s too expensive. I have to pay a total of $7,000 for a return ticket to Comilla. My pay is only $700 but I have to fork out about $50 to $100 every month for my accommodation. I’ve built a lot of HDB blocks in the past three years. The latest was in Tampines. Do I want to stay here? Yes. I really like Singapore. It’s safe, clean and people are nice.”
TWO CREATIVES, DIFFERENT COUNTRIES
Writer’s Background Notes
Joshua Nah is a born and bred Singaporean who has the good fortune to be able to travel the world and work for a variety of high street and luxury brands. He runs triathlons and has a wardrobe big enough to store 20 suits and blazers and 40 pairs of shoes and sneakers. As you can tell, the man does love shopping.
You wouldn’t know Hossen is a labourer if you passed him on the streets. With his dyed brown hair, modern haircut and pierced ears, he would easily pass off as your trendy Singaporean who works in the creative and communications field. He enjoys watching films, just like you and I. Then he puts on his construction worker garb and suddenly, the clothes he wears define his status in Singapore society when it really shouldn’t.
If Hossen Rokib had been able to win the genetic lottery of being born in Singapore, life would have turned out very differently for him. He might even have become good friends with Joshua Nah. After all, the both of them are trendy (or as trendy as both their wallets allow), and enjoy dressing up and drinking a solid cup of coffee. So that’s where we went to – a coffeeshop in Little India that Rokib enjoyed going to. And true enough, that was one really good cup of coffee. Well, two.
JOSHUA NAH, 29, COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST
“I have to be honest. I didn’t have much of an impression of migrant workers before the shoot because I never interacted with them. I just thought they were normal people who are working and earning a living here, like me. It didn’t occur to me how tough their living conditions are compared to ours until I went to their rooms to change. It was cramped, dark and messy, with clothes strewn everywhere.”
HOSSEN ROKIB, 26, LABOURER
“I am friends with Sikdar Ripon. We lived close to each other in Tangail, Bangladesh. He came first to Singapore and then I arrived three years ago. No, he didn’t bring me here. I also came alone and I heard that the money here is very good. I’ve worked on a lot of projects. I helped to build bungalows, HDB flats and MRT stations. Working in construction sites can be difficult but it’s better here than in Bangladesh. My plan is to save enough money from working here, and then return to Tangail to set up a farm.”
TWC2 is a non-profit organisation in Singapore that is dedicated to improving conditions for low-wage migrant workers. To find out more or donate, visit twc2.org.sg.