Like my peers my age, I grew up never knowing migrant workers personally.
All I’ve heard are classic stereotypes: Foreign construction workers are dirty. Filipino helpers tend to steal while Indonesian maids are all adept at witchcraft. These stereotypes are downright damaging. As much as I can, I try not to let them color the way I see migrant workers, who are here in Singapore to earn an honest living.
Yet I admit that for a long time I was like most Singaporeans who cared little for the welfare of migrant workers.
That changed in March 2020 – when the migrant worker community came into the spotlight after the massive outbreak of Covid-19 cases in their dormitories.
I remember being outraged. Why did our migrant workers live in such poor and cramped conditions? Hadn’t we learned the lessons from previous outbreaks? I wonder if we don’t really owe them an apology – just because none of them asked for it, as the former Minister of Manpower, Josephine, said in Parliament .
While many of us complain about the various restrictions and lockdowns, we also need to be acutely aware that being able to work or study in a clean and safe home, being able to practice social distancing in public places are just as many privileges as people are. migrant workers do not. access to.
Think about how they have to share a small, damp, poorly ventilated dormitory with 10-20 other coworkers. Think about how 20-30 of them have to share a bathroom and toilet. Think about how they’ve been locked in their dorms for the past 20 months or so despite having been vaccinated and tested frequently – before a small group of them were finally allowed to visit Little India in as part of a recent pilot program.
I feel bad for their plight. I also feel bad for my ignorance of the workers who build our homes, offices, attractions, roads, trains and many more. I should get to know them better beyond the simplistic stereotypes I had heard about growing up.
Discovering migrant literature
That’s when I asked my teammates Joey and Sarah to work with me on an article that focused on whether we’ve done enough for migrant workers for this post.
During our research last year, I came across famous migrant poet Mohammed Mukul Hossine and his collection of poetry, Migrant me. We originally intended to contact him as a potential interviewee for our article, as he is fluent in English.
Hossin’s anthology took me by surprise. It didn’t occur to me that a migrant worker would have been so active in our local literary space, let alone professionally published.
I was also pleasantly surprised to find that Hossine was not the only migrant writer published in Singapore.
One poem I particularly enjoyed was “Execution” by Belal Hassan, a Bangladeshi migrant poet who currently works in a manufacturing factory. This poem was a submission for the Call and answer 2 anthology.
“Execution” by Belal Hassan (extracts)
I’m hanging from the gallows
the death prayer
I hang out with the first morning sun
I’m not alive
not even dead;
but in the crime of survival
I’m hanging from the gallows
I’m just waiting for the instructions.
Hassan’s article speaks strongly of the suffocation felt by a migrant worker; the strict restrictions on their movements make him a helpless man who has lost all sense of freedom.
I read this article with a heavy heart. I just cannot imagine living a life defined only by regulations and instructions.
Emerging literary sub-genre
Beyond these individual writers and projects, I learn that the works of our migrant writers – called “migrant literature” – are in fact a literary sub-genre that is booming on the local literary scene.
This sub-genre grew out of literary spaces like Migrant Writers of Singapore, a Facebook group that regularly hosts open mics and literary events to bring together wonderful migrant talent, and Birds Migrant Theater, a theater company formed by migrant workers. originating in Indonesia, Bangladesh and The Philippines.
Editor of Call and answer 2 Poh Yong Han explains that these migrant literary spaces (and migrant art in general) started to proliferate after the success of the first Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2013.
Since then, independent publishers like Math Paper Press, Ethos Books, and Landmark Books have provided platforms for migrant writers to share their stories with the world.
Reading the literature on migrants has not only helped me understand the migrant community on a deeper level. It also made me think more about the privileges I enjoy simply by virtue of my citizenship.
I hope that as a society we can consider re-examining our own perspectives on our migrant workers. Perhaps to begin with, we could be more open to understanding our migrant workers on a deeper and more personal level. By listening to their stories and struggles, we can create a better society that views our migrant workers as respected human beings.
At the time of writing, Dexter Lok was a marketing intern at Ethos Books. This article is only intended to express appreciation for the migrant literature subgenre and does not contain any partnership with the publishing house.