Migrant Worker Poetry Competition - New Naratif

A Creative Outlet for “Invisible” Hands

Still in the same world, we belong to different spheres
You on that side and me on this:
we can do nothing but remember each other
The memories of you and me hang like posters

These lines from Pocket 2 by Zakir Hossain Khokan won the 2014 Migrant Worker Poetry Competition. The idea came to him one evening while on a bus back to his dormitory. He missed his wife.

“The bleak and gloomy sky made me miss her voice, her warmth, and her touch all the more,” he says. He thought back to the time he attended Bangladesh’s national book fair with his wife, passing by the florists of Shahbag as the rickshaws went by. The nostalgia made him pick up a pen and start writing.

The Migrant Worker Poetry Competition

Three years after Zakir’s win, the 2017 Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, held in the polished environs of the auditorium in Singapore’s National Gallery, was attended by a fairly even split of migrant workers and Singaporeans, Permanent Residents (PRs) and expatriates. It was a welcome sight; an opportunity, as seen by founder and coordinator Shivaji Das, to change the public perception of migrant workers in the city-state.

Das has noticed a change in attitude among the workers from when the competition first begun in 2014. At first, he noticed a sense of wonder among the poets that people were interested in listening to their work. “Many of the contestants asked to take a photo with an audience member,” he says.

The poets don’t do this so much anymore; now, they are the stars of the show, performing for an appreciative audience. They own the stage and recite poetry with admirable gravitas.

Zakir Hossain Khokan - New Naratif
Zakir Hossain Khokan reads his poetry at the 2015 Migrant Worker Poetry Competition. He won the competition in both 2014 and 2015. Credit: Kirsten Han

Migrant workers—distinguished by terminology from the more privileged “expatriates”—travel to Singapore from nearby developing countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, India and Bangladesh. As of December 2017, Singapore is home to 246,800 migrant domestic workers and 284,900 migrant construction workers. Collectively, these men and women number over half a million; a significant proportion for a country whose total population is about 5.5 million. Often referred to as “unskilled workers”, they can be subjected to infantilising treatment as employers confiscate mobile phones and passports or control the amount of time off they have from work.

This sentiment is echoed in Rolinda Onates Espanola’s poem, My Story, which won the 2016 Migrant Worker Poetry Competition. In the poem, the speaker says:

Not allowed handphone not allowed to bathe everyday even brushing teeth too
Can’t talk to anybody not even to my fellow Filipino
Worst to my disgrace, noodles and slices of bread is my only sustenance
With conviction, give my strength and endurance

For this entry, Espanola had been inspired by accounts of maltreatment of domestic workers, such as the high-profile case of Thelma Gawidan, whose employers were convicted and jailed in 2017 for starving her. Gawidan had lost 20kg over a 15-month period, losing about 40% of her body mass. She was required to seek permission before drinking water, and was banned from using the bathroom in the house—she had to use the visitor’s toilets in the condominium complex.

The myth of being “unskilled”

A common myth is that these workers, coming as they do from nations with limited opportunities, are lucky to have the chance to work in a thriving metropolis like Singapore. Such a mindset contributes to discussion of migrant workers are little more than units of labour; it’s common to see comments online about how they’re in Singapore only “to work”, as if aspects of life can be separated into such silos.

But the migrant worker poets’ performances challenge these stereotypes and biases. “The feedback from the audience [at the beginning was that] they didn’t know the migrant worker poets could be so talented. Then the audience members gain a greater appreciation for the difficulties that these poets face in their day-to-day life,” Das says.

Much of the poetry revolves around the experience of migrant workers in Singapore; the homesickness, the longing for children and parents left behind, the challenges that they face in a new land. Watching these performances give audience members an insight into their lives and prompt them to take a more compassionate view.

It’s common to see comments online about how they’re in Singapore only “to work”, as if aspects of life can be separated into such silos

Espanola used to avoid some conversations, especially if she thought there would be hurtful comments made about migrant workers. Since participating in the competition, though, she’s discovered that “young Singaporeans are a loving and humane people. Singapore gives us a platform where we can showcase our talents. Now, society is more aware of us [migrants], and that we are not just workers. We are human, we have talent.”

Who isn’t in the audience is as important as who’s there. While Das estimates that 20% of the poetry competition’s audience are newcomers, they tend to be young and outgoing, with experience of travelling or living overseas. The challenge is in reaching the heartland and Singaporeans aged 50 and above.

Connection and community

Singapore is an attractive destination for migrants hoping to support families back home, but some arrive to find the city a much less hospitable place than they’d hoped for. There have been many stories about the mistreatment—from arriving in Singapore with debt equivalent to several months’ salary, to living in less than ideal conditions, to being restricted to when one can talk to friends and family, to not being accepted or integrated into the community.

Feelings of isolation—compounded by stressors like financial struggles, longer working hours, and less time to connect with loved ones—are bad for mental health. A survey by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) found “an overall elevated level of mental stress” in migrant domestic workers, affected by factors such as a perceptions related to integration, privacy and dignity. Of all the 91 respondents surveyed, 47% said they didn’t feel integrated into the family they work for, leaving them feeling isolated and vulnerable in a strange city.

Bikas Nath - New Naratif
Bikas Nath, winner of the 2016 Migrant Worker Poetry Competition. Credit: Kirsten Han

A similar sense of loneliness and alienation can affect the men, too. Zakir first arrived in Singapore in 2003, and searched for a poetry community where it would exist in his native Bangladesh: in the newspaper.

“Outside of my work hours, I was curious to know more about Singapore, especially its literature and poetry. So, for four months I bought The Straits Times hoping to find poems inside the pages,” he says. “In Bangladesh, there are always poems published in books and in newspapers, but I could not find poems in any of the Singapore newspapers, no matter how hard I searched.”

Zakir had left his job as a freelance journalist in Dhaka to become a construction supervisor in Singapore. He eventually found like-minded individuals at Amrakajona, a poetry interest group. Amrakajona means “we are” in Bengali.

“After a tiring six-day work week, we would gather together on Sundays to exchange insights and share our latest creative works with one another,” he says. “Immersing myself in Bengali poetry alleviated fatigue and homesickness. Sharing this interest with fellow members also made me feel that I was not alone.”

Activities like poetry workshops and creative writing classes provide migrant workers with community and companionship, as well as opportunities to express themselves in a country where people might not always listen. These workshops also expose migrant workers from different communities to each other. Eli Nur Fadilah, a domestic worker from Indonesia, says that attending a poetry workshop changed how she felt about Bangladeshi migrant workers because “at first, I was very scared of them because I had heard bad stories. But after I got to know them, I don’t feel scared.”

Removing barriers

Although Singapore is often seen as a melting pot, segregation exists when it comes to these low-income workers. While domestic workers reside in their place of work, construction workers live in dormitories, often sited away from the rest of the Singaporean population. Conditions have been reported to be quite dire, with one construction company recently fined for housing 60 migrant workers in a rat-infested dormitory.

It’s a physical manifestation of mindsets that constantly frame migrant workers as the Other, distinct and separate from everyone else living and working in the city-state. But as the migrant worker poets grow in prominence in the city, the lines are slowly, finally, beginning to blur.

“Immersing myself in Bengali poetry alleviated fatigue and homesickness. Sharing this interest with fellow members also made me feel that I was not alone”

The workers have been prolific and enthusiastic, collaborating on poetry anthologies that have raised their profile. In 2016, local publisher Ethos Books published the poems of Md Mukul Hossine in a volume entitled Me, Migrant. Migrant worker poets have also been featured during the Singapore Writers Festival.

Events like Carnival of Poetry, which brings together Singaporean and migrant worker poets, continue to take down barriers—in such gatherings, there is no “them” or “us”, only wordsmiths.

“Migrant worker poets are involved in events throughout the week, and every week there are poetry events where migrant worker poets and Singaporean poets perform on the same stage,” Das explains, although he notes that these interactions are mainly happening in the artistic community, and not yet within the wider community.

“For other poets, either Singaporean or those who do not belong to the migrant worker poetry community, the doors of Carnival of Poetry are open to them. We believe poetry has no barrier, border, or subgroup,” Zakir says.

Other events, like Human Library SG, where individuals volunteer as “Books” to tell their stories to interested “Readers”, also provide migrant workers with platforms to meet Singaporeans.

“Being a book in the Human Library helps me learn a lot, especially about the younger generation in Singapore. They are compassionate and through sharing my experiences, hopefully someday when they employee a foreign domestic worker, they will have empathy for their helper,” Espanola says.

Privileges and rights

Although these are all promising schemes, it’s worth noting that the poets who participate in writing groups and competitions are the fortunate ones. Their ability to be present at these events means that they have time off work, with employers who are either supportive or not overly strict. For many other workers in Singaporean homes or in dormitories across the island, these opportunities for community, connection and talent cultivation have become luxuries.

Winning better institutional protections, entitlements and rights for migrant workers is a long-term goal for the country’s migrant rights groups. But smaller, grassroots efforts to reach out to migrant workers still exist.

Human Library - New Naratif
Rolinda Espanola sharing her experiences as a Book at Human Library Singapore. Credit: Harriet Koh, Human Library Singapore

Zakir started the “One Bag, One Book” project to encourage migrant workers to read more. It’s a simple idea: get the workers to adopt the habit of carrying a book in their bag wherever they go, and they’ll read at least one book a year. He’s really put his money where his mouth is: while back in Bangladesh, he purchased 250 books with his own money to give out once back in Singapore. He also sometimes receives English books from donors to include in the project.

“Since these books are in the migrant worker’s mother tongue, reading connects him to his home country. It also serves as a leisure activity to relieve stress and increase productivity at work,” Zakir explains.

Whether reading or writing poetry, what it comes down to is a very human need for connection, the ability to step into someone else’s shoes. But what’s also important is the willingness to listen—only then can the connection be complete.

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