Singapore's construction worker poets

By Saira Asher
BBC News, Singapore

media captionFinalist Sharif and winner Zakir Hussain perform their poems

Away from their home and families for years at a time, more than 100,000 Bangladeshi men live and work in Singapore. They come here because they can make more money working in the construction or shipping industries then at home. When they are not in hard hats, some of them compose verse that expresses what their life is like here.

Sharif takes the stage before a small crowd of poetry enthusiasts, his voice full of emotion as the Bengali words roll off his tongue.

The heart erodes in lament. And the game of war begins. And so begins the deluge.

Deep inside the heart, with a mournful cry in the guise of valour, I return to this hellpit. The realisation of dreams begins. The journey begins.

The audience, enthralled, listen to a voice not often heard in the performance spaces of Singapore, that of a migrant worker.

"I have bared my own feelings in this poem; what kind of obstacles I face as a worker," says Sharif.

image copyrightSharif
image captionThe finalists of the poetry competition have performed for small audiences in Singapore

The construction safety supervisor left his wife and son in Bangladesh in 2009 for a job in Singapore because he could make more money here.

He paid thousands in "recruitment and training fees" to an agent and now lives in shared accommodation earning S$1,500 ($1,080, £728) a month, most of which he sends back home.

He started writing poetry because he didn't have a lot of friends when he arrived, and it helped him through the monotony of his life.

"When I first came to Singapore I felt somewhat suffocated. I couldn't do anything but work. Work, then to my room, back to work again and room again," he says.

That's what brought him to a small community centre in the part of Singapore known as Little India.

AKM Mohsin, who runs a Bengali language newspaper Banglar Kantha, set up the centre called Dibashram in 2011 to give the workers a space of their own.

Every Sunday, their day off, Bengali workers gather here to practise theatre and recite poetry.

"My view is that if they are involved in cultural activities they don't go and spend their hard-earned money on bad things," he says, citing gambling, going to bars and girlfriends as examples.

Mohsin, along with other volunteers from migrant worker NGOs, encouraged those who came to the centre to write poems and submit them for the competition.

"I think it makes local people realise migrant workers are not only workers, they also have feelings," says Mohsin.

image copyrightAFP
image captionA riot in Little India last year compounded the negative perceptions of migrant workers for some in Singapore

Samuel Lee, a 23-year-old literature student at the National University of Singapore, was at the public recital.

"I've not heard these voices before," he says, describing migrant workers as marginalised figures in Singapore.

"But when [their] experience is put into words, you are able to empathise, you can put yourself in their shoes."

The poetry is exposing Singaporeans to the lives of the migrants, who take up difficult, undesirable jobs here.

Poor, dirty, dangerous and "humsup", a Cantonese word meaning lecherous, were the four words that Singaporeans came up with when asked their thoughts on migrant workers in 2013, says Debbie Fordyce from advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).

And a riot later in 2013 in Little India involving migrant workers - linked to the death of a worker - led to more negative perceptions.

Bangladeshi migrant workers

  • Migrant workers from Bangladesh often go into debt to pay up about S$10,000 in recruitment and training fees to agents to get to Singapore
  • Once here their passports and often work permits are held by their employers, who can repatriate them at any time
  • Seventy-five per cent make less than S$24 a day, according to UK Department for International Development
  • Accommodation, provided by some employers, can be unsanitary and overcrowded. Many complain about the quality of food.

For most of these men, however, the hardest part is being away from their families.

Zakir Hussain, the winner of the poetry competition, left his father, wife and son to come and work in construction in Singapore in 2003.

"When I work I miss them, when I sleep also I miss them," he says.

He says he wrote his poems for the competition during his journey home from work on a transport bus.

image copyrightZakir Hussain
image captionZakir Hussain expressed his longing for his family and his home through his poetry

"When I do hard work, I need refreshment, so I recite some poems from my book," he says. "I carry my poetry in my mind and in my heart."

Zakir, a freelance journalist in Dhaka, says he came to Singapore because his family was struggling financially.

His poem speaks of the places in Dhaka he misses, where he would spend hours with his wife and son.

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.

I remember when I returned this time, my heart dissolved in your tears.

Do I really write poems, or do my poems cry with me?

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