Experiencing and understanding class and diversity in Singapore

On May 15th, I was invited by my dear friend, Dr Ye Junjia, to speak at an academic conference “Encountering Urban Diversity in Asia: Class and Other Intersections” organised by the Migration Clusters of Asia Research Institute, and Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore. While the workshop was catered to an academic audience, my presentation came from a more personal angle, where I shared two narratives to illustrate class and diversity in Singapore. 

The first one was about my personal journey as a young Singaporean and a volunteer at local migrant worker NGO, TWC2. I started volunteering at TWC2 in 2009 when a friend introduced the soup kitchen project to me. Since I had some free time on my hands, I thought, “why not?”. Prior to that volunteering stint, I had almost no interaction with migrant workers. In fact, I was conditioned since young to avoid eye contact or any exchanges with these low waged, low skilled migrant workers. Blame it on middle class insecurities if you must. 

However, I soon began to realise that these migrant men were far from the stereotypes and impressions of them that I had in my head. Definitely not dangerous, pedophilic or malicious. They turned out to be very friendly, even hospitable, and were simply looking to have earnest conversations with me. They shared about their working conditions and life in Singapore, about their families back home, and their hopes and dreams for the future. I soon found myself looking forward to every Wednesdays when I would be volunteering at the soup kitchen project, because it was not only a good break from the monotony of my undergraduate schedule, but I enjoyed the conversations. 

In 2012, I decided that it was perhaps time to do something a bit more for my migrant friends and their community. Together with two friends, we went to Bangladesh to learn a bit more about their lives and to understand the different social roles and relationships we were otherwise not privy to. This was really in an attempt to showcase another side of the migrant men, beyond the label of a construction worker. With the support of the National Arts Council, we held a film screening and exhibition at the Arts House in the same year and reach out to a few hundred people. 

When we were in Bangladesh, what stood out for me was how these migrant men were treated very differently, largely by virtue of their migration journey. They were obviously respected members of the community; there was an elevated status of sorts. You’d see their portraits hung up in the middle of the living room, photo albums of them lying on the shelves, amongst other conspicuous ways these guys were celebrated. It was salient that diversity and class is something very place-specific. The migrant man may be socially excluded, invisible and unappreciated in Singapore, but this same guy is actually someone of importance and value in his community back home. 

The second story I shared at the conference was a rather unique story of my migrant friend, Shabdar Ali. Shabdar is one of the thousands of migrant men in Singapore who have had their work permits cancelled (some owing to work-place accidents, others to salary disputes or illegal deployment etc.) and given a special pass. He was involved in a serious work place accident. His co-workers thought he was dead and hesitated calling an ambulance for him. The doctors were also not hopeful about his case. This multimedia piece will provide more context to Shabdar’s life. 

One would think that someone like Shabdar would be ostracised even more because of his disability, on top of intersections of race, ethnicity and class. However, as his condition got better, we see Shabdar growing in confidence and stepping up to be an informal leader to other migrant men - dispensing advice, providing translation services and being a listening ear to many of them. He began to carry some clout in his community. Shabdar also had ‘access’ to interactions with other Singaporeans and volunteers. He shared that prior to his accident, he had no opportunities to befriend Singaporeans. His daily routine, being housed in a dormitory far from central Singapore, and certain social codes (like don’t ‘disturb’ Singapore girls) as taught by senior migrant workers, left him far removed from Singapore society. Unlike now. 

My concluding thoughts for this sharing session was really about how it’s interesting for me to see that class and diversity as very place and time specific for these migrant workers. 

This issue of class has been surfacing and been a salient part of the documentary work that I’ve been doing, and I look forward to penning more thoughts about it.

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