[Pluspoint] Class & habits

Since the start of the year, I’ve been working on a story of a group of dancers, Pluspoint. Pluspoint is a dance group led by Mel, 34, mother of 7 and an ex-convict. She uses her lived experiences and clout to keep at-risk youths off the street through dance and by acting as a sounding board to them. The borders of entry and exit to this group is quite porous; we’ve a core group of people, but even this supposed core group changes every now and then. 

Just a bit more context - all of the dancers are aged between 17 to 25, and hail from a working class background. Some of them are still schooling in ITE, while the others take on ad hoc, low-skilled jobs like cleaning, setting up for conventions etc. They usually gather at Mel’s one-room rental house in the evenings for dance practices or to simply hang out.

It was quite interesting for me this evening as I accompanied them for their guest dance at Our Better World’s Good Story competition award ceremony held at the National Museum of Singapore. Tonight was an example of how class lines seems quite hardened in Singapore, and this was something the boys were conscious about as well, as they passed remarks about the food and the way people carried themselves. 

M was quick to point out when a lady spoke to him that “their english damn power” and “I don’t know what they talking sial” (code-switching is a damn useful skill methinks). P also said in jest, as he was walking to the buffet spread, that “maybe we, pariahs, won’t like high class people food lah”. It was evident to me that they felt out of place in a setting like the National Museum, and at an event where people were dressed for the occasion. There was quite a clear distinction - ‘us’ and ‘them’ - as the boys opted to sit outside the museum, by the steps, where they could smoke as well as be away from the crowd and setting they were unfamiliar with. 

Well, they were aware of certain social codes they had to prescribe to at an event like this. They were relatively muted for awhile. During rehearsals in the gallery theatre, P shared that he was “not used to this. This is the quietest we’ve ever been.”. A was quick to add that the silence added a buzzing sound to his ear. When they had time to kill before the start of the event, they hung out just outside the museum and obviously felt more at home immediately.

That said, this evening was not only an eye-opener for them, I also think they did enjoy the bits post-show when members of the audience came up to thank them and congratulated them on their dance. P was happy to give them high-fives and very cheekily said that “high class people like our dance sial.” 

I’m not gonna be naive and think that tonight’s episode bridged any gaps - our worlds may forever be distinct and apart - but I’m just glad that the boys got an opportunity to see and interact with another side of society, one that they would otherwise shy from.


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.


Visiting Luce’s family in Iloilo

As the third week of April approached, there were moments when I felt slightly hesitant to make the trip to Iloilo, largely because of deadlines and tasks ahead. But a promise made, is a promise meant to be kept. Plus, it was something discussed last November. Deep down inside, I knew that if I forgo this trip, I might live to regret it. 

In my time there, I was privy to the life of Luce, my domestic helper who has been with us for 18 years - the life she had left behind. You know, it is one thing to hear stories of home and her family, but it’s another thing altogether to put a face to these names, have meaningful exchanges with people close to her and see the house her remittance was used for. 

It’s been almost two decades in Singapore; she has since upgraded from a tiny bamboo shack to a humble abode made of concrete. While I thought it still lacked some fine finishing touches – since there were no tiles/linoleum sheet; some ply wood partitioned room; and the absence of the usual painted walls, Luce remarked that there was “no need for big house, now we have the outside porch, it is good enough. Just be happy with what we have can already.” They recently added a small 8 x 2m porch by the side of the house to host guests. The cost was covered by the sale of their recent corn harvest and Shona Mae’s remittances (she currently works as a domestic worker in Macau to supplement the family’s income). Luce’s salary goes to funding her second daughter, Joy’s, university education. 

Life in the village is simple. Some days, they eat rice with one dish. If there are relatives staying over, no one fights for the bed. They lay the floor with blankets and make do with it. They are fine with hand-me-downs. On a couple of occasions, I recognized a couple of tops, which once sat forgotten in my cupboard, fitted snuggly on someone else. 

What touched me most was to meet her family and the hospitality they accorded me. Initially, I was slightly apprehensive. Will there be an air of hostility – since the employer’s daughter, the one whom they had to share their mother’s love with, is there? I cannot even begin to imagine how life would be like if my own mother left me when I was aged 4 or 7 for such a long period of time, only visiting for a few weeks every two years. But thankfully, they treated me like family. Shona Mae, who was also on home leave, brought me out to meet her friends and to visit different barangays (villages). She made sure I was still doing fine when I was squeezing hip to hip with other passengers on the jeepney. She also bought me lots of local delights to bring home. Joy, on the other hand, was slightly more reserved but just as attentive. I thought we had a nice conversation by the chicken coop one day as we watched the evening light shine down those fields of gold. 

I thought a lot during this trip – about life chances and the poverty cycle; about family relationship and power dynamics – but that’s for another time. I’m gonna cap off this post with my favourite image of the Mamon family. Felt it was only right to help them make some family portraits together, so we spent an evening in the fields. I can’t quite remember what they were laughing about, but here’s to many more happy and healthy days ahead.


[Breath Of Life] In Memory Of

On the­ stuffy journey back to Phnom Penh this morning, I found my mind drifting off, my way of whiling away the time in this really poorly ventilated bus. 

It’s been 15 days in Cambodia. Today marks the end of my third visit here to work on an ongoing photo-documentary series about maternal and neonatal heath (and healthcare) in the country. What a ride it has been (has it really been 16 months? Really?)!! 

Just like many other documentary photographers, this project kind of fell into my lap. Or maybe not entirely. In 2012, I was very fortunate to have been selected to be part of the 8th Angkor Photo Workshop. At 24, very new to the scene, hardly any portfolio or experience to show, I can only thank my lucky stars for that golden opportunity. It was my virgin attendance at a photo workshop, and I was obviously very excited. Few weeks before going to Cambodia, I began researching for interesting stories I could take on, but was very discouraged as I ploughed through the web and found nothing. Was I really gonna show up without an idea? 

Many sleepless nights later, I found –that- perfect project. It was gonna be tricky navigating and negotiating for access to hospitals and villages to see how life really was like for pregnant women, the delivery process and also the health complications that faced both neonates and mothers. But I was convinced that the more difficult the project is, the more valuable the output would be. Naïve– maybe? 

 ***

I remember watching my first delivery in Bangladesh in mid 2012. The hospital in Nilphamari, north of Bangladesh, smelled of death. The walls were grimy, there were patients sprawled on the floor due to the shortage of beds, the air was stale. Upon stepping in, I felt sick. 

I stood at the far corner in the delivery room, turning my eyes away whenever I felt a knot in my stomach. I was really afraid. I kept looking at my watch; it took forever. So when the baby finally came out, I was relieved. 

I walked out of the room and the patients’ family looked over at me, waiting for my assessment. I thought all was fine, so I gave an ‘okay’ sign and smiled. Immediately after, the hospital plunged into complete darkness. It was quite a common occurrence, these blackouts. Then, I saw the nurses rush the baby over to another room, guided by the weak beam from their handphone lights. I scrambled after. They were trying to operate the oxygen tank to resuscitate the baby, but, there was no electricity and they had not switched on the generator yet. I didn’t know what to do; I did not want to get in anybody’s way so I stood rooted to the ground. Minutes later, the junior doctor glanced at me and said coldy, “birth asphyxia”. It was a strange turn of events. I teared in my sleep that night. 

 ** 

On my second trip to Cambodia in Sept 2013, I was granted access to a couple of health centres in Kampong Cham, Stung Treng and Kratie province. In our 17 days there, we only managed to watch 1 delivery. One. But that is another story for another time. 

However, while watching that one delivery, I was reminded of a distant memory. Not of that episode in Bangladesh. But, of my secondary school E-Maths teacher who died from child birth. When news of it broke to me, I was baffled. I was in Junior College at that time, and was holding my plate of roti prata in the canteen. “You mean people will die of child birth one meh?”, I recalled thinking to myself. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. But watching this particular childbirth and seeing the woman wince in pain, it hit home hard. That maternal, and neonatal, mortality is very real, especially so in developing country where access and education is limited.

I don’t think Mrs Ng had a very good impression of me. Not with those poor scores and stinky attitude. But these days, I think of her alot. She’s one of my motivations when it gets awfully lonely and trying to carry on doing this project. I hope she’s finally proud of me.


[Breath of Life] God’s miracle.

The woman was severely anaemic and hemorrhaging badly. The doctors hesitated for awhile before deciding to go ahead - it was a risk they were ready to take. It did seem like it was all or nothing at all. They slit her swiftly, took the baby out, but it never made a sound. It was pale, slightly greyish. It looked like death. And for the next hour, I stood outside the theatre with the team of medical staff who were trying to resuscitate the baby. It was intense. They were trying all means - inserting oxygen tubes, tapping and massaging the limbs and chest, sucking out liquid from the nose and throat. As an observer standing by the side, it felt like I was watching a foreign film with no subtitles. I obviously did not know what they were saying, and had absolutely no clue whether the baby was getting better until the nurse placed the stethoscope to my ear and I heard a faint heartbeat. This is God’s little miracle. 


Today, I have new found respect for all the medical staff toiling endlessly and for making it count. I sure hope the baby and mother will pull through the next few crucial weeks and be in the pink of health again. This, really, also is an affirmation for me to keep working on this series, not only to bring more attention to healthcare and the need for better facilities, more training and education in Cambodia, but also to celebrate these medical personnels whom I’ve come to befriend and think deserve better.


Kaka goes home.

I still remember the first time I met Koka. It was when the band was invited to play at the Global Social Innovation Forum on 20 Oct 2012. Koka was tasked to replace Jahangir, our tabla maestro, who returned back to Bangladesh after a long spell of being in limbo in Singapore, while waiting for his workman injury compensation. “This guy is tabla master”, said Jahangir rather excitedly when he first introduced Koka to me by name. I thought to myself, “wow, if our tabla maestro can recognise someone else as a master, this guy must be really good.” And he sure was. 

 That said, Koka not only won me over with how musically inclined he is (he can play many instruments and is a damn fine singer, I hasten to add!), but also with his personality. He is very thoughtful. When we were setting up for our drama production in Little India earlier last year, he hurried over to help me with my load. He told me I should be very careful lest I hurt my back. He is a funny guy too. He tells me lots of jokes, and shares stories about life in Bangladesh. Above all, he is a romantic. He speaks ever-so-fondly of his lover, Shona, whom for the longest time I mistook as his legally-wedded wife. Well, only because that’s what he calls her - “my wife”. It was only after 15 months of friendship, today, that I realised that they’re not married. Only when he mentioned something about having a small, private ceremony on 1st February. “Huh, then why you always say she’s your wife?”, I questioned. “We not married, but in my heart… she will always be my wife.”, he swiftly responded. I melted. 

 So today, my dear friend is going back. I can’t help but feel sad, of course. No more random dim sum dinners, no more conversations about religion or love, no more music gigs with him. He’ll be sorely missed, but I’m hopeful, that our paths will cross again. 

 Barlo tako, amar bondhu.


Hello 2014

We’re already twenty days into 2014. ‘tis too fast to be true, how did three weeks just zip by like that? 2013 flew by too, really. That said, it was a rad year with so many opportunities from everywhere (thank you lucky stars!!!). I’ve been blessed by far and I will continue to work hard to tell the stories of people who deserve to be told. The marginalized; the underprivileged; those that have fallen through the cracks. The inspiring ones; the dreamers; and of course the hopefuls. Going to be working doubly hard on “1 out of 33” this year, follow up on my work with the migrant men in Singapore, give more school talks and doing other interesting commissioned projects. 

 On another note, just two days ago, I was engaged to photograph for Mr Lee Khoon Choy’s 90th birthday. Mr Lee is one of the stalwarts of Singapore; one of the few PAP old guards left here. Do some research online and you will find out that he’s a prolific writer (still writing even at 90!), led an illustrious political career, a master of calligraphy and painting, and a linguist - he can even speak Arabic. A man of calibre, for sure. But what was heartwarming was to hear the speeches and sharing from his children - they spoke of how wonderful a father he is.

I think when we think of politicians, we often tend to see them in one mould, typecasted as public figures and nothing more. That evening was a sobering reminder that whatever our political inclinations, religion, nationality, caste/class; we’re all father, son, wife, daughter, friend to someone out there. And this is why I love my job (can I even call it a job?) because it teaches me important lessons in life. Like this. 

 Blessed 2014, y’all.


Rista and big dreams.

Meet Rista.

She worked in Singapore as a domestic helper for ten years before going back home to set up a library in her house for the village kids. Yiqin, Grace and I went to Madiun, East Java for 5 days to follow the story of Rista and her library project. ‘Ceria’ was officially opened by Rista and Noviyanti on the fourth of July, 2013, in the presence of friends and relatives. It was a very proud moment for Ristanti to see this dream come to fruition with the love and support of different ones. We were very privileged to be able to document her journey in setting up the library. For me, she’s a living example and inspiration of how dreams and small actions can go a long way not only in self-gratification but also making a change in your own community.

We are well aware that stories like Rista’s are rather rare in Singapore, and not representative of the other foreign domestic workers here. And that much credit has to be given to the good working relationship and trust she shares with her employer. But let’s remember this is also a story of how Rista stood up to the occasion and opportunities presented to her, her resilience and heart of gold, and all these definitely merits recognition, cheer and celebration. To some it may seem like a far-fetched dream, but to others, this is a beautiful story of small actions and the power of change.


Jahangir

Starting Beyond the Border, Behind the Men (an art platform to share stories of the migrant workers in our midst) has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in years. It has opened my eyes to a whole new world. I am truly humbled. So we made the trip to Bangladesh again in Sep ‘13. I was going to Bangladesh to be part of a conference on child marriage organized by Plan Bangladesh, and thought that I should pay Jahangir a visit since I was gonna be there and because his wife, Shumi, had just given birth.

*** 

So, I’ve known Jahangir for slightly under two years. I first met him at Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2)’s soup kitchen in Rowell Road for the Special Pass men. Although Jahangir was one of the many recipients of the soup kitchen, we got along quickly because he was such a cheeky fella. One evening, he invited me to their nightly music sessions at Dibashram, a migrant recreational space just above the soup kitchen project, and boy was I charmed. Not only by the buoyant and rousing atmosphere with the guys singing and clapping along, but also as Dani had most aptly articulated, how Jahangir had a “special look while playing the tablas. He looks straight at you in the eyes, daring you to feel, let loose and sway.” I was won over. 

 But behind this tabla master facade lay another side of him that not many knew of. That Jahangir - this hopeless romantic -was pining for his wife, Shumi, whom he had not met in awhile since their secret marriage that took place in Dhaka months back.

Fast forward a year later, Jahangir is finally home. He got married and had a proper ceremony with his family and relatives gracing it. We were invited too! And in our third visit to Bangladesh, we also found out he started his own micro-finance business in the village. He offers small loans to people to pay bills or start up their own businesses and collects a 10% interest in return. This is definitely a far cry from when I first met him - a disempowered and unmotivated guy to someone who currently has his own company and is the boss of sorts.

And of course, he is now blessed with this little bundle of joy, Rup. Shumi asked me to think of a Christian name for baby Rup. We decided on Sean. So yes, presenting to you, Rup Sean. Made a pinky promise with Shumi that I’d be back next September again for his first birthday party. I sure am looking forward to that.


Happily ever after?

After four years of long distance romancing over the phone, parental disapproval and a secret marriage in Dhaka, Jahangir and Shumi are now officially husband and wife. We flew in to Dhaka and made our way down to Manikganj for their wedding ceremony some two days later. The wedding they had been waiting for. 

 For me, it was a very special moment as well. From the first time we got acquainted in Singapore, Jahangir shared that he had a lady waiting for him back home. Someone special he would speak with over the phone almost every night. Someone he couldn’t wait to go home to, to be with. But his being on a Special Pass meant that he had to wait in Singapore for an unknown period of time. For as long as it took for the Ministry of Manpower to settle his case and award him the deserved compensation for his workplace injury. This also translated into him not knowing when he would be able to return home. Neither did Shumi. It took a painful seven months of being in limbo, before he was finally allowed to return home. 

 The wedding was a very simple affair. A trip to the bazaar in the morning to get the freshest ingredients for lunch, relatives arriving with metal pots and cooking ware as wedding gifts; kids dancing and playing with the music system; an impromptu arm wrestling competition between the Singapore and Bangladeshi contingent; eating the best Briyani in town courtesy of Shumi’s dad; a short ceremony where relatives, and us too, took turns to bless the couple; and a night of song and merry making. We all had good fun. 

Definitely a moment to remember. Jahangir is still pretty much the same old joker from back then. The playful fella I remember him to be. Yet other than the few pounds he had lost, I can’t help but notice something slightly different about him. I can’t quite place a finger to it. Maybe it was the way he teased Shumi in the most childlike manner? Or those moments when he would throw cheeky glances at her just to get her attention? Whatever it is, I already imagine him to be a great father.


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