The Plight and Poetry of Singapore’s Migrant Workers

Courtesy the author

Today, Friday 10 July 2020, Singaporeans go to the polls – an election in which the People’s Action Party, ruling since independence in 1965, is expected to return yet another victory. But this time, votes are being cast in the shadow of the pandemic. In recent months, mass outbreaks in cramped migrant worker dormitories have forced the city-state into lockdown, renewing debate and scrutiny around the poor treatment of such workers.

From the latest issue of ArtReview Asia, we publish the work of Zakir Hossain Khokan, who was born in Dhaka and lives in Singapore, where he works as a construction supervisor. A graduate of the National University of Bangladesh, he is an award-winning poet and founder of Migrant Writers of Singapore.

First Draft

by Zakir Hossain Khokan

They are afraid.
that their loved ones at Home
might get infected, with COVID.
What if they
have become carriers, in a faraway land?

They are afraid
of huddling together in a single room.
The room is stuffy,
with two ceiling fans working overtime.
Their warm breaths suffocate,
as if the fans are weeping.
They are crying for help, for someone to save them…

The administration has ordered them
to maintain 1 foot’s distance
while standing, sitting, eating and sleeping;
like lovers over the phone who must also keep apart,
not touching.
They are puzzled.
How to keep distance in this crammed space?

Courtesy the author

Some measure the room with tape
and count the number of inmates to obey the government’s orders.
Others measure the dimensions of
the wrinkles on their forehead.

The administration has stated,
wearing masks is mandatory.
But they do not have masks.
Dormitory, administration, company –
who will give them masks?
They are barred from going outside.
If they don’t have masks, how will they wear them!
They gape at themselves.
They cannot understand who is belittling whom,
in this race of life.

They are afraid.
When their throats become dry
out of fear,
they visit the bathroom to drink water.
The bathroom – dirty, dingy, fetid.
A single bathroom serves more than a hundred.
Nobody has cleaned it for days.
Those who can are afraid.
Afraid of being attacked by the virus.

Courtesy the author

They swallow water to quench their thirst.
And sing:
‘I’ve turned into a migrant, I roam around the world’…
The song is dramatized, made into videos, and shared.
But they remain scared.

They are afraid
of speaking their minds.
Bound by the agent’s fee,
their lives are mortgaged to the unknown.
Days and years pass,
the beautiful city changes, but not their salary.

They are afraid
of speaking their minds.

They have neither commitment nor language,
only fear. They are alone.
Company and state feed on each other.
The government tells them to not be afraid.
But, yes, they are!

They are anxious.
They know the High Commission is only there
to parcel their corpses back home.

Courtesy the author

‘Worker brothers’, is what
their community leaders
from their own soil
call them
in their fancy enunciations.
Words like ‘bhai’ and ‘dost’
are not meant for them.

Journalists approach them
selectively, from time to time
with probing questions.
They are too fearful to answer
because they know
even the journalists are afraid
of Someone.

Sometimes literary folks and intellectuals visit them too.
They inspire them to read, speak up, write, draw, take photographs,
        make films
but emphasise that their art should be calm and not explosive.

They are afraid to read.
They are afraid to write.
They are afraid to draw.
They are afraid to take photos.
They are afraid to make films.
They are afraid to learn, to gaze.
They are even afraid of appreciation for their success.
Ssshhhh, they stay silent!

Courtesy the author

They are afraid of laughing too loud
because they are aware of the Ministry
receiving complainants about their hearty laughter.
They control themselves.
Laugh less. Sleep and eat even less.
They live outside the city, in the fringes.
Their dreams are lost.
Termites infest their bodies while rats, cockroaches have field days.
This way the state can say
migrant workers are resource and just manpower.

Some of them whisper at night
‘Now every moment is depressing
Now every afternoon is terrifying
Now every evening is endangering
Now we are counting the numbers every night
The number of infected
The number of the dead
The number of breaths we take
We can’t sleep
We read of our own nightmares
We draw our faces in the mirror
In the hope of a green dawn’

Courtesy the author

They are terrified.
Fear, labour and anguish mar their faces
and the state takes photographs of them
to claim its success in keeping workers happy,
in ensuring workers’ comfort.
The state is applauded for its effort.
They join the state in singing songs of praise:
‘The king and we are comrades in this kingdom.
How can we otherwise work with the same king?’

The news of their coronation spreads wide and far.
To their families and beyond.

But they are panic-stricken. They don’t utter a word.
They are abused but don’t quiver.
They can’t speak.
They lack empathetic ears. They are jittery of rest.
They know rest won’t earn them money.
Work pass and agents’ fees combine with loans to throttle
their Existence.

They are petrified.
They hide their diseases from roommates, companies,
and friends.
They are afraid of dying.
They know that in this time of gloom, they are just numbers.
Their close compatriots won’t come to shoulder
their mortal remains or to see them for one last time.

Who are they?
Are they really surviving with this burden of fear?

Their identity documents carry the seal of
‘Modern-day slaves’.
This has at least saved them from an Identity Crisis
while the state, government, citizen, company, agent
and dear ones have affixed a date to make them smile
for at least a day in the year.
They will laugh. They will laugh out loud.

They will survive
without fear.


Translated from Bengali by Debabrota Basu

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