Why migrant workers can't make S'porean friends

Why migrant workers can't make S'porean friends
Meeting Mr Jasvir Singh, a construction worker from Punjab. Since moving here in 2006, he doesn't dare venture into Orchard Road or the Singapore heartlands, and (older) people shun him on trains which makes him sad and helpless.
PHOTO: The New Paper

It is his last week in Singapore, after about eight years working in the construction sector.

Mr Mohammad Zahirul Islam's work permit expired on Friday, and by law, he has to return to his small village home in Comilla, Bangladesh, on that day.

But ask the 38-year-old if he is willing to leave and he sighs wistfully.

His heart, Mr Zahirul Islam says, belongs in Singapore. He does not know if he will be able to come back here to work.

"The land is beautiful, I remember all the places (I have been to). The bus, the worksites, the dormitory," he tells The New Paper on Sunday.

The aspiring poet has even penned more than 350 Bengali poems, with a majority of them written here.

Despite his ardent love for the country, Mr Zahirul Islam says he was unable to make a true Singaporean friend.

It is not for the lack of trying either.

Mr Zahirul Islam says: "I have friends, but all are Bangladeshi or foreign workers. Singaporean friends too, like colleagues and boss. But they not really friends, more like outsiders.

"When they ask us to go out, go drinking, they buy bottle, eat good food. But I don't make money like them, my income is little.

"I am Muslim and cannot drink, so I (get) shy and ashamed. We don't pass time with Singapore friends because they got money, we no money. My salary is not high."

Still, he tries, sharing about his hobbies and dreams to earn a literature degree in France and become a poet, and how he put those dreams on hold to make money for his wife and two daughters.

He keeps his notes and poems in a corporate diary - a gift - and he takes it out while on public transport, during downtimes at worksites or in the workers' dormitory, to write down his thoughts.


Every weekend, he visits Dibashram, a shelter and art space for Bangladeshi workers in Little India, and meets a group of Bangladeshi artists and writers to talk about culture and poetry.

That was also where TNPS met him for the first time.

Yet, he says most locals see him as defined by his job - a construction worker - and nothing more.

He says: "When I tell some Singaporeans who are (more) educated, I am poet, they think it is very interesting.

"But most ordinary people no really understand poem. I translate to English, tell them about Bangladesh culture. But they no interested in Bangladesh. Some think it is funny. They say, 'Oh you are writer? Then what are you doing here?'"

Mr Zahirul Islam says he is saddened whenever he hears such quick dismissals of his lofty dreams.

He adds: "I can write here too, I have space in Dibashram, I go every week. I am still writer, why they say I am construction worker only?"

Just before his flight home, Mr Zahirul Islam wrote his final poem here under the train tracks at Jurong East MRT station, which he titled Oh Singapore.

One excerpt from the poem, translated from Bengali, goes as follows:

"Oh Singapore, you will remain in my heart, in my poems forever.

If possible, let your people know that I love you so much

Yet nobody knows that I have penned my life's diary here."

Oh Singapore, you will remain in my heart, in my poems forever.

If possible, let your people know that I love you so much

Yet nobody knows that I have penned my life's diary here.

Why I don't wear my traditional clothes

He and his compatriots do not dare to don their traditional Bangladeshi tunics.

Some, says S-pass holder M. Jahangir Alam Babu, 42, have even shaved off their beards - normally a symbol of religious piety for Bangladeshi men.

It is because they are afraid of being accused as terrorists, especially in recent weeks.

On the traditional Punjabi suits and the topi cap, Mr Jahangir says: "Yeah, nowadays if you are wearing like this, people can say you are a terrorist.

"It is a bad feeling to be accused. I feel ashamed because (the deeds) of a few others made everyone suffer."

Last month, eight radicalised Bangladeshi workers were detained by the authorities for setting up an Islamic State of Bangladesh cell here.

Five others were deported back to Bangladesh for possessing jihad-related materials or supporting the group's activities.

Late last year, 27 Bangladeshi construction workers were also arrested and deported for having terrorist links and possessing terrorist-related propaganda.

Mr Jahangir believes there is little he can do to change people's perception of his community, but hopes Singapore remains open to hiring them.


Once, he heard his Singaporean colleagues gripe about rumours of his company's new contract for more than 3,000 construction jobs.

They had said these jobs would go to foreigners and would not benefit Singaporeans, he says.

As he heard their comments, Mr Jahangir got worried about the anti-foreigner sentiment.

"Now we scared. What if Singapore (government) don't let Bangladeshi work any more?" asks Mr Jahangir, who moved here in 2008.

His salary of $2,800 a month supports his family - a wife and two daughters - back home.

He claims his pay is less than those of his Singaporean colleagues with equivalent appointments.

Barely two days after news of the recent arrests broke, Mr Jahangir and his Bangladeshi peers were jeered at by migrant workers of other nationalities.

At his workplace, where he is a site engineer, he tells TNPS that many of his colleagues have been making fun of them during meal times.

"Some persons in my company say, 'Wah, now you all Bangladeshi, so many terrorists'," he recalls, adding that the tone used was derisive.

"I feel ashamed. We staying in a nice and peaceful country here. Something like this happen, what they think? That we are not good people."

Why I don't sit on the MRT

Mr Jasvir Singh is used to seeing people shun him or his Indian brethren while he is taking the MRT.

"They make a face and move away. Some people - usually old people - get up when we sit beside them," says the 36-year-old Punjab native.

Instead of feeling offended or angry, the soft-spoken Mr Singh says he feels bad about these reactions to his presence

Says Mr Singh: "There is nothing I can do about it. I cannot be angry at them, so I just feel sad. It makes me feel small."

To avoid scenarios like that, Mr Singh would rather not sit on the train unless it is mostly empty.


He does not know why some people here behave like that around migrant workers.

Despite his job as a technician at sewage cleaning firm Asia Pacz, he says he does not reek of foul smells.

"I take the train only on my day off, Sunday. I bathe and keep clean before I go out, there is no smell on me," he says.

"Even when I work, it is not like we go into the sewage. We stand far away and use our equipment (to do the work)."

As a result, he feels more comfortable with other migrant workers, so on his day off, he goes only to Little India.

Other than for work purposes, he has never been to the Orchard Road belt or Marina Bay area, even though he has been in Singapore since 2006.

Says Mr Singh: "Mustafa (Centre) has everything. I don't feel comfortable being in Orchard Road."

Like many others who work here, he is happy making a living in Singapore and often extols its stability and low crime rate to his countrymen back at home.

Also, his pay of around $500 a month is more than what he can make in India, he says.

Yet, for all of Singapore's virtues, he admits that a good working life here is determined largely by the company you work for.

In that regard, luck is a major determining factor, he says.

Mr Singh's first work stint in Singapore in 2006 lasted only a few months as he saw his $500 monthly salary get cut by $200 for no reason, he claims.

He did not know that he could approach the authorities for help, so he left the company on his own accord.

He was left with a mountain of debt as he had to borrow around $4,000 to pay the employment agent in India.

Thankfully, he found employment here again in 2008 at Asia Pacz.

"They give me days off, allow me to go back to India to see my family. I am lucky to be working here," he says.

This article was first published on May 15, 2016.
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