Fathers, Brothers, and Sons

In our earlier article entitled A Home Away From Home, we explored how migrant communities in Little India have imbued migrant workers, both Indian and Bangladeshi, with a sense of belonging. 

From Bangla Square to Mustafa Centre, there are numerous spaces for foreign workers to mingle, enjoy food from their own culture, and buy goods to send back home to their loved ones—in other words, spaces where they can feel connected to their motherland. And foreign workers have rated Singapore as one of the best places to work: an MOM survey found that close to 90% of foreign workers say they are satisfied with working in Singapore. 

But far from being all sunshine and rainbows, issues of cultural enclaves and discrimination still loom large in the alleys behind Desker Road.

The issue of Indian and Bangladesh imigrant workers may not seem particularly important to us—for most of us, the biggest interaction we have with them is making eye contact with those at the construction site on the way to Marymount MRT. Us journalists had not thought much of this issue either; it was a vague, largely intangible idea, something that seemed utterly irrelevant to us. 

That is, until this excursion, when we saw literal signs of discrimination against migrant workers.

Signs like these can be seen around Desker Road.
In the aftermath of the 2013 riots, Little India was named a liquor control zone.
Signs in English, Bengali, and Tamil at a HDB void deck near Little India.


“Literal signs?” you might ask. 

In the vicinity of Little India sits an unassuming cluster of HDB flats, and when we paid a visit, we were greeted by the plethora of cautionary signs littered around the district: placards with stern warnings ranging from “Stealing only gets you a criminal record” to “No sale of liquor after 10.30pm” and “Please do not loiter” dotted the area. 

While these signs can certainly be found all over Singapore, they were especially concentrated in this area. Standing in a single spot, we could catch at least three of these signs without even turning around. Notably, these signs, unlike others in Singapore, were in English, Bengali, and Tamil, most likely targeted at the migrant workers around that speak these languages. 

For us, we felt an undercurrent of unease whenever we spotted these signs. The constant surveillance persisted everywhere we went, an almost unnoticeable reminder of Singapore’s perception of migrant workers. The constant reminder to abide by the law and not to commit wrong-doing bore heavy implications—its very existence spoke of a lingering doubt of the migrant workers’ character and morality. But was this surveillance really necessary? 

Not too far away, the pristinely clean bus depot was much more conspicuous, a far cry from what one might find in the rest of Singapore. Ms A. Galvez explained that this was no mere coincidence: Bangladeshi workers had previously enjoyed a freedom of space in the depot, but were now confined to unnervingly orderly queues upon the 2013 Little India Riots. Hailing from a country where strict enforcement of law and order is far from second nature, this queue demarcation was only one of the infrastructural features that could contribute to furthering workers’ feelings of alienation. 

While workers were once free to queue as they pleased, strict demarcations have since been erected at the bus depot where riots took place.

Such infrastructure means more than just a physical separation of migrant workers from Singaporeans; this physical separation, over time, has the potential to mutate into social separation, effectively cutting off interactions and ties between the two groups. Perhaps one could argue that such measures are somewhat discriminatory: while they intend to keep Singapore “safe”, these restrictions work on the assumption that migrant workers are inherently dangerous and are inclined to cause trouble. 

And yet, is that really the case? Maybe, in spite of these structures, the average Singaporean holds fewer biases against migrant workers than it seems.

We do acknowledge that this belief would be mistaken as well: over half of Singaporeans see migrant workers as a “cultural threat”, and 75% think there’s no need for them. However, these workers are the ones who have aided us in literally building up our nation, silently toiling away in order to bring a multiplicity of infrastructural developments—from our HDB flats to our iconic Marina Bay skyline—to life. As such, it would be unfair of us to disallow them from stepping on our very soil and participating in our society.

The street lined with numerous shops.


Some may also believe that the current situation is still fine, seeing no need to integrate migrant workers into our society. Unlike those in Singapore who may have recently immigrated and still have close ties to relatives overseas, few of them will choose to settle and make a home here. These workers have their own motherland outside of Singapore, their own families to provide for a whole life away, their own friends to chat and laugh and share inside jokes with. And as previously elaborated on in Part 1, these workers have their own cultural enclaves where they belong; we have provided them a second home of sorts to return to. 

Maybe we think that’s enough, and that we shouldn’t try to break their enclave open to integrate them with us. However, many races in Singapore have a cultural enclave of their own, so why shouldn’t it be the same for these migrant workers? 

This is because it’s so much harder for these workers to interact with Singaporeans in the first place: even with the existence of Chinatown and Little India, Singaporeans ultimately still make up a “melting pot” of culture, mixing with one another easily. In their case, however, the enclaves and restrictions only serve to advance the idea that discrimination from us is okay. Separation grows into discomfort, which grows into prejudice. 

And what for? In light of their contributions, we should accord them the due respect. This doesn’t mean that we should tear their space apart; it is, after all, still a space that feels like home for them, where they can find comfort in the presence of those who share the same experiences as them. But we should certainly be kinder. From saying hi on the streets to volunteering in organisations, we should find ways to better recognise migrant workers’ contributions to Singapore.

Something else one may not realise is the fact that even what looks like home may not be enough—what many of us may not know about is the discrimination between the workers from different nations that occupy this very same space. 

Weaving through the alleyways of Little India, Ms A. Galvez often paused her explanations midway to bid a shopkeeper good day, or to confirm dinner plans for the coming week. Her close ties with the two groups was not by chance: as part of her undergraduate thesis on migrant worker spaces, she had befriended both Indian and Bangladeshi workers and maintained friendships with them over the years—even after she completed her thesis. 

Ms Alexandra Galvez is friends with many of the migrant workers (both Indian and Bangaldeshi) and even travelled to Bangladesh to live with their families last year.

Laughing, she shared with us the challenges of building trust with both communities at once. During the course of her thesis, tensions rose when the workers found out about her relationship with the other group; each felt that she had betrayed them by befriending the other. While this may seem like a small, almost comical source of strain, it reflects the underlying distrust between the two groups cohabitating this space. 

This distrust, in fact, originated largely from cultural stereotypes and misunderstandings on the part of the employers. Ms A. Galvez shared how employers typically “ranked” foreign workers based on their nationality. Thai workers, most coveted but rapidly dwindling due to their growing local economy, were at the top of this hierarchy owing to their perceived intelligence; next came Chinese workers, thought to be similarly smart but sneakier and more assertive of their rights; and then Indian and Bangladeshi workers followed, with the former perceived to be more highly educated than the latter. According to her, Singaporean contractors are only willing to hire more Bangladeshi workers because these workers, in their eyes, are relatively more affordable than the other three nationalities. This merely goes to show that at the end of the day, Singaporeans are the ones who perpetuate such belittling views of migrant workers and pit them against one another.

There are certainly many NGOs in place to help these workers integrate into Singapore, whether it be Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) or Migrant Workers’ Centre. But such systemic structures, as well as persistent discriminatory attitudes of many of us, nevertheless continue to perpetuate negative views of these workers, whether unconsciously or not. 

In the end, how migrant workers feel in Singapore largely depends on how we view them. What do we think of their presence? Do we see them as a nuisance to keep off our lawn? Are they merely here to build the skyscrapers and architectural icons that we call our own? 

Whatever it is, Singapore needs to reevaluate its interests in migrant workers. These fathers, brothers, and sons do not exist to merely serve us, and perhaps it’s about time we start recognising their humanity.

Note: This Learning Journey took place on 4 Feb 2020 - the day Singapore confirmed its first case of Covid-19 local transmission. Indeed, the news broke near the end of the Learning Journey, so it was very dramatic & definitely chilling.

For more stories, visit Raffles Press.

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