Migrant Voices

Published on 28 January 2018

Migrant workers in Singapore are expressing their creativity, sharing their narratives through the arts, and adding their voices to the Singapore story.


Deni Apriyani (Credit: Sugiarti Mustiarjo)
Fitri Diyah (Credit: Pamela Ho)
Naive L Gascon (Credit: Pamela Ho)

“I don’t even know her name! I met her on a mini-bus heading to Indramayu, the city where I live in Indonesia. We just started talking and she confided in me about her husband,” says Deni Apriyani of what inspired her poem, Further Away, which clinched the first prize at the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition last December. “I wrote about her because I think her story needs to be heard. Even though she was abused by her husband, she still stayed with him. How do you do that?”

The 27-year-old has worked in Singapore as a domestic worker since 2013, and this is the first time she’s taking part in the annual competition. “I started writing maybe in junior high school, but I’m not really into poems. I thought I’d be a comedian one day,” she says with a laugh, adding that she only started writing more seriously in Singapore. Last year, she started attending poetry workshops run by Sing Lit Station, which helped bolster her literary skill.

Apriyani, who writes in both English and Bahasa Indonesia, is the first female to top the competition since its inception in 2014. The last three editions were dominated by male migrant workers from Bangladesh. In fact, this fourth edition saw domestic workers take the top three prizes for the first time. Quite a feat as the competition saw a record 107 submissions by migrant workers of seven nationalities, writing across eight languages!


IN OUR WORDS Shivaji Das (centre), founder of the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, with some of the migrant worker poets at the Singapore Writers Festival 2017. (Credit: M A Sobur)
Shivaji Das (Credit: Shikhar Aggarwal)

While themes of loneliness, homesickness and love are still widely written about, the shortlisted poems last year tackled a wider range of topics. Third-prize winner Fitri Diyah from Indonesia wrote about A Sunday Morning in Paya Lebar, while second-prize winner Naive L Gascon’s poem, And Again, was inspired by her love for swimming, especially in the open sea!

“I miss swimming in Repulse Bay in Hong Kong with my friends,” reminisces Gascon, a college graduate in computer engineering from the Philippines, who works as a domestic helper here. “I started writing poetry in high school but kept it to myself. When I’m feeling extremes of emotions, words appear. Sometimes they’re quite poetic, so I quickly write them down, then polish it later.”

Gascon resorted to performance poetry to present her work, which drew cheers from the audience. “When I found out my poem was shortlisted, I had no idea how poetry readings work. So I searched YouTube and stumbled upon Sarah Kay, a performance poet. She was my inspiration.”

The 19 finalists, who recited their poems at the National Gallery Singapore auditorium, drew a crowd beyond the migrant community. There was a sprinkling of expatriates and Singaporeans in the audience — something Shivaji Das had hoped for when he founded the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition. While volunteering with Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), Das encountered a group of Bangladeshi workers who met regularly at the Banglar Kantha (a Bengali newspaper) office to share their poems, and felt that Singaporeans should know about them.

Since then, the competition has extended its reach to migrant workers who come from Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, India, China, Myanmar, and more — thanks to outreach efforts by organisations such as the Indonesian Family Network (IFN) and Aidha, which empowers domestic workers through financial education. There were also attempts to reach out to sex workers.


Jon Gresham (Credit; Jon Gresham www.igloomelts.com)

Sing Lit Station, a literary non-profit organisation, has also stepped in to run free poetry workshops for migrant workers since early last year. Singaporean poet/editor Tse Hao Guang, who conducts classes twice a month, says he encourages participants to write in their own languages, not just in English.

He recounts a session where he gave attendees a short primer to the history of poetry in Singapore and encouraged them to consider their own works as part of this history. “Some of them shared their frustrations that Singaporeans seem to be interested in their work only because of the ‘migrant’ label, while they want to be known simply as writers and poets. I think we should ask ourselves why we’re reading their work, and to what end. Is there a space for critical engagement with their work?”

Sing Lit Station also runs prose workshops led by author/photographer Jon Gresham. The workshops are similar to those he runs for Writing the City, a creative writing programme held at Toa Payoh Library. “Some 40 per cent of participants have a good standard of English, so we can cover concepts like story structure, character arcs, and point of view. This year, I hope to run a combined workshop for the migrant workers and Writing the City writers, where the emphasis is on writing and creativity.”

As it is, several migrant workers have already published books here. Md Sharif Uddin, a construction safety supervisor from Bangladesh, launched his memoir, Stranger to Myself, at the 2017 Singapore Writers Festival. Published by Landmark Books, it’s a curated compilation of his diary entries and poems, translated from Bengali to English. Construction worker Md Mukul Hossine, who attended college in Bangladesh, also had his poetry collection, Me Migrant (2016), published by Ethos Books.

“We all want to be more than our job, our race, or the boxes people and institutions place us in,” says Gresham. “Writing gives migrant workers the opportunity to demonstrate that they are more than just a category on a work pass.”


PART TO PLAY Migrant workers at Sing Lit Station after rehearsals for the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition play in November 2017. (Credit: Jon Gresham (www.igloomelts.com))
WE ARE FAMILY Being a part of dangdut group, MSB, has given these Indonesian domestic workers not just an avenue to express themselves, but also a close-knit community away from home. (Credit: Meikhan Sri Bandar)

Beyond the literary arts, migrant workers in Singapore are also engaged in other artistic pursuits. Unspoken Life, a photography exhibition organised by Aidha, featured the works of domestic workers who revealed their multifaceted selves through their lens. The exhibition was held at Intersections Gallery at Kandahar Street and open to the public. Photography workshops are also held at Aidha.

Last December, an original play was staged at the poetry competition for the first time. The group spent five Sundays rehearsing together under the guidance of playwright and Cultural Medallion recipient, Haresh Sharma. “Whether they’re Muslims, Hindus, Christians or atheists, this motley crew of multicultural people work together and share a common humanity,” observes Das. “It’s a side-effect of the competition, and I find that inspirational.”

And there seems to be a growing number of arts events initiated by migrant workers throughout the year. On 7 January, the Migrant Cultural Show saw some 35 groups and individuals from Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Myanmar and China showcasing their talents through music, dance, stage drama, and poetry. “I hope to promote diversity and friendship among the various migrant worker communities, and also, to show Singaporeans that there’s more to migrant workers; we have talents and passion in different arts too,” says organiser Fazley Elahi (Rubel) from Bangladesh.

One of the groups who performed at the cultural show is MSB, a dangdut group comprising Indonesian domestic workers. “Dangdut is a mix of Arabic, Malayu, Hindi, and traditional Indonesian music,” explains Meikhan Sri Bandar, who founded MSB in 2012. Before coming to Singapore, she performed in dangdut shows at tourist attractions and for parties in Indonesia, and this passion has continued here in Singapore.

In 2013, she started a Facebook group to reach out to like-minded migrants, and the group currently has 2,400 followers. “MSB is open to anyone interested in arts or entertainment. For friends who want to learn vocal techniques, I will teach them for free. We gather in the park and learn twice a month. For me, this group is my family. We share many things, not only about singing and dancing.”


Nil Sagar Shahin (Credit: Pamela Ho)

Every Sunday at TWC2, from 5pm to 9pm, the Migrants Band meets for rehearsals. Formed in 2015, the band started with just five members. Today it’s grown to seven musicians and four vocalists. Besides performing at the Migrant Cultural Show, the band of Bangladeshi construction workers has also performed at the Bangladesh High Commission, National Library and the Esplanade.

“We work all week, so we feel very happy when we can practise music one day every week. Our minds are changed. We feel good. Then working is also good!” says founder Nil Sagar Shahin, who has been working in Singapore for the past six years. “I often think of home but I cannot afford to go back because I need to earn money for my family. To bear the pain of separation, I play music.”

The band owns their own instruments and performs songs in Hindi and Bengali, covering genres from pop to folk and ethnic. While the members are committed, the nature of the band is transient. “Singapore only gives us a one-year work permit. To renew, we need to pay money. Some don’t have money to pay,” explains Nil Sagar. “So we always have to teach new members what we know.”


RHYTHM & BLUES These Bangladeshi workers chase away the blues with their merry music-making every Sunday at TWC2. The Migrants Band has performed at various events and venues, including the Esplanade. (Credit: Pamela Ho)

While non-profit organisations in Singapore work tirelessly to help migrant workers resolve work-related issues, Das believes the arts can help empower them too. “I see it as a powerful way to give them a voice and let them speak up for themselves. It also reaches a wider base and in a subtler way, to not just influence those who are directly affected but also the overall attitudes of people towards marginalised communities.”

Although nothing is in the works, Das expresses a wish to one day have a migrant and refugee literary festival. As it is, the nascent scene is growing, supported by the setting up of migrants libraries at TWC2 and Sing Lit Station, as well as the One Bag One Book project initiated by Zakir Hossain Khokan, winner of the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2014 and 2015.

“All this gives them a sense of ownership for their future here. They’re taking more control over their narrative, instead of others writing about them or thinking things of them,” says Das. “Just to hear their stories is a way to understand them better. You might think you don’t know them, that they’re a community to keep at a distance. It’s when you hear them, know them and understand them more, you realise that they are just like us.”

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