Migrant workers in Singapore reveal hidden poetry talents on stage
Standing on a grand stage before an audience of about 200, Bikas Nath shut his eyes and recited: “I long to run back, into the warm embrace of my homeland.”
His poem, Keno Probashi? (Why Migrant?) poses a question the worker from Bangladesh has asked himself many times when homesickness overcomes him.
Nath has a diploma in engineering, but has worked in a Singapore shipyard for nearly two years, sending money home to his parents in their rural village.
All 17 competitors nervously waiting their turn on the stage are migrant workers, whose daily lives of drudgery in Singapore allow for little softness or culture.
Over a million work-permit holders comprise almost one-fifth of the island state’s population.
Holding low-wage positions in construction, shipyards or domestic work, most are from developing countries — like India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.
They come in their thousands in desperation — for income and to fund ambitions.
Seen as transients, they are excluded from population figures and policies. Their treatment is often harsh.
While female domestic workers must live in their employer’s homes, male construction and shipyard workers are housed in dormitories separated from the country’s permanent residents.
Most rack up large debts to secure their job — a Bangladeshi worker pays an average of $8,000 in agents’ fees, while domestic workers accept salary deductions for almost a year – adding financial stress to the anxiety of separation and degradation.
Finalists explore themes of loneliness, longing
Now in its third year, the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition helps bridge the gap, showing Singaporeans other dimensions of the workers who literally build, clean and care for the city.
“Calling this a migrant-worker poetry competition shows they are not just people who do menial labour. They are also educators, carers and artists,” said Haresh Sharma, a playwright and one of the competition judges.
While some of the contestants are first-time writers, others are published poets and award-winning writers in their home countries.
The event is organised by volunteers involved in migrant rights. The National Gallery’s grand auditorium where it was staged this year, opened 12 months ago after a major refurbishment of two historic buildings, made possible by migrant labour.
Many of the finalists drew on their experiences, exploring themes of loneliness and longing. Others write of romance or contemporary issues.
They recited in seven different languages with English translations projected onscreen.
Indonesian Nur Hidayati’s shortlisted entry was the first poem she had ever written, composed during a writing workshop for domestic workers.
She broke down crying as she told the audience she’d written it for the son she had to leave behind.
“We don’t really have friends here that we can talk to every day about our feelings, so this is how I deal with them,” Hidayati said.
Some poems drew attention to the difficult conditions many experience.
Joan Bastatas Ferrer from Cebu in the Philippines wrote about her first two years as a domestic worker, during which she had not been allowed a day off.
She would watch alone, as other workers in her building went out on Sundays.
Filipino domestic worker Rolinda O Espanola also wrote of deprivation.
“To be a maid in a foreign land, where people look down on us … But to my family, I am a hero,” she recounted of her early experiences in Singapore.
Espanola’s employer had imposed severe restrictions, from the amount of food she was allowed to eat — only bread and noodles — to the number of times she could brush her teeth.
Challenging negative perceptions
The competition builds self-esteem, and challenges negative perceptions. For some it’s a door to Singapore’s literary scene and the Writer’s Festival.
“It’s not the first time that migrants are writing poetry anywhere in the world,” said organiser Shivaji Das.
“But a lot of it was happening within their own community … This event gives public exposure to their talent.”
This year Migrant Tales was launched — an anthology edited by construction workers Zakir Hossain Khokan — winner of the 2014 and 2015 poetry competitions — and Monir Ahmod, a rebel poet who made the finals again this year.
Khokan said they received 80 submissions, and whittled them down to 28.
“Four months was not enough time to prepare this,” he said, having only Sundays free, while working as supervisor on a construction site. He’s now dreaming of producing a book of photographs by migrant workers.
The competition stirs great excitement.
Ramaswamy Madhavan, a site engineer, explored offerings and prayer in his poem, and is enthused by the experience.
“It gives us more energy to write,” he said.
With the poems still hovering in the hall, there was an anxious wait while the judges conferred. Finally, the winners were announced.
Rolinda Espanola’s poem of anguish won equal third place.
But it was Bikas Nath, who writes in snatched breaks while supervising in the shipyard, whose evocative imagery caught the judge’s attention, with lines like “I want to return to the embrace of what is my own, golden mangoes ripe in the garden, heady fragrance of jackfruits in the afternoon air”.
Nath won first place — and the almost $500 in prize-money may help him realise his dream of going home to visit.
The participants’ faces shone, boosted by the competition and the attention it brings. Clutching his trophy and certificate, Nath beamed as he posed for photos with his friends.
For once, the poet was speechless.
“I’m very proud. But I’ve lost my words to share my feelings!” he said.