It was a crowded Sunday evening (as usual) in Singapore’s Little India area at one of the major bus stops perpendicular to the iconic Mustafa Centre on Syed Alwi Lane, the retail cathedral of the South Asian Migrant, which is also an organizing node for social interactions on the weekly off for the migrant worker. Evening was receding into the night, the bus stop was getting crowded by the minute with migrant workers from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh in India and Bangladesh as the sense that their precious Sunday has flown away and the early morning commute on Monday morning dawning on them. The motley cacophony of these different linguistic sounds define the ethos of the area, and which without any doubt is very South Asian. It is a lively part of the city, which may be too lively for my Singaporean friends who try to avoid the area on weekends due to the crowd and some taxi uncles have often complained to me regarding the sheer disregard that the migrants have of traffic regulations as the crowd often spills on the street. One taxi uncle of Indian decent once quipped: “This is not India, in Singapore you have to follow rules”. May be the impact of the Little India Riots a few years back is still fresh in the consciousness of people and hence there are (recently imposed) restrictions on drinking liquor across the Little India area in Singapore on weekends after a certain time in the evening in the interests of maintaining public order.
These hundreds of thousands of migrant workers build and maintain Singapore’s global infrastructure such as the Marina Bay Sands, Public Housing Estates, Hospitals and Universities. But these workers stay far away from the city centre where they live in dormitories on the outskirts of the city-state near the Malaysia border. These dormitories are on the lines of integrated, self-contained townships some with even a cinema hall, screening South Asian Films at a subsidized cost. Not all the dormitories are that fancy though, with cramped accommodation being a defining characteristic. But, the Sunday ritual of traveling to the Little India area for the South Asian Migrant is a sacrosanct affair, and no matter the distance and the time required, the migrant will make it the Little India area to catch up with friends and buy their weekly provisions. It takes almost two hours one way on public transport to reach the Little India area from Tuas Industrial area on the fringes where the dormitories are located.
I really enjoy the atmospherics and the cultural milieu of spending Sunday in the alleys of Little India perching my self next to Khana Basmati, a prominent Bangladeshi Restaurant frequented by migrants, as I observe deep fried and oily snacks (Bhajiyya in Hindi or Tele Bhaja in Bengali) being sold as hot cakes. The fried snacks however brutally unhealthy are lukewarm but remind me of street food in Mumbai/Kolkata. Hence, on a Sunday late evening a crowd of workers converged on the bus stop.
The Bus number 66 came; I was pushed and shoved without any regard for the orderly etiquette of the queue in Singapore, which reminded me of my days in a bus stop in South Asia certainly. The workers probably were panicking to grab a seat on the bus, as their journey back to the dormitory would take a while. The bus was theoretically a spacious, double decker one, but with hardly space to breathe, let alone breathe. In this rather limited space, my South Indian looking neighbor took out his android phone and started reading the news on Dina Malar website, a prominent Tamil News Paper in India. Within my eyesight as well, I saw a Bangladeshi man reading news on Prothom Alo Online, the premier Bengali Language Daily in Dhaka. I saw a few others too reading news on the phone during my thirty-minute bus ride with my South Asian compatriots. The migrant keeps in touch with the daily developments in his home country due the smart phone and the reasonably priced high-speed 4G data connectivity in Singapore. Almost every migrant carries a smart phone now a days, resonating with the actions of Syrian refugees in Europe who will hold on to their smart phones at any cost, as it is their last connection to their old lives.
Migration is a development resulting out of poor employment opportunities in their home markets and slightly better pay in manpower importing countries such as Singapore. The feeling on being connected with their families on Skype on their phones (such as one I saw on the bus) or reading the news of their native districts back home, surely make the burden of being a migrant more bearable. I am a second-generation economic migrant with my wife in India and parents in Oman, and do understand the sentiment very well.