Navigating Migration NGO Politics in Singapore: The Banglar Kantha Narrative

by Manishankar Prasad

The unassuming AKM Mohsin, 53, is the editor and founder of Banglar Kantha, the only Bengali Language community newspaper in South East Asia. He operates out of a rented shop-house space on level two, above a Mamak Indian Restaurant on the crowded Rowell Road, in the Little India area of Singapore popular with the South Asian Diaspora. He is also the Founder of Dibashram, a cultural space for Migrant Workers in Singapore and Bangladesh Centre-Singapore, a Social Initiative connecting Dhaka and Singapore, bridging two cultures seamlessly. All the three entities are seamless in nature, each feeding off the other, with an objective towards serving the blue collared migrant worker in need with precious life saving advice in times of dire need and cultural activism through the newspaper and events. Mr. Mohsin works with men and women on the margins of metropolis, where entrenched binaries of NGO land such as ‘Human Rights versus Productivity’ are not valid, as lived experiences matter far more than the rhetoric of performance.

The Background

On a late Sunday afternoon, all over the Mustafa Centre area in Singapore crowd of South Asian migrants gather to meet friends, relatives or simply to catch a cup of chai and samosa to relax after a hard week of work. For the uninitiated a few words on Mustafa Centre. Mustafa Centre and its founders are the stuff of folklore for the Singaporean Indian Diaspora Elite. From a small store in the 1970’s, as my mariner uncle told me, to a behemoth on the entire Syed Alwi Lane, Mustafa has come a long way. It is crowded, a package tour ‘tourist’ haunt where one can shop for veggies and masalas at 3am in the morning. A microcosm of South Asia can be found at Mustafa Centre with chirps of Bangla, Urdu and Tamil making up the cacophony, which is a delight to my ears. It is a unique diaspora experience. But most migrant construction workers are even working until 5pm on a Sunday evening to earn a few extra dollars, as there is overtime pay on a Sunday.

Singapore is regarded as a governed country in the ASEAN region and it is one of the most expensive cities in Asia, which speaks of its affluence. But this development has come at the hidden cost of hundreds of thousands of migrant construction workers from Bangladesh, India, China and Myanmar. As Dr. Stephanie Chok, a migration academic has written (http://asaa.asn.au/the-darker-side-of-singapores-economic-miracle/):

“Hailing from countries in the region—Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines and Myanmar, among others—these temporary migrant workers enter Singapore on employer-controlled, time-restricted work visas known as work permits. Under this ‘use-and-discard’ system, work permit holders are not eligible for permanent residency or family reunification; there are also restrictions on marriage to locals and, if female, reproductive rights. “

Migration bears a very high social, economic and mental cost. The burning hunger to provide for the family drives the migrant to sell precious assets such as land and jewelry to pay for the migration training center fees, the agent and the flight tickets. These can cost a migrant up to SGD 15,000 including training center costs, which a migrant has to pay to be Building and Construction Authority Certified which is a tiny portion of a few hundred dollars (It is a basic license to work in the construction sector in Singapore) and middle man costs of 6000-10,000 dollars; It can mean a payback period of about three to four years. This triggers a survivalist tendency to bear anything in order to stay back. Many have to return without being able to pay back the principal sum; often jumping straight into the debt collection offers shackles.

The migrant arrives in this host country with hopes and dreams that are often shattered due the unfair information asymmetry between him and the recruiting ecosystem often perpetrated by language. The exploitation begins from his village, often effectuated by his family, friend/s or distant relative/s. The migrant is at the bottom rung of the social hierarchy in the host country. He is the ‘Subaltern’ in this context.

The lack of English knowledge becomes a constraint in communicating with the bosses, public sector agencies and the wider community in their everyday life. For example, when a migrant does not have an understanding of English, he forfeits the ability to convey the symptoms of his sickness to the doctor, or is unable to stand up to unfair behavior when subjected to it by his superiors. Access to basic medical care is structurally shut off from the migrant due to the inability to understand the language of dominance. The things that we take for granted such as writing a letter back to the family and normal communication to work supervisors is a matter of life and death for the migrant particularly in emergencies.  Due to this communicative inequity, the worker’s contract is substituted to negligibility without his knowledge and legal papers are being forced upon his throat, as he does not understand the language of power, the Lingua Franca called English.

He was not born a worker, as his family can pay his migration cost. He took on hard labor oriented work, as he wanted to support his father’s medical treatment. He can write, sing, act and draw, as he is a talent like any other white collar professional. Migrants are talented and have a lot to teach the dominant English speaking cultural elite.

The Idea behind the Entity

Mohsin arrived in Singapore over 27 years ago as a student, and is now a permanent resident. When he first came to Singapore, he began his activism unknowingly by writing letters for semi literate migrants from back home in Bangladesh in Bangla language and the address in English to help address their grievances. He slowly started writing letters in English to employers and authorities on behalf of the migrants in need. He felt the need of a Bengali language newspaper/magazine for the guest workers to get information in their own mother tongue, and hence started this community media initiative in 2006. Mohsin has activism in his veins, as his father was an esteemed language activist (a part of the 1952 Bangladeshi Bhasha Andolonor the Language Movement) who fought for the freedom of Bangladesh from the erstwhile colonial masters: Pakistan. He continues his father’s work in spirit and flesh, in Singapore after all these years.

Banglar Kantha is a platform for the voiceless migrant workers to find their own identity and exhibit their talents through performance and publication.  Over the last decade, Banglar Kantha has been catering to the guest worker population. Dibashram, it’s community platform has extended a cultural footing to the migrant worker, that has helped the unreached marginalized community far away from the mainstream conversation to engage in a dialogue with music, drama and poetry. Banglar Kantha has been involved in curating several cultural programs involving poetry, theatre, dance, music, photography etc. including the inaugural Migrant Worker Poetry Competition that was held in 2014 and the 2nd edition held in December 2015.

The Politics of NGO Land in Singapore

Singapore is known as a fountainhead of Asian Modernity with a cityscape worth envy. Singapore’s evidence based and data centric governance is known to be cutting edge and is not particularly well known for a vibrant civil society in the western media. But, contrary to media perceptions, Singapore has an active migrant NGO sphere with HOME, TWC2, HealthServe and others in the culture space often a viable proxy for an opposition to the Singaporean ruling dispensation: The People’s Action Party. Jolovan Wham, the Acting Executive Director of HOME, and Alex Au of TWC2 are known to publicly air sympathies for the opposition. The subalternity of the south Asian male migrant construction worker is capitalized by non-profits in Singapore to unnecessarily politicize the narrative. The Migrant Workers Centre, mildly aligned to the ruling dispensation has many initiatives to engage the migrant worker. The People’s Action Party is rather progressive than what the dominant narrative suggests.

These non-profits have in the past leaned on Mohsin’s skillsets to run their projects and programs. There are a number of new players in the migrant culture activist space including temporary guest workers themselves, mentored by Mohsin, who have currently gone entrepreneurial and have published their own books and performed at competitions, and civil society events. Some members of the cultural forum curated by Mohsin, now broken off from the mother NGO with the assistance of other ‘actors’ in the civil society to create ‘Bangladesh Literature Singapore’ and ‘Migrant Band Singapore’ tying up with the same non-profit who evicted Mohsin from his official workplace at Rowell Road in 2015. Opportunism often triumphs, national pride, as Mohsin is as much Bangladeshi as the temporary guest workers, albeit a Singaporean Permanent Resident.

As a lone champion, running the newspaper and the space has been a case study in tireless activism and devotion. Migrants from Bangladesh used to lack a place, which they could utilize for cultural pursuits, and Dibashram was the go-to spot. Initial run in conjunction with a local non-profit left Mohsin high and dry as he fell out of favor with them, and was evicted overnight. Dibashram operated out of open air and shared space in Little India for two months in 2015, until this area on Rowell Road was found. The rent is expensive for a single man whose only income source is newspaper revenue and has a five-member family to support. Mohsin still endures with the financial hardship although he had been assured of financial support by other prominent organizations including corporates, universities and individuals, which has not materialized apart from a crowdsourcing campaign which raised about SGD 7500 in April 2015 and a small amount donated by a High Net worth Individual earlier. Patron’s matter, if such initiatives have to survive way out in to the future. Banglar Kantha/Dibashram acts as a support system for the community through the newspaper, which is mostly distributed for free although it has a partly cover charge of one dollar, the price of a can of coke. The migrant worker still would not pay for it, as the coke satiates thirst.

Mohsin operates a bureau in Dhaka and prints his monthly paper in Dhaka and air ships it to Singapore every month. He has called out many unwieldy activities in his community such as Hawala, Bribery for jobs in Singapore running in to thousands of dollars per person and other scams. It has often landed him in deep trouble from more powerful interests in the Bangladeshi diaspora in Singapore including defamation suits. But, he has an unwavering resolve for Social Justice as he has worked on documentaries with Al Jazeera Global themed on the transnational circuits of migration traversing the Bay of Bengal from Bangladesh to South East Asia. He could have easily opened a restaurant and a food catering business and earned a lot more than running a community newspaper.

Conclusion

The political economy of the non-profit advocacy and development journalism intersecting in Banglar Kantha is an illustration of how independent platforms struggle in the era of fake news and alternative facts, while serving marginalized migrants who are disenfranchised in terms of language when they are injured and not paid for months. NGO land is often a market in itself with its own gatekeepers and mechanisms with NGO founders steeped in ‘White Man Savior Complex’. Due to the unique nature of Banglar Kantha’s mandate, it is not a registered non-profit. Even to register a non-profit, resources are required with money and skills to operate the non-profit. This ‘Chicken and Egg’ conundrum complicates this narrative. It takes a lot of sacrifice, commitment and effort to run a platform single handedly for a decade that serves the community.

Manishankar Prasad is an independent researcher and writer based in New Delhi, India


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