I observe a lot of migrant related activity (if not activism) over the past one year in Singapore, with plenty of events, competitions and citizen centric engagements, which brings the migrant regularly back into the mainstream conversation. Most of these events are kind, create mini celebrities out of migrant brothers, who release books, music cds and perform in theatrical plays. We ‘like’ them on social media, sometimes without realizing that many of these brothers have attended college, and have been performing/published artistes back home. They are made migrants due to economic realities back home. I am fortunate to know them in person and are a delight interacting. They are also normal writers and artists who are innovative in plying their trade and have a day job to their bills. Many of the strategic diasporic elites do that too, right?
Language is the first barrier for a migrant as soon one lands up and clears passport control in an alien land. For a migrant from the hinterland of South Asia, English is familiar but not a friend; and English becomes a cultural resource, and a tool for survival.
The local variant of English makes the language known to the migrant familiar. ‘Singlish’ is a bridge between the local population and the migrant. I have met migrants who speak fluent ‘Singlish’ as having lived in the island for a long time. The lack of knowledge of the language, becomes a constraint in communicating with their bosses, public sector agencies and the wider community in their everyday life.
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 standing up to the unfair behaviour from the superiors.
The things that we take for granted such as writing a letter, is a matter of life and death for the migrant. Due to this communicative inequity, the worker’s contract is substituted 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.
I would like to illustrate a case in point, a migrant brother known as Sromik Monir, a poet with the Bengali Language Literary Group ‘Banglar Kantha Cultural Foundation’ communicates with his superiors and fellow workers in Chinese; the language which he had to learn upon landing in Singapore from Bangladesh as most of his fellow workers are from China.
There are Bangla to Chinese Language books available in the community grocery shops in the mini Bangladesh neighbourhood of Desker Road and Rowell Road. They call their all powerful Chinese bosses as ‘Long Chong’ which has entered the local lexicon of the migrant.
Banglar Kantha, the local Bengali Language newspaper in Singapore publishes a section in the paper on learning the English language. Singaporean Social Enterprise Social Development Initiative conducts English Language Classes for the migrant community. Other Non Profits/Faith Groups also conduct similar language classes for the respective community groups for migrants.
This will be thus truly, empowerment through language.
On the 12th of December, Poets, Actors and Playwrights from Malaysia and Singapore met at a fancy art gallery Blackbox Publika in tony Jalan Dutamas area in Kuala Lumpur to discuss the role of the arts to foster community and social engagement in the SG50 spirit. This Artsy day event was sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, Singapore and organized by My Performing Arts Agency, Malaysia and Culture-Link, Singapore. Bicara Titian Budaya is a part of three month Titian Budaya Festival ending in January 2016 to celebrate Singapore Malaysia Cultural Relations.
The daylong event began by the hotel pick up at Royale Chulian Damansara, an upscale star hotel where the panel speakers were put up at. After the drop in a 16 seater Toyota Van to Jalan Dutamas and being warmly welcomed by the organizers, the panellists were briefed and then the day was ready to kick off. The audience was small and intimate, the seminar room at Blackbox Publika was inhibited by cultural practitioners and activists.
The day started with an engaging single person play ‘Serunding’ enacted by Singaporean Actor Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit, written by young Singaporean playwright Ahmad Musta’ain Bin Khamis. It was the story of a Singaporean Malay Mother’s struggles with raising two grown up children in a religious manner. The play interrogated the role of cultural values in modern day Singaporean Malay families. A short but interesting Q&A followed regarding how the casting was done and the creative process behind naming the play Serunding.
A panel discussion on ‘Stories Without Borders’ followed with Singaporean Playwright Celine Wong, Singaporean Poet Gwee Li Sui, Malaysian Actor Jo Kukathas and Malay Language Writer Uthaya Sankar SB as panellists. This eclectic panel delved upon issues of limitations to their artwork. Malaysian Actor and Playwright Jo Kukathas
spoke about her inability to receive large arts funding as her Singaporean counterparts, which restricts her ability to focus on a long term agenda. Malay Writer of Indian decent Uthaya Sankar SB, spoke about how he was writing old and traditional Indian children stories in Bahasa Malaysia, which are reaching a wider audience within Malaysia. Singaporean Writer Gwee Li Sui touch upon something rather basic; the ability to churn out art that is authentic.
The day then moved to a short film ‘Beneath the Spikes’ produced by the RojaKrew Productions on a Father’s devotion to Lord Murugan observing the Hindu Festival of Thaipusam, in order to fulfil his vows when his son was saved. This emotional short film gave a glimpse of faith being practised in pragmatically oriented Singapore.
The second panel for the day was ‘A Socially-Engaged Generation’ with Singaporean Veteran Poet Alvin Tan, Malaysian Documentary Film maker Norhayati Kaprawi, Malaysia Cultural Activist Pauline Fan and Singapore National Arts Council Director Kenneth Kwok. The theme discussed in this session was focused on censorship.
The second and the last short film screening of the day was ‘Kuda Kepang: Reviving the Culture’, a short film on an ancient street drama art form which survives in Singapore amongst a minority in the Singaporean Malay Community.
The last panel discussion for the day was titled ‘Building New Hopes and Homes’ with Malaysian Social Activist Dr Hartini Zainuddin, Malaysian Community Arts Practitioner Liew Kung Yu, Singapore Post-Museum Curator Woon Tien Wei, Banglar Kantha Editor in Chief Mr AKM Mohsin and Banglar Kantha Contributor Manishankar Prasad. The Banglar Kantha Team delivered a short presentation on the culture and migration work in Singapore which AKM Mohsin facilitates.
This last session focused on the role of arts in the community and how art funders and their agenda’s potentially shape art.
The day event was a glimpse in to the cultural landscape in Singapore and Malaysia and how lessons can be shared across the straits. Art is a medium to discuss issues which are socially muted, and this event gave an opportunity to the arts fraternity to discuss issues which confront them.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Singapore on the 23rd November for a State Visit to Singapore in a longer follow up visit to earlier on this year when he visited the island city state to join other world leaders after the founding father of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew passed away. The general discourse around India-Singapore relations is a prosperous Singapore as an investor in a booming BRIC country market. This narrative driven by the business media is however under-nourished. The Singapore Model of Development pioneered by the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew which brought the city state global fame in transforming itself from ‘The Third World to First World’ has undoubtedly inspired the 100 Smart City program of the Modi Government. The new Greenfield capital of Andhra Pradesh: Amravati is being designed by Singaporean Urban Planners and has cemented the relationship of Singapore as a symbol of urban excellence1. Singapore is the largest source of Foreign Direct Investment in India2 and testament to this unique fact is the recent visit of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and a team of bankers including the Managing Director of the State Bank of India to lure institutional investors in to India. The commercial relationship is a deeply symbiotic one. State Bank of India and ICICI Bank along with others have retail banking licences in Singapore.
Many Indian Start Ups move to Singapore for easier access to capital and regulatory clarity. In the past Spice Group moved base to Singapore. Singaporean Water Technology Major Hyflux has picked up Desalination Projects in Modi’s Gujarat; Singaporean Banks and Sovereign Wealth Funds are increasing their investment footprint in India. Hyderabad based Environmental Infrastructure group Ramky maintains parking lots as a Facilities Management firm all over Singapore.
These examples are however fleeting reflection of the Singapore-India Relationship which shares a deep historical diasporic bond. Singapore is home to a large minority of people of Indian Decent with Deepawali a public holiday and Tamil an official language. There is a significant presence of minsters of Indian decent in the Singaporean Cabinet including Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanamugaratnam. The Indian expatriate community makes its presence felt from blue collared work to the heads of Multinational Corporations including the CEO of DBS Bank, Piyush Gupta, a former Indian National.
The truth is India does not give Singapore the same diplomatic attention as the USA, UK or Canada where there are similar large Indian diaspora communities. Singapore was the first country to embrace enthusiastically India’s ‘Look East Policy’ in the early 1990’s with then Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong visiting Narsimha Rao and his ministerial team.
Last week, the Chinese President visited Singapore to mark 25 years of diplomatic relations and signed a range of agreements including the third joint industrial park in western China and macroeconomic agreements3. Singapore is majority ethnic Chinese but its relationship with China is layered. Singapore has been an ally of the USA from the Cold War era and has hosted American Military Ships in the past. Pragmatic Singaporean policy has nurtured a close relationship with China from the 1970’s since Chairman Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore and opened up the economy after visiting it. The writer does not sense the same intensity in the relationship between India and Singapore at the diplomatic level. The gap however is more than adequately filled up by Indian community organizations and people to people contact. The same story is repeated in Oman, where I grew up.
The Narendra Modi visit has generated a lot of buzz among the Indian Community in Singapore, with community organizers taking the lead to arrange for the logistics for his ‘Madison Square Garden’ style address at the Singapore Expo4. However, only Indian Nationals are encouraged to attend the event as per media reports.
The major language in the Indian diaspora here in Singapore is Tamil and with Narendra Modi’s predisposition with Hindi, how much of it cut will ice with the same community that he is attempting to touch base with, is of question at the present juncture. There has also been a contradictory voice in the Singaporean media in the run up to the visit when Indian American Academic at the National University of Singapore Prof Mohan Jyoti Dutta wrote an opinion piece in the Straits Times on the contemporary politics of identity based on beef and the crackdown on activism in India in the present Modi regime5.
“The violence on the margins of Indian society is accompanied by the quick spread of a chilling climate, with a number of prominent rationalists being attacked and/or murdered, allegedly by right-wing religious groups.”
Increase the Soft Power Lens
Singapore is a major mercantile port hub in Asia and a few months back an Indian Coast Guard Vessel on a South East Asia goodwill tour docked at Changi Naval Base, with many of the young sailors in white seen shopping in the Little India Area in Singapore. India competes for influence in the South East Asia region with Asia, where China has a natural advantage with influential diaspora communities who are better connected to structures of power. India’s engagement with Singapore and the region is more effective at an informal business and community level. The overseas Indian Intelligentsia is based here in Singapore with plenty of think tanks at the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University focused on research themes based on India such as Institute of South Asian Studies. Thousands of Indian Students study in Singapore, and some of them will head back to India to work with the knowledge imbibed in Singapore. Indian Films and TV series have been shot in Singapore since the 1960’s including the Hrithik Roshan starrer ‘Krrish’ which had frames shot in the Business District in Singapore. Indian films both Tamil and Hindi are screened in theatres here as soon as they are released in India, and run to packed houses. The extent of cultural inter-weaving is dense, and the key pillar in the Singapore-India relationship.
The writer hopes that this state visit by Prime Minister Narendrabhai Damodardas Modi would take the Singapore-India Relationship deeper by engaging the non-elite diaspora who send back remittances and leveraging common areas of strength such as a shared understanding of culture missing from the realpolitik world of diplomacy.
- . http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/Singapore-replaces-Mauritius-as-top-source-of-FDI-in-India/articleshow/35590304.cms
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.
Today was an usual Sunday Afternoon. I woke up late, grabbed lunch at my local kopitiam mamak stall out of sheer hunger having skipped dinner last evening. The lunch plate is modelled on the banana leaf, on which ‘Sapaad’ or the lunch spread is served upon in southern India. The plate however, was a melamine one, and the fish curry and the fried fish was bleeding colourful. The gravy was on the rice, just as I like it. The fried papad was crunchy.
The Anna or elder brother (as i address him) who runs the Indian Muslim Mamak stall at the Block near to where I reside at Sunset Way, was over keen and served an additional portion of chicken which was not needed honestly. I had this meal with my favourite ginger tea and the Sunday Straits Times, eagerly checking whether I missed any story online, which is there in print.
After a late lunch, i took a cab to avoid the heat to Little India to a space which doubles up as the office of the only Bengali Newspaper in Singapore; Banglar Kantha and the Cultural Space for Migrants- Dibashram, which translates roughly translates to as the day shelter for migrants. The Editor in Chief of the Newspaper Mr. AKM Mohsin, is a community pioneer, leading many cultural initiatives for the Bangladeshi Migrant Worker Community in Singapore.
So, i walked up to his office located at a strategic intersection on Rowell Road in Little India area, located above a popular Indian Restaurant where I drink tea whenever I drop by this area. Mr. Mohsin had not arrived yet, so i wait for him while a couple of migrant workers play the harmonium and sing folk music loudly, all while i read Amit Chaudhuri’s ‘Calcutta’. Quite a combination and a prelude to the latter half of the day.
Mr. Mohsin walks in with Mr. Dewan Mizan, an art teacher and performing artist from Dhaka visiting the region on an exhibition tour. The artiste and a couple of others huddle up as they put together an exhibition of his sketches. The windows of the space converted in to an impromptu art gallery looked unique in a sultry afternoon
The plan was to perform art while a small skit was being performed by Bangladeshi Poets touching upon pressing issues faced by the Bangladeshi migrant. The Poets, enacted the skit in flesh and blood, with the flair of a professional, hardly revealing that they are battle hardened construction site engineers to boot. The emotional flair of oratory indicates a duality, typical of the migrant, who straddles multiple existences with ease.
It was surreal to experience the power of art, transform the ambience in an instant and bring out everyday issues in a silence shattering way.This initiative by Mr. Mohsin and Banglar Kantha/Bangladesh Centre Singapore/Dibashram is to be applauded as the event indeed was special.
I was on the introductory panel for the exhibition opening, explaining to the non Bengali speaking visitors in English. I believe though art transcends language, and the friends who did not understand Bangla, understood the vibe if not the precise content matter of the conversations.
Globalization has many downsides, but the confluence of migration narratives in an art form, certainly made my Sunday afternoon richer.
Yesterday, a new article post published on Huff Post titled ‘Singapore’s Heart Beats In Its Food Courts’ . Here is the link :
Happy Reading 🙂
“Have you eaten” or “Makan Sudah” in Bahasa Melayu is often heard from friends here in Singapore exemplifies the value of eating out to socialising and community building in Singapore. The cacophony of sounds from a smattering of Hokkein at the noodle soup hawker stall to Tamil and Urdu at the Indian Halal corner dishing out colourful rojak adds to the “Makan” or eating out culture which is central to the Singaporean ethos. A nation which is passionate about its food, takes eating out seriously as its running culture thanks to splendid NParks connectors.
A few weeks back Minister Mentor Lee passed away, and an entire nation grieved in collective consciousness. On the 29th of March i wrote on my Facebook Wall to capture the sentiment of the moment:
“Watching the State Funeral Service of Mr. Lee on Channel 8 (Chinese Language Station) in my packed local food court with kopitiam Aunties and Uncles whom I have known over years is a solemn occasion. Never felt so much a part of the community before. It is an inflection point and locus of convergence for the national ethos. A misty eyed rainy afternoon indeed. Farewell Mr. Lee #Sg #LKY”
“A full food court in standing ovation in mark a minutes silence with the National Pledge and Anthem was moving. National spirit is alive and kicking in this often chided concrete city where commerce takes precedence. Today is a different #Singapore .”
As the last line depicts, the food court plays a huge role as a common public space although intimate. This multi-racial society mingles and connects over Tiger Beer and Kopio in its food courts. In a busy city, where cooking the evening meal is an occasional chore, the Food Court plays a critical social lever in everyday lived experience.
Gluttons : Makansutra by the Bay, near the City Centre packages the food court in a very glam manner as does Kopitiam at the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, the upper social strata version though lacks the soul of Adam Road Hawker Center and its epic Mutton Soup or the Novena Food Court, which are social institutions of note.
All sorts of characters can be observed in this common place where all festivals and mundane evenings are panned out. The senses are overvelmed with the Chicken Rice and the Steam Boats and the energetic feel of a meal time.
The Kopitiam or the Food Court is a Singaporean Institution; with the qualities of the nation. Hygienic, Cost Conscious, Systemic and Multi-Cultural.
Now, Cheers over the Malted Beverage!
Welfare has unfortunately turned into an undesirable word in the political discourse from Delhi to Athens. The Greek public had an emphatic no vote to the EU Deal in terms of voting in the leftist Syriza. The Maverick Academic Finance Minister of Greece later had to tone down its rhetoric of leaving the EU. But, a bold voice never the less. A fresh breath in the hackneyed discussion. There are a few factors which brought Greece to its tether such as a huge bureaucracy but the structural transformation program (read brutal cost cutting) is simply humiliating for an ancient civilization. The Goldman Sachs instruments only added insult to injury. Since Narendra Modi’s BJP Government has come to power, Welfare has taken back seat. The Work for Employment Scheme aka MNREGA has been slashed as the Food Security Bill. While, Corporate Tax Holidays has increased in the words of Development Journalist P Sainath.
Even, the proposed projected 25.5 Billion Dollar outlay (Livemint, 27th March 2015) for the Universal Healthcare Plan in India on the lines of ObamaCare has been halted in the tracks. Billions of dollars can be spent for Defense and Tax Breaks but for treating a poor man for his heart ailment in a hospital is simply not worth it as is putting food on the table of the hungry, only to be feted by awards from the Davos Elite while sipping flutes of champagne. The AAP Victory is Delhi was a vote for welfare and compassionate capitalism where the urban poor in Mahipalpur near the airport wanted to have a voice in the discourse rather the chic GK’s, ironically both in South Delhi. I have very been pro welfare in stance since a while especially on Food Security in October 2013 when I came on Al Jazeera to make a moral case for Food Security. Welfare is often the last resort of the poor and, inefficiencies and pilferage in the political economy of service delivery should not be used as an excuse to snatch away access to basic health care from the marginalized and subaltern. The Indian State is often a far away entity to the common man on the street and a void is often filled by faith based or community organizations in healthcare. There is a point to start and then iterate with the mechanics but do not deny the facilities if proper service delivery mechanisms cannot be constructed and maintained. Building systems takes time and great systems such as the NHS in the UK and Social Security in the US have taken their own time. ObamaCare or The Affordable Care Act has brought in 16 million additional people healthcare solutions. In a recent Atlantic article it has been argued that the social security cover has made America more risk taking and entrepreneurial. In this years Budget, Singapore which has been a poster-boy of free-market capitalism in Asia has nudged to the left with increased social protection platforms for its poor. The media coverage in the Singaporean press has been covering a lot of social stories including migrant worker food issues and ways to get the urban poor at better shot at social mobility. A new social contract for a left leaning Global City as a recent Strait Times Op-Ed quipped, should be real cool.
It can be said that the author has had a comfortable upbringing and what do i know about being poor. It needs empathy as the Middle Class is three skipped mortgage payments away from developing a class consciousness. Ask about being very little money in my account and without work and I do know what it feels like in that desperate situation. Corporate Tax Breaks and access to state infrastructure to develop industry and then call for government to be not in the business of business is a flawed argument. A lot of corporate profits are cross subsidized by the state ask the Gulf Owned Air Carriers. Private profits are just but feeding a poor man is a waste of money?
Welfare with proper checks and balances creates a more equitable society over the long term. Lets create more humane communities, one neighborhood at a time. A policy push sets the direction, and welfare plays a major role.