SINGAPORE — In dorms on Singapore’s fringes or employers’ backrooms, a growing number of migrant workers are using poetry to shed light on their hidden struggles and reconnect with their roots.
The tiny Southeast Asian nation of 5.6 million counts on about 1 million migrant workers from countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, China and Myanmar to fuel its powerhouse economy, working in sectors from construction to services and home help.
Although horrific labor abuse cases are rare in the rich city-state, campaigners say migrants grapple with unpaid salaries, having their travel documents withheld and massive debts racked up in fees they pay agents to get work.
Often tucked away in dormitories for foreign workers and only seen in public on Sundays, their day off, scores of migrants are writing poetry and short stories offering a rare insight into their little-known worlds.
“When I write, I am happy. When people read our work and accept us as human beings, we are happy,” Indonesian domestic worker Deni Apriyani told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Hailing from a sleepy village in Indonesia, 29-year-old Apriyani moved to Singapore in 2013 to become a domestic worker as she wanted to buy land for her father, a farmer, back home.
Working from dawn to dusk looking after an expatriate family, she started writing poetry on her mobile phone at the end of her 14-hour work day as an outlet for her frustration as she struggled to adjust to life in the new city.
Softly-spoken Apriyani won a poetry writing competition for migrants in 2017 and one of her poems was published in a book last year that brought together more than 60 works by Singaporean writers and migrant workers.
“You call them sluts, you call them useless, you call them shameful, but did you know the stories behind them?” she asked in the poem “Murderers,” which highlighted the stigma facing migrant workers who try to find love in the city.
The growing focus on writing by migrant workers began about five years ago with poetry contests organized by advocates that aimed to use literature to break down barriers between foreign workers and Singaporean society.
These competitions have now branched out to other parts of Asia that also rely heavily on migrant workers, including Malaysia and Taiwan.
In Singapore, their poems are found in bookshops and public libraries, with Bangladeshi construction worker Md Sharif Uddin’s “Stranger to Myself” winning the award for best non-fiction title at the prestigious Singapore Books Awards last year.
Stories of migrant workers are also gaining attention in other artistic formats.
“A Land Imagined,” an award-winning film about low-paid migrants in Singapore, was released domestically last month, with local critics hailing it as a “historic milestone in Singapore cinema.”
Singaporean author and poet Jamal Ismail said migrants’ unique experiences and work have enriched the island’s literary scene.
“They might not write beautifully but there is an abundance of humanism in them,” he said, during a workshop where he offered guidance to a group of migrant poets.
He recounted how he was struck by a poem by a migrant domestic worker who likened her life in the city to that of a cockroach, and another who told him she had not been paid for six months.
“They are marginalized and they feel lonely. When you’re lonely, that is when you reflect on what is the meaning of life? That is something they have that is so powerful,” he said.
Singapore’s government maintains migrant workers are well protected, and the country remains a popular destination for foreign laborers as they generally enjoy higher wages than in other parts of the region.
Sales of migrant workers’ books are low compared to more mainstream writers, but local publishers said their potential is enormous.
“They really struck a chord and there was empathy,” said Ng Kah Gay from Singapore’s Ethos Books, which in 2016 published “Me Migrant,” the city-state’s first book by a migrant laborer, Bangladesh’s Md Mukul Hossine, with 3,000 copies sold to date.
“Migrant workers are someone whom we’re so familiar with but sometimes we don’t see them, they are invisible. These books flesh out their lives for us to experience their emotions.”
“It’s so important for them to be seen not just as an economic machine but they have their own voice,” Ng said.
Goh Eck Kheng from Landmark Books, which has sold 700 copies of Uddin’s award-winning “Stranger to Myself” in two print runs so far, said literature gave migrant and local writers a platform to embrace each others’ work.
“In that way, literature is a social leveler,” Goh said.
‘Freedom of thought’
Translation is the main hurdle for the work of migrant poets to flourish according to Shivaji Das, an Indian-born writer who works in Singapore and has been organizing the annual migrant poetry writing competitions since 2014.
Scribbling on cement bags or tapping on their mobile phones after nightfall, workers usually write in native languages like Bengali, Indonesian or Chinese before their work is translated.
Publishers said migrant workers also have to compete for attention with a pool of emerging local and foreign writers.
But for many of the workers, writing merely is a way to ease their homesickness and document their lives in a different city — as well as a form of empowerment.
Fazley Elahi, a Bangladeshi worker who writes poems and set up Migrant Library Singapore a year ago, said reading and writing in his native language reconnects him to his roots after living away from home for a decade.
Manned by volunteers, the library has a collection of about 800 books in different languages that are common among migrant workers such as Bengali, Indonesian, Tagalog and Chinese.
It also holds writing workshops for aspiring writers and runs a mobile library project that goes to workers’ dorms.
In poetry, says Elahi, there are no limits to what he can say, which gives him a sense of liberation.
“It is the freedom of thought that we treasure,” said the 30-year-old.