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Singapore’s lonely poets: migrant workers who feel excluded find their voice through writing, as new documentary shows

With few friends and little connection to locals, people like Zhang Haitao are expressing their feelings through poetry and writing, captured in Singaporean filmmaker Upneet Kaur-Nagpal’s documentary Poets on Permits

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 November, 2017, 7:48am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 November, 2017, 7:39pm

Zhang Haitao is 3,800 kilometres from home. Four years ago, he left his family and friends behind in Baoji city, in central China’s Shaanxi province, to become a migrant worker in Singapore. He was only 22 years old when he arrived, and has spent much of his time in the city battling loneliness and social isolation.

Feeling invisible and out of the loop in the city of 5.6 million people, the softly spoken Zhang turned to poetry. His words speak volumes about his life as a migrant worker – feeling like an outsider in the wealthy and socially insular Lion City.

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“I actually like the company I work for,” says Zhang, who repairs and maintains machines on an assembly line for one of the world’s largest consumer technology manufacturers. He works 12-hour days on a rolling shift.

“My bosses take care of me well, and they’ve provided me with many opportunities to learn. It’s the dullness of living here that has been most difficult. There is very little connection that we as outsiders can make with the locals, and sometimes, people discriminate against migrant workers from specific countries.”

Zhang says that after four years in the country, he still has no Singaporean friends, only colleagues. It is his job that keeps him in the city state.

“Back in my country, I studied electrical engineering and automation in college. Then when I graduated, it was very difficult to find a job that corresponded to my major,” Zhang says, pointing out that about 6.8 million people graduate from university every year in China. “Then my teacher suggested that I try to find a job in Singapore.”

About one in four people – roughly 1.4 million – is classed as a foreign worker in Singapore, most of whom are manual labourers. They account for most of the jobs in Singapore’s construction, domestic help and manufacturing sectors.

“Since I work a rotating shift, sometimes I have trouble sleeping. At midnight, I think about how far I am from my hometown and my parents. How I have very few friends to talk with. So, I decided to write some poems,” Zhang says.

One of those poems, titled Night Elegy, is featured in a 25-minute documentary, Poets on Permits, directed by Singaporean filmmaker Upneet Kaur-Nagpal. The film focuses on five migrant workers, from China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India and the Philippines – each an alumnus of the Migrant Workers Poetry Competition held annually in Singapore.

The film explores pertinent questions about the meaning of home and the search for belonging in a foreign country. It offers a glimpse into the workers’ lives and how they see themselves in Singaporean society, highlighting how they long for the lives they once knew back home.

“When we come to Singapore, we are issued a work permit. Having this work permit also means one is labelled as a migrant worker here,” Zhang says in the documentary. “So there is a certain distance between my life and that of any other Singaporean. We are a body and they are a body. I believe there is very little interaction between those two bodies.”

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Kaur-Nagpal, an ethnic Indian who was born and raised in Singapore, says it was this divide that compelled her to make the film.

“I’ve always been interested in migrant workers’ stories in Singapore because it’s kind of shooed away from the mainstream media,” says the filmmaker, who was at last month’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, Indonesia, for a screening of the documentary.

“Our society doesn’t like to talk about them. Yet these are the people who are also the foundation of our country. Migrant workers build our houses, take care of our children and make things that we use or consume on a daily basis. They’re doing major work, yet society overlooks them.”

The workers are in fear of losing their jobs, so many of them are afraid to express themselves openly. It’s important to have an alternative way, like writing
Luke Tan

Despite the large number of migrant workers in Singapore, they are almost invisible, she adds.

“They come in quietly by the busload, they do their jobs and then they leave. Nobody knows who they are. In fact it’s not rare to see some Singaporeans who, for some reason, feel affected by their presence. Some people are a bit judgmental about, for instance, sharing spaces with migrant workers, or standing next to a migrant worker who has been working in the sun. It really bothered me.”

Kaur-Nagpal says that by sharing their experiences in the documentary, the participants allowed her to present migrant workers in a different light.

“I wanted to share their stories, but I didn’t want a top-down approach. I didn’t want to put them in a position of vulnerability. I wanted to show their stories in a way that’s empowering for them. So these poems are remarkable, not only because of the content and poetic flair, but also what they told about the person who wrote them.”

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Luke Tan, operations manager for the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) – a charity that helps migrant workers in the city – says many don’t feel they have a voice in society.

“Migrant workers coming to Singapore have to pay a lot of agency fees, which often means that they incur a lot of debt. Once they’ve arrived, we sometimes find cases where the workers have been threatened by their employers so as not to ‘cause trouble’ or not to talk too much,” Tan says.

“The workers are in fear of losing their jobs, so many of them are afraid to express themselves openly. It’s important to have an alternative way, like writing, to allow them to express their feelings.”

Home’s migrant worker shelter and Sunday Academy have for years included creative writing workshops and art therapy in their programmes. They are aimed at helping migrants deal with anxiety, stress or, in some cases, severe trauma.

Based on Home’s findings, migrant workers in Singapore are at greater risk of developing mental health problems than the general population.

I’ve always been interested in migrant workers’ stories in Singapore because it’s kind of shooed away from the mainstream media
Upneet Kaur-Nagpal

In the case of foreign domestic helpers, a 2015 survey by the charity found that 24 per cent of domestic workers interviewed suffered from poor mental health. The most common symptoms brought to light were “depression” and “interpersonal sensitivity”, which includes feelings of inadequacy and inferiority.

Home has found that encouraging foreign workers to share their stories through writing, including poetry, can help them deal with their feelings. The charity shares their writings on its blog, called “My Voice”, in the hope it will create awareness about issues foreign workers face.

The report concluded that a stable social network and perceived sense of integration in the workplace were among the most crucial factors that would contribute to a migrant worker’s healthy mental state.

According to Tan, the government could do more to help them integrate better into Singaporean society.

“We do see the Ministry of Manpower … trying to educate the foreign workers to have a better understanding of the culture in Singapore. But on the other hand, the government also discourages workers from stepping outside of their dormitories or communities, especially since the Little India riot,” he says.

It’s the dullness of living here that has been most difficult
Zhang Haitao

In 2013, about 300 migrant workers were involved in a riot in Singapore’s Little India district, after an Indian migrant worker was killed in a traffic accident. During the melee, 25 emergency vehicles were damaged and dozens of police officers injured.

“Many workers’ dormitories are located far out of town, and the government encourages employers to organise community activities for the workers in the dormitory to keep them from gathering in the town,” Tan says. This only worsens the sense of division they feel, he adds.

Zhang thinks migrant workers like him would feel more at home if they were presented with opportunities to socialise with local Singaporeans. “Especially during the holidays. I want to do that, but I don’t know where to start,” he says.

Until that happens, Zhang says he will just keep to himself and stick to his poetry. “I have arranged a collection of poetry about my Singapore life. I use poems to express my thoughts about what I’m experiencing here, but a lot of them are also about current news in Singapore,” he says.

“For example, when the former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, passed away, I wrote a poem dedicated to him. Even though I am not a Singaporean, I still wanted to express my respect for the late prime minister.”