ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronEye IconIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailMenu BurgerPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon SearchSite TitleTitle ChevronIcon Twitter
Tea Leaves

Singapore reaps literary dividend from migrant culture

Island state's 'temporary' workers use creative talents to transcend labels and boundaries

MD Sharif Uddin, author of the prizewinning memoir ‘Stranger to Myself’ and a finalist in the 2018 migrant worker poetry award (Photo by Peter Guest)

Of the 30 people who share MD Sharif Uddin's workers' barracks in Singapore, only a handful know that he writes. Uddin, who owned a bookshop in Bangladesh, moved to Singapore in 2008 to join the many thousands of his countrymen who come to the city-state to work in the construction sector -- paying $10,000 to an agent for the privilege.

But then, his memoir of a decade on building sites and in barrack rooms, "Stranger To Myself," recently won the non-fiction category in the Singapore Book Awards. It is a chronicle of the strange duality of the life of a migrant construction worker, building the city's skyscrapers and train lines without ever being considered a part of its social fabric.

"I decided to write this to let Singaporeans know that this country did not change overnight. It was not a miracle. There are people behind [the buildings and infrastructure], and people should know their story," he explained.

Uddin was one of 20 finalists in Singapore's fifth migrant worker poetry competition, held in December at the National Gallery. The event, initiated by Indian-born writer Shivaji Das, offers a rare platform for a segment of society whose voices are rarely amplified, in a country where their presence remains the subject of intense debate.

Singapore, perhaps more than any other country in Asia, leans heavily on migrant labor. There are 965,000 people on work permits, the visa category issued to low-wage workers. That number incorporates nearly 250,000 domestic workers and 285,000 working in construction. They make up 17% of the population and more than a quarter of the workforce. As Singaporean society ages, that proportion will inevitably increase.

Sugiarti Mustiarjo, winner of the 2018 migrant worker poetry awards

In the main, the individuals who make up this population find themselves constrained by the labels attached to them. More than any other segment of society, they are defined by their jobs. Their contracts are typically highly restrictive, binding them to an agency or employer and to low-paying lines of work.

In Singapore, where the doctrine of meritocracy is often interpreted as a license to equate personal value with net worth, and where education and job titles hold powerful associations, the labels "construction worker" or "helper" -- the euphemistic term used for women in domestic service -- translate into assumptions about migrants' motivations and capabilities.

At the same time, their transience denies them the right to reply. Even though some migrant workers spend decades in Singapore, sometimes working for generations of the same family, they are always temporary in the eyes of the host society. Their contract with Singapore is straightforward -- work, then leave.

Hou Wei, who writes classical Chinese poetry and was a finalist in the 2018 migrant worker poetry awards 

That contract, along with preconceptions about migrant workers, denies them individual identities -- and the space for a creative life. Platforms like the migrant poetry competition go some way to addressing that.

For some people, writing is an act of catharsis that provides relief from working conditions that can be challenging, or even abusive. In the run-up to the competition, I met migrants who came to poetry as therapy, in programs offered at shelters such as that run by the Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics, a Singaporean nongovernmental organization.

For most, though, art and literature are not about politics, or a desire to criticize their employers or host country; they reflect the human need to express and explain, to share experiences and to exist outside the narrow definitions that society imposes.

Among the finalists were Hou Wei, who writes classical Chinese poetry to relax; Ramasamy Madhavan, a poet and aspiring film maker whose work flirts with dark and difficult subjects; Menik Sri Suyati, an accomplished singer of Indonesian Dangdut music; and Shy Lhen Esposo, who told me with anxious defiance that she has chosen erotica as an art form -- ang mo (white people) are allowed to, so why shouldn't she?

Erotica writer Shy Lhen Esposo, finalist in the 2018 migrant worker poetry awards

Sugiarti Mustiarjo, who won the competition with a powerful piece about sexual abuse, told me: "It's a way to tell people that we are somebody else. We're not just workers. There's something else behind the work permit -- there's a writer, there's a singer."

The experiences that these writers from migrant communities share through their work are becoming universal. Transient work of all kinds is a permanent feature of societies throughout the world, and is likely to spread with technological and demographic shifts.

My own labels afford me enormous privilege. I am white, university-educated and working in a profession that affords a degree of status; therefore I'm an "expat" in Singapore rather than a migrant; I'm not a transient worker, I'm a "digital nomad." But it is impossible not to feel the resonance of these shared experiences -- the sadness that grows over distances and borders; homesickness; the strange joys of lives lived in two places at once. This is poetry that transcends labels and boundaries; it deserves to be seen and heard.

Peter Guest is a Singapore-based writer.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia;
the most dynamic market in the world.

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Get Unlimited access

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most
dynamic market in the world
.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends May 26th

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to the Nikkei Asian Review has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media