Introduction

The last decade has attested
to an unprecedented surge of literary activities among migrant workers in
Singapore. In 2014, the first-of-a-kind Migrant Worker Poetry Competition was
pieced together, drawing 80 poems from construction and domestic workers of
diverse nationalities. 1
In the wake of this event, migrant workers’ literary talents were quickly
gaining broad attention, which has led to the publications of their anthology
of poems in relatively quick succession. The book Me Migrant (2016), penned by a Bangladeshi construction worker who
initially scrabbled his poetry on cement bags, was the first literary piece by
a migrant worker to be published by a local publishing house. Subsequent to Me Migrant, several other books composed
by migrant workers have also been put into circulation by Singaporean
publishers. These books include Migrant
Tales (2016), Stranger to Myself (2017)
and Songs from a Distance (2017).

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The arrival of migrant
writers at Singapore’s arts scene serves as a fecund ground for their collective
movement toward reshaping the discourse on migrant workers. Through literary
writings, these politically conscious ‘poets on permits’ set out to repudiate
and subvert the stereotypes attached to them and raise awareness of their
rights. However, with arts scene in Singapore being an intensively
state-regulated arena, writers of political literature who embed politics in
their work and do not comply with IMDA2
guidelines are censored and disciplined, resulting in increased fear of writing
(Robet, Tan Taen How, Ivan Heng, and Alvin Tan., 2015). This poses a menace to
migrant literary movement, more so because in this ‘police state,’ migrant
workers run the risk of being deported if their literary work is deemed
defamatory against the state or likely to incite political instability. The
current work permit scheme for semi and low-skilled migrant workers, in which
the government reserves the ultimate right to revoke migrant workers’ permits,
allows the State to do so (Yeo, 2014). Against such a backdrop, it is
interesting to find out the strategies that migrant writers devise in order to both
champion the rights of migrant workers and at the same time avert unwanted
consequences of their literary writing production.

The writing of this research
paper is motivated largely by the lacuna in academic literature on the analyses
of migrant literary writings. At a micro level of analysis, some scholars have
examined the growing number of migrant workers in Singapore who form a literary
community and write stories of themselves, as well as circulate their stories
through social media (Mintarsih, 2017). An abundance of analyses on migrant
literary writings swirl around the topics of migratory and diasporic
experiences, justice, identity, romance, and home. However, such academic work
is mainly clustered around the self-empowerment aspect of the production of
migrant literary writings (Murniati, 2017; Trisnawati et al., 2013). There is
still very little information that pertains to how migrant writers position
themselves amidst the soft authoritarian system of Singapore.

In this research, I employed
online ethnographic approach. I collected and interpreted data gathered from
online in-depth interviews with some published, award-winning authors who work
as migrant workers in construction and domestic spheres in Singapore, namely Wina,
Fedelis, and Hasan. I also gathered data from online news and my personal
observation. This paper aims to examine how migrant worker writers negotiate State
power in their production of literary writings in Singapore. This paper will be
organized along these lines: it comprises three analysis sections and a
conclusion. In the first section, I will shed some light on the political
consciousness of the migrant writers, which plays out in the production of
literary writings. Next, I will discuss the challenges facing these migrant
writers in respect with State power. Section three will provide some invaluable
insight into the various strategies that migrant writers have devised in order
to negotiate State power. I will end this paper with a brief conclusion, which
I hope will fill in the lacuna in academic literature on migrant worker
literary writings.

 

Migrant Workers and Becoming Political

            The prevailing discourse on migrant workers in Singapore
circulates around stereotypes that depict male migrant workers as rowdy,
alcoholic, uncivilized, and lecherous (Transient Workers Count Too, 2012) and female
domestic workers as uneducated, deceitful and promiscuous individuals (Human
Rights Watch, 2005). Mass media is responsible in this particular discursive
formation as too often they paint an incomplete picture of migrant workers. For
instance, cases involving domestic workers who murder their employers
invariably receive broad media coverage, but what lies at the roots of the
cases remain entirely undiscussed. On his Facebook post published on March 19,
2014, Jolovan Wham, a prominent, Singapore-based human rights and migrant
worker activist writes: 

A reporter from The
New Paper called me today regarding the alleged murder of yet another employer
by an Indonesian domestic worker. She was looking after an elderly woman. I
said poor working conditions, inadequate protection and weak social support are
some of the main factors to blame for this. I told him I strongly oppose calls
for mandatory psychological tests for domestic workers because it does not deal
with the real issues of exploitation, abuse and poor treatment. Moreover, it is
discriminatory and stigmatises domestic workers even further.

 

Wham points out not only
the persistent stigmatization of domestic workers but also the general failure
in understanding the roots of problems perpetrated by migrant workers. In
addition, the ‘Little India Riot’ that flared up in 2013, involving mostly
migrant workers of Indian and Bangladeshi origins, received both local and
global media coverage not because it caused significant damages, but because it
was an unusual happenstance of public disruption that was generally thought to
have been caused by the alcoholic drinking behaviors of migrant workers. The
incident prompted the government to enact a policy banning the consumption of any
alcoholic drinks from 10.30 p.m. to 7 a.m., with particular emphasis given in
Geyland and Little India areas as these places ‘tend to have a higher risk of
public disorder’ (Straits Times, 2015). Contrary to popular belief, Neo (2014)
argues that what lie at the heart of the riot are heaps of discontent and
frustration that low-paid migrant workers harbor. However, discussions on such issues
are almost nonexistent. As a result, these single-sided stories give rise to,
and also perpetuate, the stereotypes attached to migrant workers. It might have
been against such a backdrop that the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition (MWPC)
was, for the first time in Singapore history, put together in the year that
followed the riot; that is, to showcase migrant talents and give a voice to
this sizeable yet powerless and voiceless population of migrant workers in
Singapore.

It is only recently
that migrant worker writers in Singapore have come to band together in the
common cause to produce literary writings that are geared towards providing an
alternative discourse on migrant workers. Initially, migrant writers were
segregated along the lines of their national origins. Banglar Kantha, a literary community based in Little India, for
example, caters only to Indian and Bangladeshi migrants who seek to improve
their writing skills. In the same way, migrant workers of other national
origins cluster around their own communities. However, the advent of Migrant
Worker Poetry Competition in 2014 led to the convergence of migrant writers
from diverse nationalities, and it helped usher many considerable changes in
migrant literary movement. Wina, Fedelis, and Hasan, three migrant worker
writers interviewed in this research, are among those migrants who have paved
their way to Singapore literary scene. Wina, a widowed mother of one, came to
Singapore to work in domestic sector in 2004. She started her literary activity
in 2015 and joined the literary community Voice
of Singapore’s Invisible Hands between 2016 and 2017. Ever since, her
literary works have been featured in various migrant literary events and
competition, including Migrant Poetry Festival, Singapore Writers Festival,
Human Library, ‘Creating a Home away from Home’ (exhibition), and Migrant
Worker Poetry Competition. Fedelis, a Philippine domestic worker, has landed a
job as a domestic worker in Singapore since 2012. Unlike Wina, Fedelis had
deeply immersed herself in literature long before she came to work in
Singapore. Her poems have also been featured in the events and competition
mentioned earlier. Meanwhile, Hasan, a Bangladeshi construction worker, started
penning his poetry in 2011 in his literary circle Banglar Kantha but only came to bring his works to public attention
in 2013 through his Facebook account. In spite of the differences, these
migrant writers share some common grounds that help us understand the nature of
their literary activism. First and foremost, Wina, Fedelis, and Hasan have
managed to publish their literary works in Singapore. Both Wina and Fedelis are
contributing authors in the poetry anthology book Songs From A Distance (2017), which is the compilation of the
shortlisted and winning poems of Migrant Worker Poetry Competition 2015 and
2016. Meanwhile, Hasan’s work was also published in the same year under the
title Stranger to Myself: Diary of a
Bangladeshi in Singapore. Second, they joined Migrant Worker Poetry
Competition (MWPC), which was put together by an Indian consultant and activist
residing in Singapore, Shivaji Das. The latter is central to the analysis on
the former as it laid the foundation for the unprecedented representation of
migrant workers in Singapore literary scene.

The discourse on migrant
literary writings in Singapore, indeed, would be incomplete without a proper
discussion on MWPC, which made its debut in Singapore literary scene in 2014.

Not only was it the first nation-wide migrant literary event that brought
migrants’ literary talents to prominence, but it also awakened the political
and collective consciousness of migrant writers. To begin with, the
competition, in and of itself, could be rightly perceived as a literary
activism as it is steeped deeply in human rights and is concerned primarily
with the issues of the underrepresentation of migrant worker population. The
political concept forming the backbone of the competition was put succinctly by
Shivaji Das in an interview with the Jakarta Globe, in which he contended that,
“The idea is to let the wider
Singaporean society know about this unique aspect of the lives of foreign
workers, as the perception people have of them is mostly negative” (Das,
Shivaji, Jakarta Globe, 2014). What deserves a scrutiny is the close linkages
between the competition and the migrant writers’ abruptly increased awareness of their socio-political standing in the society, which is
reflected through a major transition in the themes and purposes of their
production of migrant literary writings in the state-island. In her more recent
poems, Fedelis often broaches topics that circulate around the issues of
foreign domestic workers (FDWs), such as the poem My Story, in which she deliberates on her abject condition at work
as she is deprived of the rights to communication and decent food by her
employer. Similarly, in her poem Missing
You, Wina laments over the working condition that renders her unable to do five-time
prayers. Meanwhile, Hasan dedicates some of his book chapters to the collective
attempt to raise awareness of migrant workers’ rights, such as Working Safely (2017: 45) and Illness and Work (2017:51), among
others. In the interviews, Wina states, “The themes that I wrote in the
beginning were life and nature, nothing other than those” (personal interview,
October 27, 2017) when describing her general poetry themes before she became a
part of MWPC. Likewise, Fedelis remarks, “My first purpose in writing poetry
is, it’s all about personal purposes” (personal interview, November 6, 2017).

She further captured her personal feelings and experiences of having to work
far away from her family in the Philippines. Echoing a similar idea, Hasan
(personal interview, October 31, 2017) shared that he took to poetry to express
how much he missed his family members and country. A markedly visible
transition in their literary themes ensued from their participation in the
annual MWPC. Fedelis declares, “Now my purpose in writing is to let
Singaporeans know that we, domestic workers, have a lot of skills” (personal
interview, November 6, 2017). Also, Hasan utters, “I hope through my works,
Singaporeans can understand about migrant workers’ lives and feelings”
(personal interview, October 31, 2017). Suffice it to say that there has been a
transition from ‘private’ to ‘public.’ In other words, the literary writings of
these migrant writers, which used to be a form of private enjoyment, are now
mainly tailored towards public consumption in order to effect a social change
towards migrant workers, by and large. Nevertheless, the fact that their
political and collective consciousness developed in the immediate wake of MWPC
begs a question: how did the competition incite and fan the flames of political
and collective consciousness of these migrant writers?

MWPC serves as more than a
mere competition; it also operates as a platform that provides space for the
finalists of the competition to pick up literary skills through the monthly
workshops conducted at Sing Lit Station, a Singapore-based non-governmental
literary organization. Apparently, these monthly workshops have allowed Wina,
Fedelis, Hasan, and other finalists of the competition to mingle, share their
vision, and most importantly, build a camaraderie under the banner ‘poetic
bonding.’ In fact, the phrase ‘poetic bonding’ has constantly appeared in a
series of their Facebook postings to describe their literary activities and
their common struggles. In addition, they occasionally put together poetry
reading events on rest days and give feedback on each other’s work. So
closely-knit have these migrant writers become that they begin to see themselves
as a family (personal interview, Fedelis, November 6, 2017). The co-operation
between MWPC and Sing Lit Station deserves our particular attention, more so
because the latter gives these migrant writers access to various learning
sources and a number of prominent literary activists in the country, who have also
acted as the workshop facilitators, such as Jon Gresham, Gwee Li Sui, Hao
Guang, Vanessa Lim, and Alvin Pang, among others. In addition, Wina, Fedelis,
and Hasan were also invited to participate in the writing competition ‘SingPoWriMo,’
or Singapore Poetry Writing Month, conducted by Sing Lit Station in a Facebook
Group ‘SingPoWriMo.’ In the competition, participants had to write a poem every
day throughout April, 2017. Although the competition is over, the group
continues to be a learning space for most former participants as they post
their poems to the groups and have them commented by other poets. Albeit
occasionally publishing their poems in the group, Wina, Fedelis, and Hasan tend
to be silent observers, either liking or giving reactions to almost every posting
and drawing insights from it. As such, it can be concluded that MWPC and Sing
Lit Station facilitate not only a convergence of migrant worker writers, which
allows for their collective consciousness to form, but also an integration with
the existing local literary community comprising critically acclaimed authors,
from whom they learn how to orient themselves to the local arts scene, and
specifically, about writing to voice out their concerns in the midst of
semi-authoritarian Singapore.

1 Winning poems from 1st
Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, available at http://www.todayonline.com/blogs/forartssake/winning-poems-1st-migrant-workers-poetry-competition

2 IMDA: Info-communications Media Development
Authority Singapore

 

Author