Singapore’s migrant worker poets

On 13 December 2015, the 14 shortlisted finalists of Singapores second Migrant Worker Poetry Competition 2015 will read their poems in 7 languages at the National Library.

In Singapore, many blue-collar migrant workers still face discrimination and lack of integration with the local community — but for the past 2 years, a poetry competition has been steadily breaking new ground.

Last year, Singapore’s inaugural Migrant Worker Poetry Competition was organised by TWC2 volunteer Shivaji Das and AKM Mohsin from Banglar Kantha, a newspaper for the Bangladeshi community.

The competition started small, only accepting submissions from Tamil- and Bengali-speaking migrant workers here; nevertheless, that garnered both local and international media attention, including reports from The Jakarta Globe and Qatar Tribune.

From a shortlist of 10 poems, judges Alvin Pang, Kirpal Singh and Shobina Suja awarded the top three prizes to Zakir Hussain Khokhon’s “Pocket 2”, Rajib Shil Jibon’s “Shades Of Light And Dark” and N Rengarajan’s “Lessons From Circumstances”.

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Back in November 2014, judge Alvin Pang described the reading by the 10 finalists as “comfortably one of the best readings I’ve attended all year… including the Singapore Writers Fest gigs”. He added that he was “crossing his fingers that the poets take part at next year’s [SWF] edition.”

Pang’s wish came true this year, no doubt aided by the hard work of Pang himself, Shivaji Das and AKM Mohsin who facilitated the “Among Us: Migrant Worker Poets” SWF session on 8 November 2015.

This was a cosy affair, with Monir Ahmod, Kazi Shihab Uddin Liton, Syedur Rahman Liton, Azizul Haque Khan Mohar and Moh Jahangir Alam Babu reading their poetry to over a hundred people (many of whom were seated on the floor) at the Arts House on a Sunday afternoon. The poets read in Bengali, while their translated work was simultaneously shown on the screen behind them.

They told stories shaped by their particular experiences as migrant workers in Singapore — which were also stories of the shared human experience of loss and desire, belonging and displacement, dreams, awareness of the passing of time.

It was a story too of their lives in this city, a place foreign to them yet one they know so intimately, having toiled in the heat to build houses and roads, or tunnelled far below to lay MRT tracks and structures.

But it was not just its content that was riveting. The poetry was masterful also for the writers’ skill and rich literary heritage. During the Q&A, organiser and translator Shivaji Das told the audience that though he was a native Bengali speaker, the writers’ language was often so sophisticated that he was sometimes only familiar with half the vocabulary used. Judge Alvin Pang also pointed to the rich literary culture these writers are familiar with, calling on more Singaporeans to “learn from these rich traditions in our midst”.

Plans for the future

While last year’s Migrant Worker Poetry Competition targeted the predominantly male Tamil- and Bengali-speaking community, this year the organisers expanded their reach, accepting entries in Tagalog, Bahasa Indonesia, Bengali, Punjabi and others. Also significant is that along with a sharp increase in the number of participants, 65% of the 2015 entries are from women.

Explaining their outreach in an email interview, organiser Shivaji Das said: “We worked with various organizations e.g. HOME and Healthserve for Chinese workers, TWC2 and Indonesia Family Network (IFN) for Indonesians (mostly female domestic workers), Aidha and Philippines embassy for Filipinos (both domestic workers and nurses), and for Bangladeshis, we continued to work with Banglar Kantha.”

“Social media (mostly Facebook, Weibo) has been an important component of our efforts and is being highlighted as a case study by a recent UNESCO paper on using digital media to promote culture. The migrant workers are very active on Facebook and Weibo/ Wechat (for Chinese workers) and posts by the organisations mentioned above got a very enthusiastic response. As for the Punjabi entries, they have perhaps heard it by word-of-mouth or social media.”

He also elaborated on the growing international recognition for such events, including how Singapore’s organisers conducted two similar events in Kuala Lumpur this year. They also have links with the migrant workers in Kuwait who have formed their own literary club, and in Shanghai, where the local government organised a similar competition in 2014.

Local recognition is also growing, with the 2014 competition winner Zakir Hossain Khokon asked to speak at this year’s TEDxSingapore “The Undiscovered Country”.

There are many aims of this poetry competition, such as to celebrate and showcase the literary talents of migrant workers in Singapore, to provide a platform for their expression, and to remind the larger community that they are not just “migrant workers” but fellow human beings.

For Shivaji Das, there is also a practical aspect to this. “Migrant workers often face problems with their accommodation, the quality of their food… Some 500 to 2000 workers in Singapore may get injured and are in legal limbo. Can this raise awareness of their situation? Can there be tangible improvement to their situation?”

During the “Among Us: Migrant Worker Poets” SWF session, some audience members asked for the writers’ reactions to Singapore’s Liquor Bill, and their motivations for coming here to work. Many questions from the audience were unrelated to writing; it seemed as if it was their first time speaking directly with migrant workers.

This highlights just how separate the local and migrant population are from each other in Singapore — and just how important and multi-faceted such a poetry reading can be. Much more is needed. This is just the beginning.

On 13 December 2015 (Sunday), 6:45 PM, the 14 shortlisted finalists of the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition 2015 will read their poems in 7 languages at the National Library (Possibility Room – Level 5). The judges are Alvin Pang, Kirpal Singh, Goh Beng Choo, Yu Yan Chen, Gopika Jadeja, Looi Siew Teip, Shane Carreon. This competition was organised by Shivaji Das, assisted by volunteers AKM Mohsin, Vishal Daryanomel, Noreen, Yu Ting, Gopika Jadeja, Yolanda Yu, Charmaine Poh and others. More details here: