Two Bangladeshi migrant workers and an Indonesian domestic worker nabbed the top three prizes at the finals of the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition held at the National Library on Sunday.
38-year-old Zakir Hossain Khokon won the top spot, an honour he had also received in 2014 at the inaugural Migrant Worker Poetry Competition. His poem, entitled "I am sorry", dealt with the often-invisible emotions of a migrant worker leaving his home and his family to work in a foreign land.
Themes of isolation and longing emerged in several of the 14 poems recited by the finalists. Runner-up Mohor Khan's poem "Lamp Post" dealt with the pain of being distant from his family in Bangladesh while working on construction sites in Singapore.
"Day after day I labour / Layers of this city are infused / With the salty smell of my sweat," he recited in Bengali to a packed room, going on to lament the opportunity to witness his son's childhood years.
The third prize went to Sharasyamsi Yahya, who wowed the room with a powerful performance of her poem "You" in Bahasa Indonesia.
"I saw online that they allowed us to submit in any language so I wrote down what came to my mind about a person who has been very supportive of me," she told TOC of her poem at the end of the night.
Other participants recited their poems in Tamil, Punjabi, Mandarin and English – a big change from last year's edition, which only accepted entries in Tamil and Bengali. Poems covered not only homesickness and alienation, but also subjects like the innocence of childhood and female foeticide in India.
The poems were judged by local poets Alvin Pang and Kirpal Singh, and translator and former reporter Goh Beng Choo.
Shivaji Das, who led the organisation of the competition with the support of Bengali newspaper Banglar Kantha, said that they received 74 entries this year, with women making up 65 per cent of the participants. Half of the entries were received within the first two days of the competition opening.
"This is more than a competition," he said to the finalists. "This is a platform to celebrate your talent."
"With this competition, we show that migrant workers are not separate from society," Zakir Hossain Khokon told TOC. "We have talent, poetry. Now Singaporeans are thinking differently about us. We're not just doing 'dirty work' in the country; we are thinking differently about society. The poems show that we don't just sit and miss our families, we are thinking about society and we have different thoughts about Singapore."