All of 5ft, 6 inches, Ramaswamy Madhavan looks unassuming. But as he begins to recite his poem, Empty World, one is drawn to his rich and resonant voice, eagerly telling his story—a story of struggle and existence in Singapore.

Madhavan, 28, originally from Tamil Nadu’s Karaikudi, is a site engineer at a construction firm in Singapore. Every day, after working for more than 10 hours, he returns to the room he shares with five others and sits down to write in Tamil. It is poetry that gives him solace, away from home and family—his farmer parents, three sisters and fiancée.

Like him, many migrant workers in Singapore have taken refuge in the written word. They highlight their daily lives of drudgery and the wrenching heartache of being away from home through their poetry. They publish memoirs, participate in literary workshops, win competitions and make short films inspired by their life experiences.

“Writing is cathartic to me. I write to express my pent-up emotions," says Madhavan as he fiddles with his phone, which stores about 100 poems he has written in his three yearsin Singapore.

Madhavan, who earns around $43 (around 3,060) a day, is one of 972,600 lower-skilled and low-wage migrant workers with work permits in Singapore, according to Singapore’s ministry of manpower. Dressed in high-visibility vests, mud-stained trousers, rugged boots and white helmets, migrant workers can be spotted everywhere in this ever-expanding city, but not many Singaporeans and expats interact with them.

Ramaswamy Madhavan and local poet and playwright Nabilah Said with copies of ‘Call And Response’.
Ramaswamy Madhavan and local poet and playwright Nabilah Said with copies of ‘Call And Response’.

Besides India, there are workers from Bangladesh, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar, who are employed at Singapore’s construction sites, in the marine sector and at people’s homes. They arrive believing Singapore to be a city of dreams, but soon encounter the harsh reality.

Foreign workers have to grapple with exorbitant recruitment fees to agents, non-payment and underpayment of salary, lack of contracts or employment terms, injury, lack of medical care, forced repatriation and premature termination, says Debbie Fordyce, president of the Singapore-based non-governmental organization Transient Workers Count Too.

The ministry of manpower’s June report, however, claimed foreign workers were satisfied with their working conditions. A spokesperson for the ministry declined to comment on the problems of migrant workers.

But their voices are now finding an outlet. Shivaji Das, a Singaporean writer-photographer of Indian origin, started the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2014 with a few others. “After listening to their poetry, many people, in a condescending tone, have told me, ‘I didn’t know migrant workers have such sophisticated thoughts,’" he says.

Many cases of abuse or negligence have been reported in this city state. In early August, a Singaporean woman was sentenced to 11 years in jail for physically abusing an Indonesian domestic worker, who was hit with a hammer, stone pestle and bamboo pole. In March, a Singaporean couple was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for caning their foreign domestic helper. In 2017, a Bangladeshi worker died after falling off the edge of a building at a construction site.

Migrant workers generally earn $13-57 for 10-12 hours of work. Sometimes, they work for three months at a stretch. Some workers can afford to visit their homes only once in three-four years. Male workers live in cramped dormitories. Women, most of whom are domestic workers, live with the families they work for. “Many employers of both domestic and construction workers take away mobile phones and confiscate passports too," says Md Sharif Uddin, an author whose memoir of living as a migrant worker in Singapore won the Best Non-Fiction Title at the Singapore Book Awards last year. Stranger To Myself (2017), which also has a collection of his poems, talks about inhumane working conditions and his longing for home.

Migrant workers taking a break in the central business district.
Migrant workers taking a break in the central business district. (Photo: Reuters)

The stories that don’t make news are narrated by migrant workers themselves. Madhavan, with Zakir Hossain Khokan—a TEDxSingapore speaker who encourages migrant workers to be vocal about their problems through art and literature—has just wrapped up production of their short film, Salary Day. It highlights how a worker’s meagre monthly salary of SGD$450 (around 23,000) finishes on the first day itself after he pays off debts, buys basic necessities and sends some money home.

Another Indian worker, N. Rengarajan, in his poem Life Overseas: Pluses And Minuses (originally written in Tamil), narrates what it is like to live in a foreign land where they can “buy everything that has a price" but not “love and affection". Thirty women domestic workers have penned down their experiences in a book, Our Homes, Our Stories, released in 2018.

Sherwin Mendoza of De Anza College in California, in his paper Singapore’s Migrant Worker Poetry, Worker Resistance, And International Solidarity, released in July, writes that such poems are part of the “broad continuum of working-class poetry".

For Rengarajan, the 33-year-old from Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai who has been working in Singapore since 2014—first as a construction worker and now as a supervisor—poetry “fills the vacuum" in his life. “I write even in my sleep," laughs Rengarajan, who won the third prize in the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2014 for Lessons From Circumstances.

For Khokan, 41, winner of the 2014 competition, poetry “soothes and enriches" the soul. Indonesian domestic worker Deni Apriyani, 29, who won the same competition in 2017 for her poem Further Away, says writing gives her “a sense of liberation".

Yeo Siew Hua, the Singaporean director of A Land Imagined, a film on migrant workers in the city state, says film and literature help create awareness of injustice.

Some Singapore-based independent publishers, such as Math Paper Press, Landmark Books and Ethos Books, have released anthologies and books carrying translated versions of the poems as well as memoirs written by the migrant workers in their mother tongues. Their aim is to nurture these voices in the growing literary community in Singapore.

Locals have started helping migrant workers to get their voices heard. A Bengali paper, Banglar Kantha, has reserved space for Bangladeshi workers-turned-poets to showcase their literary work, while a cultural space called Dibashram has come up in Little India, a migrant-worker dominated area, to showcase their music and poetry. Sing Lit Station, a non-profit literary group, conducts writing workshops for migrant workers.

In this nanny state which keeps a strict vigil on its people, migrant workers often “self-censor" their poetry. “They haven’t written as much on issues such as work-injury related claims and employer apathy. They fear that if they write about these issues, they will be sent back home," says Das. Starvation, penury and death, however, are often addressed in poems.

Filipina worker-turned-poet Rolinda Onates Espanola, in her poem My Story, which won the 2016 Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, highlights the torture of domestic worker Thelma Oyasan Gawidan by her employers. The employers were eventually convicted and jailed in 2017.

It reads: Not allowed handphone not allowed to bathe every day even brushing teeth too/ Can’t talk to anybody not even to my fellow Filipino/ Worst to my disgrace, noodles and slices of bread is my only sustenance.

Sharif Uddin writes about an Indian construction worker, Velu, who was knocked down by a bus in 2013, in Velu And A History: Look, there Velu goes with empty hands/ while Development, Progress, Civilization laughs.

In an untitled poem, Madhavan writes about how migrant workers sell everything to come to work in Singapore.

A migrant workers’ centre in Singapore.
A migrant workers’ centre in Singapore. (Photo: Reuters)

Sold off agricultural land/ Left the farming job/ Stepped on to the aeroplane and landed in another land/ Woke up early morning and hurried to shed the tears/blood.

A graduate in civil engineering from Chennai’s Sree Sastha Institute of Engineering and Technology, Madhavan would have stayed back in India if job prospects had been better. He began penning his thoughts, and months after arriving in Singapore in 2016, submitted a poem on food scarcity, titled Offering To God, to Das’ poetry competition. Shortlisted as among the best 12 entries, it motivated him to write more. His poem Empty World, on his desire to meet his fiancée, featured in an anthology of poems called Call And Response, published by Math Paper Press, in which 30 migrant poets paired with local writers last year.

Select publishers may have provided space to such workers but writer Cyril Wong is doubtful if mainstream publishers would take a chance on the work of migrant workers not writing in English. “It would take forever for any migrant worker to gain enough social and cultural traction in order to penetrate mainstream writing. Which migrant worker has the time to gain such traction?" asks Wong, who helped Bangladeshi migrant-worker poet Md Mukul Hossine “transcreate" his book of poems, Me Migrant, in 2016

Indeed, writing comes to them only after a day’s hard work, when they are travelling back to their residences in the empty MRT, bus or company van.

Singaporean film-maker Upneet Kaur-Nagpal, who made the documentary Poets On Permits (2017), featuring five workers-turned-poets, says the conversation about migrant workers is growing, but it still lacks empathy. They are individuals with “dreams, aspirations, joys and fears, familiar to all of us", she adds.

It’s a long haul but the poetry competition has given them recognition, says Madhavan. “Because of our literary accomplishments showcased at the competition, we have made a place in the heart of a few locals," he says. “Sometimes, when we eat our lunch at food courts, locals smile at us and say makan well (meaning “eat well" in Malay)."

One of their biggest dreams is to go back home—but they often feel they have no choice. “My family takes lot of pride that I live in Singapore. It is difficult to explain to them my condition here," says Sharif Uddin, who has been home only four times in 11 years.

Sometimes, huge debts back home tie them to the jobs forever.

And there is never enough money, as Rengarajan writes in his poem Money: A peculiar disease/ The world’s deadliest afflictions/ cancer, AIDS, ebola/ even love/kill by their presence./ Money alone kills by absence.

Madhavan, however, is looking forward to going home in November for his wedding and saving enough to bring his wife along. For home is where there is hope—“a hope for a new beginning".

Sonia Sarkar is a journalist covering South and South-East Asia.

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