Migrant Life Told Through Verse

Banglar Kantha is Singapore’s only Bangladeshi newspaper, and it is a primary news source for island’s 160,000 Bangladeshi migrant population, most of whom are construction workers. Its title translates to ‘the voice of Bengal’, and this was exactly what the founder, BKM Mohsin, wanted to provide for his fellow Bangladeshis.  “Migrants—they don’t have a voice; they don’t have any platform; they don’t have any spokesperson,” Mohsin explained.

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Naive L. Gascon from the Philippines recites her poem, ‘And Again’, at the 2017 Migrant Worker Poetry Competition. Source: Straits Times.

Fortunately, there have been advancements for the country’s migrant workers since Moshin founded Banglar Kantha in 2005. Through the growth of social networking platforms and outreach programs, the migrant worker community is more connected and proactive than ever before. Migrant workers, domestic workers and laborers alike, have created plays, bands, and most notably, increased their expression through verse by creating original poetry.

Construction worker Md Mukul Hossine began this poetry movement in 2014 somewhat casually when, on bags of cement, he started scribbling words, phrases, verses, and eventually poems. After a long day of work in the sweltering heat, he returned home to spend hours late at night working on his poetry. When he first moved to Singapore, poetry was his only method to cope with his often uncomfortable, homesick, and even miserable situation.

Despite his initial aversions, Hossine slowly grew to like Singapore, especially after he began to write poems for Banglar Kantha and to attend local literary events. That same year, Hossine took part in the first Singapore Migrant Workers Poetry Competition. One of the poems he had written was titled ‘Me, Migrant’. In it, he wrote of the pains he faced as a migrant worker and outsider to Singaporean society.

Because of the friendships and connections he made with Singaporeans at literary events, Hossine was put in contact with Ethos publisher Mr. Fong in 2015 and asked him to consider publishing a book of poems. In 2016, Mukul Hossine’s book titled  ‘Me, Migrant’ became the first locally published book by a migrant worker.

Since the highly publicized debut of ‘Me, Migrant’, the poetry scene has become increasingly popular among migrant workers. The 2017 Migrant Worker Poetry competition was sponsored by the American embassy and the Singaporean government offered The National Gallery as a hosting venue on December 3rd and 4th. The competition received a record 107 submissions this year. Unlike previous competitions, where most contributions came from construction workers like Hossine, 80% of the applicants were women. After the competition, the top three winners were all female domestic workers.

Susilowati, an Indonesian domestic worker who has lived in Singapore for the past 4 years stood out as a skilled poet in previous years. Alongside this year’s competition, an anthology of 30 poems was released and was titled Songs From A Distance (after one of Susilowati’s poems.)

Seen in the poems of both Susilowati and Hossine, a common theme reflected in migrant workers’ poems is loneliness. Many individuals in their situations describe feeling isolated from society and from any potential of relationships.  While beautiful and richly poetic, these original works are most often rooted in an all-too-harsh reality.

Where other news stories and personal confessions have failed, we can hope that the art of poetry offers an easier way for Singaporean citizens to better understand migrant life or, at the very least, relate to it.  Verses offer a sobering reminder that migrant workers have aspirations and desires that parallel our own.  Perhaps through poetic expression, we can begin to bridge the inevitable separations between established citizens and the migrant communities of Singapore.

Author: Chloe Venn

Chloe Venn is a senior and Chief Media Editor of The Eye. She’s from California and South Africa, but was born and raised in Singapore. She enjoys all kinds of movies, loves rainstorms, and has a terrible taste in music. Filmmaking, writing and Mandarin are her favourite subjects. You can contact her at: venn19557@sas.edu.sg

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