By Sam Reeves
Toiling for long hours for meagre salaries and living in crowded dormitories, migrant construction workers have helped build modern-day Singapore but remain all but invisible to many in the affluent city-state.
Now an award-winning book by a Bangladeshi man is shining a rare light on the lives of labourers who have come in their thousands from poorer parts of Asia in search of a better future.
M.D. Sharif Uddin’s collection of diary entries and poems, “Stranger to Myself”, describes the ups and downs of his years in Singapore, from high hopes on his arrival to frustration and heartache at missing his family.
“People will never understand the hardship we migrant workers go through. People (back home) think that we live a luxurious life in a foreign land where we earn a lot,” the 40-year-old told AFP.
“Even after 11 years here I don’t enjoy life, I am always struggling,” he added.
There are about 280,000 foreign construction workers in the city of 5.6 million, which has developed over the decades at a dizzying pace, from a poor trading outpost to a financial hub home to high rises and shopping malls.
Uddin is in many ways not a typical Singapore migrant worker. He owned a bookshop back in Bangladesh, but fell on hard times and was forced to leave his pregnant wife to go abroad to find work.
He was ill-prepared for his new life. From being a boss with a small staff in Bangladesh, he found himself relegated to the position of a labourer doing the kind of back-breaking work native Singaporeans often shun.
Daily life is not easy, living in a dorm with about 25 other construction workers and typically toiling from 7am to 7pm.
Uddin lives quite centrally but many migrant construction workers are housed in self-contained dormitory complexes in less desirable areas of the city, meaning many Singaporeans have little contact with them.
He is contracted to work 28 days a month but if he does overtime, or a project needs to be completed in a hurry, he may not get a day off at all.
When he arrived, his salary was S$18 (US$13) a day — business-focused Singapore has no minimum wage.
It has increased to about S$50 after he was promoted to become a safety supervisor but is still far below the average wage in the city-state.
Uddin writes of living an “exile’s life”, far from his family, and unable to feel truly at home in Singapore.
“Sometimes I feel what it means to be lonely in the crowd of migrants, feeling the burden of age though I am relatively young,” he writes.
“Maybe my exile from home and nation is a punishment for past sins.”
He is an avid reader and had long kept a diary and written poetry, but his work was only discovered when he began submitting poems to a Bengali language publication in Singapore in 2013.
He started getting invites to poetry and book readings, and later agreed to have his work translated from Bengali to English and published as “Stranger to Myself: Diary of a Bangladeshi in Singapore.”
Published in 2017, it has sold more than 700 copies and last year won the best non-fiction title at the Singapore Book Awards.
Goh Eck Kheng, founder of Uddin’s publisher Landmark Books, said the book’s “depth of subject matter, the depth of feeling” contributed to its success.
“It’s very authentic, it’s eye-opening,” he said.
Despite the challenges, there is no shortage of foreign labourers — from Bangladesh, and other countries including Indonesia and China — keen to come and work in the construction sector in Singapore.
There are laws in place to protect foreign workers and to regulate their housing, and most employers are responsible and treat staff well, according to the ministry of manpower.
Salaries are usually higher than many migrants can earn back home, or in other foreign countries where they could work.
“Many foreign workers consider Singapore an attractive destination country, and want to come here to work,” a ministry spokesman said.
Uddin is generally positive about Singapore and his book is even dedicated to the country’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew.
But he believes migrant workers’ “labour and sacrifice” which helped drive Singapore’s transformation remain largely unrecognised.
“Nobody can wipe away the workers’ agonies etched on every brick of Singapore,” he said.