Migrant workers to share poetry

When construction supervisor Zakir Hossain Khokon won the inaugural Migrant Worker Poetry Competition last year with a poem about his grief at leaving his wife in Bangladesh, the attention took him by surprise.

Bloggers and international media asked for interviews. Dance company Chowk set his words to movement in its show From Another Land at the Esplanade in September. And just last month, TEDxSingapore invited him to be a speaker at its event.

This year, the 37-year-old joined the competition for the second time and made it to the finals.

He will be among 14 finalists reading their entries at the National Library tomorrow.

Recited in native languages, including Bahasa Indonesia, Mandarin, Tagalog, Bengali, Tamil and Punjabi, the poems are written by foreign workers in different professions, such as domestic helpers, construction workers and nurses.

  • VIEW IT / MIGRANT WORKERS POETRY COMPETITION

  • WHERE: National Library, Possibility Room, Level 5

    WHEN: Tomorrow, 6.45pm

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: www.singaporeworkerpoetry.com

The top three winners will be announced on the same day and will win $500, $300 and $150 respectively - about double the cash prizes last year. The rest of the finalists will receive $50.

The final round of the competition will be judged by Singapore poets Alvin Pang and Kirpal Singh and translator Goh Beng Choo.

Earlier, four other judges, including Filipino poet Shane Carreon, were involved in shortlisting the submissions and helping to translate the poems into English.

There are plans to publish an anthology of poems by the finalists.

The competition, organised by local Bengali newspaper Banglar Kantha and a group of volunteers, has grown significantly from its first edition last year, when it was a sleeper hit.

Last year, the competition drew 28 Bangladeshi and Indian male workers, whose poems moved readers with their beauty and lyricism.

This year, the number of submissions increased to 74, with women making up more than half of the entries.

With advocacy groups such as H.O.M.E, Transient Workers Count Too and Aidha publicising the contest, the entrants also came from a wider spread of countries, including China, Myanmar and the Philippines.

Writer and management consultant Shivaji Das, 37, part of the competition's organising committee, hopes to expand its reach.

"There are still some segments of the migrant-worker community that we haven't managed to get hold of yet: sex workers, bus drivers and many more," he says.

He hopes the competition can be a way for the workers, who are usually bound by a limited social circle dominated by employers and colleagues, to share their lives with the wider community.

He faced some challenges along the way. For one, getting in touch with the workers could be difficult, especially domestic helpers who were available only on Sunday evenings and were sometimes reluctant to pick up the phone.

He says: "Even when I call with good news to tell them they're on the shortlist, they're hard to reach. Sometimes, their employers pick up the phone instead, trying to figure out who they're talking to."

Still, all employers eventually agreed to let the finalists take part in the last round, he adds.

One of the judges, Pang, 43, says the competition is a step towards breaking down the stereotypes of migrant workers that still prevail in Singapore. He hopes people here will give these workers a chance to voice their thoughts, "even if their truths may sometimes be uncomfortable or inconvenient".

"Poetry isn't an ivory-tower activity," he says. "It's a way of life and a means of maintaining dignity and perspective, especially in the face of daily adversity. The participants come from such rich literary and cultural traditions. We in Singapore have so much to learn from them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2015, with the headline 'Migrant workers to share poetry'. Print Edition | Subscribe