ISA arrests: Workers fear stigma and losing their jobs

Some Bangladeshi workers spending their day off yesterday at the Lembu Road open space. Many worry about losing their construction jobs as the radicalised men were in the sector.
Some Bangladeshi workers spending their day off yesterday at the Lembu Road open space. Many worry about losing their construction jobs as the radicalised men were in the sector.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Shock, shame and the fear of being stigmatised were felt by Bangladeshi workers yesterday, the day after the clandestine activities of their countrymen working in Singapore were made public.

Professionals especially were worried about their standing in Singapore society, saying they foresee locals becoming wary of them.

Said IT executive Maruf Kuzman, 36: "I don't want my local colleagues to think I could be up to no good... If they stay away from me, it will be hard to work together."

But blue-collar Bangladeshi workers, who are mainly in the construction and marine sectors, seemed more pained by a sense of shame.

Said construction supervisor Jul- fikar, 38, who goes by one name: "We come here to work, not create trouble. I am ashamed of their conduct.''

Like all the 25 Bangladeshis interviewed, he condemned the radicalised group, saying he neither subscribes to their violent beliefs nor condones their plans to launch terror attacks back home and in the Middle East.

Said marine worker Tutul Khan, 33: "We are not supposed to be doing political activities, just working and sending money home. They did not appreciate the chance to make money here.''

In the last two months, 27 Bangladeshi construction workers were arrested for planning terror attacks in their home country and in the Middle East. All were deported except one, who is in jail for trying to leave Singapore illegally.

The Bangladeshi community here is now looking at ways to raise awareness, especially among construction workers, of the laws of Singapore, said the president of the Singapore Bangladeshi Society, Mr Mohd Shahiduzzaman.

His organisation, whose 700 to 800 members are professionals, plans to work with the Bangladesh High Commission on it.

"We are concerned about how the larger Singaporean community will view us," he added.

Members had told him they are very worried about a possible backlash at work or in the community.

"We will do what we can to reach out and create more awareness about the Bangladeshi community,'' he added.

Bangladesh High Commissioner Mahbub Uz Zaman added: "Bangladeshis here are mostly peace-loving, law-abiding people. The extremists are a small segment and not representative."

Labour chief Chan Chun Sing, writing in a Facebook post on Wednesday, reminded Singaporeans that the "majority of the foreign workers here contribute positively to the growth and development of our nation".

He added: "We must be careful not to let the actions of these radicalised foreign workers taint the positive contributions of other law-abiding foreign workers who live harmoniously amongst us."

Meanwhile, High Commission staff will continue to visit worker dormitories and carry out activities to educate workers on the dos and don'ts in Singapore. The High Commissioner said about 160,000 Bangladeshis work in Singapore's construction and marine sectors.

Many interviewed said extremist political and religious groups are common back home and they are aware of them. But finding one of their cells here shocked them.

Said construction worker Kazi Arif, 33, yesterday: "I was shocked. My colleagues and I got the news today at lunch. We just continued eating and then went back to work. We didn't talk too much about it.''

Most of the construction workers said they did not know about the arrests until the day after the news came out as they do not follow local media. But now, they worry their jobs are at risk because all the radicalised men were in construction.

A Manpower Ministry spokesmen told The Straits Times that Bangladesh remains an approved source country for foreign workers.

Said worksite supervisor Mohd Iqbal, 37: "We come here to work because we want money. We hope we don't lose our jobs."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2016, with the headline 'Workers fear stigma and losing their jobs'. Print Edition | Subscribe