Causes Week

Causes Week 2017: A book in every worker's bag is this migrant's goal

Bangladeshi migrant and poet Zakir Hossain Khokan (centre) hit on the idea of One Bag, One Book when he noticed many foreign workers fiddling with their phones on public transport. Construction worker Sikder Md Sumon (left), 29, and Mr Belal Hassan,
Bangladeshi migrant and poet Zakir Hossain Khokan (centre) hit on the idea of One Bag, One Book when he noticed many foreign workers fiddling with their phones on public transport. Construction worker Sikder Md Sumon (left), 29, and Mr Belal Hassan, who helps manage a stainless steel shop, both hail from Bangladesh and are among the 60 or so foreign workers who have borrowed books from Mr Khokan since his project started three months ago.PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Over the course of this week, the sixth Straits Times Causes Week will share how various individuals and groups are making a difference through the causes they are passionate about.

A packed lunch, change of clothes and a water bottle. These are some of the things usually found in the bags foreign workers carry to work.

Now, thanks to a new book-sharing project, volumes of Bengali poetry and English non-fiction may become a common sight in these bags too.

One Bag, One Book is the brainchild of Bangladeshi migrant and poet Zakir Hossain Khokan. Foreign workers select the books they want from a list of about 150, then drop him a message to arrange for a time and place to pick them up.

On public holidays, Mr Khokan lugs the books to the front of his dormitory in Admiralty Road West so people can browse through them. Borrowers can spend as long as they want on the books.

Mr Khokan, 38, a quality control project coordinator in the construction sector, saw many migrant workers on public transport fiddling with their phones - playing games or going on Facebook.

It was then that the idea struck him: Why not encourage them to read books instead?

During a recent trip home, he handpicked more than a hundred books from stores in Bangladesh, buying them at his own expense for "a few thousand" Bangladeshi takas (1,000 takas is about S$16).

Most of the books in the collection - from poetry and short stories to novels and non-fiction - are in his native Bengali. There are a handful of English ones, such as Me Migrant, a collection of translated poems originally written by Singapore-based construction worker Md Mukul Hossine in Bengali.

Since the project's inception about three months ago, about 60 foreign workers have borrowed books. Mr Khokan hopes to expand the collection to include Tamil, Chinese, Indonesian and Tagalog titles.

He also plans to get foreign workers from other dormitories to help him distribute the books.

Singapore has about one million low-wage migrant workers from the developing world. They make up nearly 30 per cent of the workforce, and come mostly from Malaysia, China, Bangladesh, India, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Mr Khokan, who graduated from the National University of Bangladesh, moved to Singapore in 2003. He won the first prize at the Migrant Workers Poetry Competition in 2014 and 2015, and also works as a freelance journalist.

A handful of the books, such as Singapore Riots And A Love Story, and Migrant Tales, were written by him or contain works by him.

The Bengali short stories, Mr Khokan said, are very popular.

 
 
 

"They love the short stories and poems. They read the love poems, love stories. Maybe they are lonely, and miss home and their family. It's a reflection of their feelings."

In many cases, reading in English serves a practical function. "The books help them (the foreign workers) with English," said Mr Khokan.

He made the decision to go for paperbacks instead of PDFs or e-books. People are more likely to read a book they can see and feel, he said.

One person who has hopped on the bandwagon is Mr Belal Hassan, 29, who has been in Singapore for nearly 10 years and helps manage a stainless steel shop. Mr Hassan, whose parents, wife and five-year-old daughter live in Bangladesh, said: "When I feel lonely, I read and it gives me some happiness or reduces my stress."

A National Library Board survey last year found that only 57 per cent of Singapore residents aged 20 and above read fiction. Perhaps the idea of having one book per bag might catch on with Singaporeans too.

"It's not a concept only for migrant workers," said Mr Khokan.

• Those who have books they wish to contribute can contact Mr Khokan at zakir.journal@gmail.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2017, with the headline 'A book in every worker's bag is this migrant's goal'. Print Edition | Subscribe