Spots popular with migrant workers in S'pore help provide a sense of community

Pedestrians at a traffic junction along Serangoon Road in Little India, on Sept 5, 2021.
Pedestrians at a traffic junction along Serangoon Road in Little India, on Sept 5, 2021.ST PHOTO: WALLACE WOON

SINGAPORE - Spaces like Little India mean more than the sum of its parts to the migrant workers who frequent the area.

They are, of course, a one-stop spot for familiar food, groceries and services, but these spaces also allow migrant workers to socialise widely and roam freely in a way that dormitories and work sites do not readily allow.

The Straits Times spoke to both migrant workers and groups that work with them to understand why these spaces are important.

Migrant worker Nurul Alam said Sunday, a common day off for many of them, was a special day for foreign workers in Singapore in pre-Covid-19 days.

The 34-year-old, who comes from Bangladesh, said: "We could eat foods like (Bangladeshi) sweets that are not available elsewhere in Singapore." He and his fellow workers would have meals and hang out together.

Mr Nurul hopes things will go back to as before soon. "Workers like us hope it will be easier to enjoy ourselves and at least visit the plaza (in Lembu Road), while respecting the law of Singapore.

"We don't want much; we just want to be mentally healthy," he said, adding that many workers are frustrated and depressed due to the movement restrictions.

Ms Desiree Leong, casework manager for non-domestic foreign workers at the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, said that popular gathering spots such as the plaza help provide community, dignity and autonomy.

She said workers could leave their dormitories for three hours to go to designated recreation centres, which may not be near where they live, and cannot meet friends and relatives who are allocated to a different recreation centre. "Many of our clients tell us that they and their fellow residents do not feel that the visits are worth the onerous restrictions, criteria and application process," she added.

Mr Alan Oei, 45, is co-founder and executive director of OH! Open House, an independent arts organisation that tells alternative stories of Singapore through art.

It organised an ongoing art walk in the Jalan Besar neighbourhood centred on the theme of refuge for marginalised communities. The area is a popular space among migrant workers.

For instance, one of the art pieces featured in the walk is a mini-documentary-cum-music video by local rapper Subhas that highlights the struggles some migrant workers have faced.

A resident exits a lift while an Indian migrant worker uses his phone at the void deck of a block of flats in Klang Road, Little India, on Sept 5, 2021. ST PHOTO: WALLACE WOON

Mr Oei said: "We have been looking at the Jalan Besar neighbourhood for at least eight years, but hesitated going in because it is a complex socio-political space that needed complex work to do it justice.

"Even now, we feel like outsiders: Hence our theme (for the tour) 'Refuge for Strangers'."

He also said that neighbourhoods constantly evolve to the demands and needs of businesses and people who visit, but this should be organic, rather than via state policy.

Mr AKM Mohsin, founder of migrant workers' activity centre Dibashram, said migrant workers - like anybody else - still desire a change in scenery from time to time despite the comprehensive amenities in larger purpose-built dormitories such as minimarts and recreational facilities.

"These areas are where they can meet their friends and relatives who work in other places or live in other dormitories, while getting the services they need, such as sending money back home," he said.

Nonetheless, he cautioned against allowing too many workers back into the community too quickly. From this week, 500 workers a week will be allowed to go to Little India in a pilot scheme.

He said: "Letting 500 workers out is very little, but it is a good sign that they can at least go out. It is better that we keep the numbers controlled because I worry that if someone gets infected outside, it will spread again inside the dormitories.

"This is both for their own good and for the larger community."