The backstory

The reporters who worked on the Life After Singapore project are (from left) Aw Cheng Wei, Joanna Seow, Olivia Ho and Toh Yong Chuan.
The reporters who worked on the Life After Singapore project are (from left) Aw Cheng Wei, Joanna Seow, Olivia Ho and Toh Yong Chuan.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

The idea of featuring foreigners who have worked in Singapore to mark International Migrants Day was seeded more than a year ago.

Manpower reporters Joanna Seow and Toh Yong Chuan visited the homes and met the families of their respective domestic helpers Enalin and Maricel in the Philippines in March and June last year.

The duo had worked in Singapore for the reporters' families since 2003 and 2006 respectively, doing household chores such as cooking and cleaning. Meeting the maids' families drove home to the reporters the sacrifices their maids made, including prolonged separation from loved ones.

When International Migrants Day came round this year, the reporters revived the idea of featuring foreign workers like their maids, but with a twist - by tracking down those who have left Singapore and asking them how their lives have changed since.

A mix of foreigners were picked, representing the range of jobs foreigners do here, the types of work passes they hold and their nationalities. The latter was based on guesswork because the Manpower Ministry does not disclose the breakdown of nationalities of foreigners working here.

The reporters travelled to Bangladesh, Indonesia, China and England to meet the foreigners and their families. They were undeterred by the minus 10 deg C temperature in Luoyang, China, and the lack of sanitation in Bangladesh, where reporter Aw Cheng Wei had to bathe in a river. The reporters were received with warmth and hospitality, over simple homecooked curry in Bangladesh and kopi-C in Britain.

They heard first-hand stories such as that of the anxiety after savings from working in Singapore ran out and the bittersweet account of missing the birth of a child.

The workers have little in common, but all of them spoke fondly of their times in Singapore and how they wish to return again.

Said reporter Olivia Ho, the newest addition to the manpower beat, on working on the project: "It opened my eyes. Many Singaporeans have no concept of what it is like to live apart from your family and what some foreign workers have to give up for the chance to work here.

"At the same time, it showed me that there are many, many different types of migrants. Some lead dismal lives, some are doing amazingly well and some are just getting by in the middle."

Toh Yong Chuan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline 'The backstory'. Print Edition | Subscribe