Changing Perceptions One Story at a Time

Singapore is home to the world’s second busiest port. With a fifth of the globe’s shipping containers and half of its crude oil passing through every year, the port is a hubbub of activity serving a never-ending supply of ships. What keeps this industry moving 24/7? An army of over 150,000 from numerous nationalities.

At the Sembawang Shipyard, migrant workers from across the Indian subcontinent, China and Southeast Asia help repair, convert and upgrade many of the ships. Varatharasan is one of them. Hailing from Tamil Nadu state in India, he arrived in 1999 and has been working in the shipyard since. His main job involves managing the hydroblaster, a tool that utilises a highly pressured stream of water to remove old paint, chemicals, and build-up. From 6 in the morning to 5.30 in the evening, he would spend the bulk of his time inside a ship’s tank, an environment that can get uncomfortably warm in the tropical heat. Dirty, dangerous and difficult, Varatharan’s occupation is one few Singaporeans would do and Singapore is highly dependent on migrants like him in keeping its economy a well-oiled machine. Migrants constitute almost 40% of the country’s 5.5 million inhabitants and help plug labour shortages in various industries.

Yet despite their vital contributions, an intriguing phenomenon can be observed – migrants are not part of Singapore’s national narrative and are often accorded negative stereotypes. This even though many having been around for decades. More notably, their presence have come under sharp focus in recent years with several high profile flare-ups; the most prominent of which occurred in 2013 when a fatal traffic accident led to hundreds of migrant workers rioting in the city state’s Little India district. Such incidents have contributed to anti-foreigner sentiment which have become more prominent with population growth. Migrants are now blamed for a gamut of issues from rising living costs to overcrowding on public transport.

Such negative sentiment stems from a lack of understanding caused by a lack of interaction. Long hours, low wages and harsh working conditions have effectively meant that some industries such as construction and manufacturing are almost entirely staffed by migrants. These characteristics have created a unique situation where no social space exists for interaction between migrants and the majority of Singaporeans.

“The reality is that migrant workers do much needed work that Singaporeans no longer want to do”, says Michelle Djong, a trainee teacher actively involved in migrant affairs. “Once in awhile we acknowledge their contributions but they are excluded from our social fabric; many still believe that migrants are not a part of Singapore”, she adds. Michelle and her friends, a group of 18 trainee teachers from the National Institute of Education, are trying change that view. In a bid to promote inclusiveness, the group started Culture Unshock, an initiative aimed at generating more understanding and compassion.

Culture Unshock adopts a novel approach in promoting integration. Rather than bringing migrants out into society, the group brings Singaporeans in. On weekends, members of the group take turns visiting a dormitory to socialise with the migrants and record their stories. Individual profiles are then created and featured on the group’s Facebook page in a style similar to Humans of New York for all to read. The aim is to help Singaporeans look beyond the surface and start a conversation with a migrant worker. “We want to help people see what the life of a migrant is like and realise how much we have in common. Showing their softer side helps break society’s tendency to view migrants as one unrecognisable monolithic bloc”, says Joel Lee, another member of the group who started to properly understand migrants through his interactions with them.

While the project is still in its early days, reception from all sides has been positive. The Facebook page has garnered over 300 followers to date and several libraries have supported the project by providing exhibition space to showcase the group’s work. Michelle also notes that the migrants themselves have been very receptive and are open in sharing their private lives with others. “They were very happy when we told them about the exhibitions and show keen interest in interacting with locals.”

Recognising its potential, the International Organization for Migration has initiated a collaboration with Culture Unshock and is incorporating some of the latter’s stories into the global I Am A Migrant campaign. Aimed at fighting prejudice and celebrating migrants, I Am A Migrant runs along the same lines as Culture Unshock in bringing the stories of individual migrants out to the general public to foster greater acceptance and understanding.

As for the future, the group hopes for more members of the public to come on board and join the initiative. Michelle adds that the group would like to see the endeavour having a long term impact. “Sometimes the essential is invisible to the eyes, and so we want to remind our future students that like many of us, migrant workers are here to earn an honest living for their families. Their often unseen hard work has enabled us to enjoy a comfortable environment to pursue our own dreams and we should acknowledge that.”

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* Culture Unshock is a project started by Michelle Djong, Joel Lee, Yee Peng Fei, Nurelfarina Binte Mohammed Roszaini, Nurul Hannah Binte Mohammed Amran, Chua Hui Qi, Chun Kai Xin, Chai Ming Rong, Goh Se U, Pow Liting, Aaron Lee, Lim Chin Yang, Joan Lim, Lester Lin, Mageshwari d/o V Sivasamy, Chan Shao Hui, Lam Yuen Wai and Shawn Teo, accompanied by their mentor Dr Sim Yong Hui. Visit facebook.com/cultureunshock to learn more about migrant workers in Singapore.

* I Am A Migrant is a communications campaign run by the International Organization for Migration. Visit iamamigrant.org to read stories of courage, hope and resilience from across the globe.