Faiz’s Story — The Big Singaporean Dream & COVID-19 Blues
The article was written based on an interview the writer had with Faiz, a Bangladeshi migrant worker in Singapore, to get to know his story and how COVID-19 has affected his life. This article is the last in the series centering on the lives of our migrant workers. The interviewee's answers have been edited for clarity.
Having spoken about his COVID-19 concerns briefly during our .CommonSpace discussion back in June, we thought it would be worthwhile to learn more about Faiz Ulah—a migrant worker from a small village near Chittagong, Bangladesh.
When I interacted with Faiz prior to the interview, I started calling him Bhai* almost on instinct. Being of South Asian origin myself, naturally, this was probably my way of making Faiz feel comfortable enough with me to open up—inadvertently helping me form a close bond with him later.
Indeed, before speaking to Faiz, I used to wonder: What was it about Singapore that had attracted so many people like him to work here? I began with the question I was most curious about:
“Faiz Bhai, why did you want to come to Singapore?”
I didn’t expect his answer.
“I did an electrical [engineering] course in Bangladesh for three months,” he told me. “It changed my life. I didn’t have any knowledge about other electrical [engineering] courses, but only my brother understood a lot about it. He went overseas and came back knowing English and with a lot of knowledge. I wanted to be like him. I realised I could do some work on electrical [engineering] in Singapore, then I came here.”
I had been expecting a story about how his family could not afford things in Bangladesh, or something along the lines of his family desperately needing money that had pushed him to Singapore.
But that was just a narrative that I had been trying to fit him into. I was subconsciously trying to view his life based on the caricature I had drawn of him in my mind. Quickly becoming aware of my unwise biases, I continued and asked him:
“Yes, Faiz Bhai, but what you wanted to do, you could’ve done in any other place, like Malaysia. You could’ve even followed your brother who worked in the Middle East. So, why particularly Singapore?”
“I saw Singapore in an old Bangladeshi film. It was so beautiful and I thought to myself that I had to go there.”
A film. He had crossed thousands of miles from a small village near Chittagong, Bangladesh to come to an unknown land known as Singapore, all because he had seen how beautiful it was in an old film.
He had travelled with the hopes of not just earning money, but also of seeking knowledge. His Singaporean dream was not made up of monetary success like what we might’ve assumed, but rather of the thirst for knowledge.
“Did you achieve your dreams in Singapore?"I asked. "What did you do when you first came? Were you excited?”
“I had to travel from my village to the city for four hours just to apply and do my interview to get to Singapore. My village did not have a computer. I asked my older brother for one sentence in English and I learned and practised it.
"I went to Dhaka. It was my one chance to go to Singapore. I didn’t understand anything [the interviewer] said in English. The next night, they called me to come to Singapore. They only spoke in English and I didn’t understand anything. After I came to Singapore, they put me in the shipyard to pull the cables…”
"It was my one chance to go to Singapore."
Faiz, who came to Singapore in 2010 with the desire to work in an electrical engineering job, ended up pulling electrical cables in a shipyard.
“I kept thinking why I was pulling the cables," he continued, "when I came to Singapore to do electrical work. I couldn’t understand anything the supervisor said in English. I had to keep asking my friends everywhere and sometimes they will get irritated. It was very, very hard for me. Everyday 7.30am wake up, sometimes work ‘til as late as 9pm. I have only ten minutes in between changing the cables. Other than that I only have lunch time, one hour break. I asked my mother to pray for me.”
His first six months in Singapore was spent just pulling heavy electrical cables. He woke up everyday wondering if this was the life that he had wished for. He was at a crossroads, unable to return home. Having spent $20,000 SGD to come to Singapore, he had no choice but to continue working in a job that tortured his body and mind to pay off his debts.
However, like a miracle, at the six-month point, Faiz was shifted to another shipyard. This time, he was able to work in a job where he used his electrical engineering skills. However, this was not his end goal.
"I asked my mother to pray for me."
“You were able to do a job that you liked,” I asked, “so were you happy?”
“I wanted to learn English. When something [needed to be] said to the boss, I needed to ask someone else to translate it, but the credit goes to that person. I did the work but someone else was credited. A lot of accidents also happen when you don’t understand. So I watched YouTube videos and Hollywood films to learn English. Then, after 2 years, I accidentally found out about SDI Academy and I joined it. After my work every day, I would go to the academy and learn English. I also have a diploma in electrical engineering.”
When I heard that Faiz had a diploma, I did a double-take. Not only did he work from 7am, sometimes until about 9pm, he also made time to attend a diploma course at PSB Academy.
“In Singapore, having a certificate gives you more [opportunities]. Like a salary increase... the diploma was $7,000. I sent less money back home when I was doing the diploma, but [my family] understood.” Grinning with glee, he added, “After one and a half years, I finally got my certificate! But if I get a chance to study there [at the National University of Singapore (NUS)], I will be set. I cannot imagine I can talk to someone young, who is studying for a degree—”
Hearing Faiz speak so passionately about wanting to further his studies and push his boundaries like that almost felt like a wake-up call. The yearning to continue learning despite the odds, if anything, was a clear lesson for me to cherish the education I’ve received in Singapore.
Discussing his life and dreams, I had to soon address the most pressing issue: How did COVID-19 affect him? It was then that Faiz’s usual chirpy demeanour dipped and he explained, sullenly, the circumstances his friends and him were in.
“Before lockdown, in April, I didn’t go home, but I went to Jurong East for lunch on my off day. Then, my supervisor called me and told me I had to go back to work the night shift because no one could leave the dorms or enter them. I worked for five days—slept overnight at the shipyard. On the fifth day, [the] boss helped make arrangements for [me and my friends] to go to a hotel. For one month-plus, I stayed in a hotel.”
Making a narrow escape from being trapped inside the dormitories, Faiz surprisingly said, “[Staying at] the hotel for fourteen days was the worst thing in my life. I did not have this experience before. In the dormitory there were fifteen people; [they could] check on each other. Sometimes, I touch my skin to check if it was okay or not. There was no sunlight, no vitamin C in the hotel.”
“Then, how and when did you move to the apartment block you are in now?” I pressed.
“Suddenly evening, 6.30 pm, I finish my work. I went back to the hotel and [my supervisors] announced that at 9.30 pm they will have to clear the rooms and go somewhere. I didn’t know what was happening. We got on the bus and reached Taman Jurong at 11 pm. I only got into the room at 2.30 am. They were clearing the buses one by one and there were around 250 people.”
He had no clue what was happening around him and where he was being transported to next. By this time, I had finally realised that I’ve been speaking to Faiz for a couple of hours and that though he was kind and willing enough to answer all my questions, the interview had to draw to an end.
I asked him one last question:
“So, Faiz Bhai, what do you want to say about COVID-19 affecting the migrant workers in Singapore so badly? What do you see in your future?”
"[Staying at] the hotel for fourteen days was the worst thing in my life. I did not have this experience before. In the dormitory there were fifteen people; [they could] check on each other. Sometimes, I touch my skin to check if it was okay or not. There was no sunlight, no vitamin C in the hotel.”
“After COVID-19, no plan yet,” he said. “I do not know when I can go back to normal life. Before COVID-9, most of the time we [and other migrant workers] are in the dorm. We work from 7.30am to 6.30pm, sometimes at 9 o’clock. Very tired, if we don't have enough sleep. The next day, we don't have enough rest to do the job. We don't have enough sleep of eight hours. Then, after work we come to this dorm. If the dorm is nice, we can go to work happy.”
Right now, we are probably fatigued with the bombardment of news about how the dorms are in terrible conditions, about how they facilitated the transmission of the virus, and so on. However, just to thoroughly understand how inhumane the conditions truly were, I asked Faiz, “You are in a 5-room HDB flat now. Compared to this room, how small was your room in the dorms?”
“It was around the size of this room. But sixteen people lived in this one room.”
I couldn’t even imagine more than five people in the room in my own HDB apartment, let alone having to imagine sixteen people all crammed into one tiny room. The idea was disturbing for me to digest.
Nearing the end of the interview, however, Faiz added a message of appreciation, “I would actually like to thank the Singapore government. They’re taking this time to understand how the migrant workers are in the dorms. It really makes us happy—” and a fervent plea to the authorities “—all we want are nice dorms and more time to sleep for us to work well. That is all we want.”
From the many experiences that Faiz had narrated to me that day, if there was one thing that I had to learn from this man who had become a brother-like figure to me, it was a lesson of gratitude, and of having the grit to swim against the tide and achieve your dreams.
*Bhai is brother in Hindi/Bengali.
Written by Samihah Niquat Safeel, edited by Koay Tze Min and Wu Weiming