Dreaming in Singapore,
a Builder’s Perspective
Two guys have a conversation with Ananthan and his friends while they await their lorry.
Some dream to escape the realities of life. While others dream to face those realities in life. The individuals we spoke to, dream to face their realities.
“ I dream to build a house in my hometown. ”
“ I wish to continue working in Singapore. ”
This common response surprised us. Why would one dream for hard labour in a foreign country? We probably expected a dream that makes the path to prosperity easier or shorter.
“ I dream to work hard, earn some money and head home safely. ”
Striking a conversation was easy. However, allowing it to evolve naturally was not. We had prepared a list of questions, one of which was What’s your dream?
“ I wish to setup a bus transport company. I will name it Kannan Travels. ”
“ My dream is to own a Suzuki Swift. ”
“ I dream to setup a shopping mall in India. ”
As we ticked off questions, we realised that our questions arose from our own perspectives.
We were trying to portray them in a certain way. Hence the conversation did not flow naturally. Instead, our questions were conditioning their responses.
“ I have been working in Singapore since 1997. ”
“ I will be getting married in 2 months. ”
“ I am the eldest child of the family. I have a brother, three sisters, a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering and a debt of ₹400,000 (~$8,000) which is the sum I paid to come to work in Singapore. ”
We wanted to listen to their perspectives. However, we ended up viewing them through ours. Finding a balance between our curiosity and their stories was a challenge.
How much money do you think would be sufficient for your monthly expenses?
“ We earn around $650 per month. We try to send around $450 back to our families. So that leaves $200 for our expenses. If we keep our expenses to the bare minimum, $200 would be fine. ”
What kind of expenses?
“ We spend $150 on food. We cook our own dinner every night after work. Whatever that is left over from dinner would be our packed lunch for the next day. We eat breakfast at the on-site canteen stall. There is also tea time. ”
“ We also spend on international calling cards to be able to speak with our families in India. They cost around $20. The remaining $30 is for everything else. ”
That’s a tight budget.
“ Yes it is. When one of us is short of cash, we have to borrow from each other. ”
So what’s for dinner tonight?
“ Today is Saturday. On weekends, we usually cook meat. Tonight should be chicken curry. We will have that for Sunday too. The other days of the week, we eat mostly vegetarian food. Sambar (Lentil Curry), Rasam (Pepper Soup), Moru (Buttermilk), Puli Kuzhambu (Tamarind Curry). ”
There are people from different countries working together here. Are there any language barriers?
“ The Bangladeshis speak English, so we talk to them in English. It’s difficult to communicate with the Chinese as they only speak Mandarin. Whenever they see us, they call us ‘lao dah’ (老大). What does it really mean? ”
When is your lorry coming?
“ Only God knows when. ”
We have subconsciously viewed the migrant workers through a lens of pity, preparing ourselves for any sad stories that they were to share. It was easy for these stories to overshadow their entire identity, and be their single, defining narrative.
Highlighting their grievances is no doubt crucial in alleviating their working and living conditions. However, our project also seeks to explore other dimensions of their identity which we often overlook.
For our next chat, we will attempt to engage in more natural conversations. Hopefully, this will help us connect with them in greater depth.