Feature Story

Stories from Munshiganj

We invite “Beyond the Border, Behind the Men” to tell us more about their short film — Gone Home.

Gone Home features two return migrants living in Munshiganj, Bangladesh, who worked in Singapore as construction workers in the late 1990s. They migrated with hopes of securing a better future for their families, despite having to leave behind loved ones to build the homes of others. Their stories reflect the uneasy tensions between sacrifice and longing, as well as meanings of the “good life” in our age of mobility.

A short film featuring Kazi Alamgir and Samad Dewan, two return migrants the team met in Munshiganj, Bangladesh.

Kazi Alamgir

Wholesale trader for fish

Kazi Alamgir, 53 | Munshiganj, Bangladesh

Kazi started his wholesale fish trading business in 2002 after a seven-year stint in Singapore as a construction worker. He trades approximately 1,600 to 2,000 kg worth of fish per day, which fetches him over 3,000 Taka (S$50) in revenue daily. Over the years, Kazi has managed to expand his business to include a fish hatchery to bring in extra earnings.

(L) Relaxing by the pond: Harvesting often requires a team of 8 to 9 workers to help tow the net across the pond. Each session takes up to 4 hours.
(R) Harvesting at the fish hatchery: Fishes are hauled up using a drag net. Only larger ones are picked out for sale to ensure sustainability.

Thinking fondly of his time in Singapore, Kazi’s best memory was the grand Lunar New Year party that his Chinese employer organised for everyone in the company. Besides the sumptous seafood dinner provided, each employee was also given an ang pao (red packet) and a small gift to take home. This gesture of hospitality left Kazi deeply touched.

Plans for the future: Kazi hopes that his hard work will enable him to finance his family’s migration to the United States for a better future.

Kazi has hopes of migrating to the United States to secure a better life for his wife and children. “If they get a good education there, then they will have better job prospects,” he shared. He has filed a visa application with the help of his sister living in the US, and is keeping his fingers crossed.

Samad Dewan

Distributor of household items

Samad Dewan, 38 | Munshiganj, Bangladesh

Nine years ago, Samad returned to his hometown in Shamshabad to set up a wholesale business distributing household items at the Shologhar Bazaar. Although business was tough initially, he has managed to establish himself as a successful businessman after several years of hard work.

Boxes for delivery: Household items are brought in from a wholesale manufacturer in Dhaka and distributed to local shops in the area.
Taking a call: As the sole retailer at Shologhar Bazaar, Samad is often kept busy throughout the day with orders and requests from clients.

During his seven-year stint in Singapore, he worked his way from being a general worker to a tower crane signalman, and eventually scaled up the ranks to be promoted as a crane operator. Some buildings he remembers playing a part in constructing include the Punggol fish market, Causeway Point, IMM, and condominiums in River Valley and Ang Mo Kio.

Returning home: Being back home in Bangladesh has meant that Samad is able to spend more time with his wife and 3 daughters.

Although business is going well, Samad has hopes of returning back to Singapore to earn more money for his family. “Singapore is still my dream country,” he said. “I do wish to work in Singapore again as my experience there really helped me to develop.

Looking back

In July 2014, three friends — Ng Yiqin, Bernice Wong, and Grace Baey — travelled to Munshiganj, Bangladesh to collect stories of return migrants in this popular migrant-sending district. Grace reflects on their experiences here.

As usual, ideas are best germinated over great food and company. Huddled in our cosy corner at a Japanese restaurant, we discussed possibilities and pitfalls of a new project — throwing about suggestions that dissipated as quickly as the rising steam from our warm teacups, whilst keeping others that sounded just right.

The three of us have been working on migrant worker issues for some years now. What new ideas can we bring to the table? After much careful thought, we decided that it would be useful to work on a few stories that highlight the experiences of return migrants in Bangladesh after their work stints in Singapore.

Once this was decided, it wasn’t difficult to find contacts for a fixer. Bangladeshi nationals are one of the most welcoming people around. Get to know them better over a hearty meal, and everyone wants you to visit their home! We approached a trusted friend whom we’ve worked with previously, and he readily agreed.

Joha, Yiqin, Bernice, Grace, and Shahin (Joha’s younger brother)

Over the next few months, we worked closely with Joha who liaised with his younger brother back in Bangladesh to help source for profiles. We aimed high: Apart from speaking with return migrants, we wanted to interview an agent and take pictures at a training centre — businesses that are often seen as shady in Bangladesh.

Montage Training Centre in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Thankfully, it all worked out after several phone calls and much persuasion. We managed to secure access to a training centre in Dhaka, and were eventually invited to the agent’s holiday bungalow in Munshiganj nestled inside a forested area. These interviews were really valuable, but not without trepidation!

Haji MD Shahjalal has worked as a recruitment and placement agent for Bangladeshi migrant workers to Singapore since the 1990s. Read their interview with Shahjalal here: on.fb.me/1w40wul

In our conversations with return migrants, it was sometimes heart breaking to hear stories of their time in Singapore. One that struck a deep chord was Sohel’s account of how he missed his daughter’s wedding in Bangladesh. Amidst the grand festivities, he was sitting alone by the sidewalk tucking into his packed dinner.

Stories of migration are often difficult to retell since there is no straightforward narrative — and rightfully so. Motivated by a desire to improve family livelihoods back home, migrant workers pay hefty fees to finance their journeys, whilst having to endure the emotional pain of being physically separated from their loved ones.

Even return doesn’t mark the end of one’s aspirations to keep moving and working towards a better life, as seen in the lives of Kazi and Samad. We’re thankful to have the privilege of retelling their stories, and hope that we’ve done some justice to them.

To view more stories from Beyond the Border, Behind the Men, visit www.storiesfrommunshiganj.com and follow the team on Facebook.

For the year of 2015, Waiting for Lorry will be featuring various projects initiated by fellow Singaporeans that focus on the local migrant community. We hope that the Feature Stories will help create a more comprehensive picture of the builders of Singapore.

Have a project to share? Connect with us on Facebook or email us at waiting4lorry@gmail.com .