The Two Singapores: From the Worker’s View

This article is part of the series:

“The Two Singapores” is an ongoing interview miniseries run by Somatosphere to interrogate Singapore’s COVID-19 response, in particular in its handling of the explosion of cases among migrant workers living in cramped dormitories. The series aims to shed a light on Singapore’s reliance on cheap migrant labor in maintaining its image as a glitzy, cosmopolitan city-state, and aims to offer an insight into a more harmonious and equitable post-pandemic future where migrant workers are accorded better protections and access to healthcare systems in Singapore. You can read our past interviews with public health research assistant Amanda Low, labor migration academic Megha Amrith, and volunteer case worker Ivan Ng on our website.

In our final article, we interview Zakir Hossain Khokhon, a project coordinator (QA/QC) in the construction sector in Singapore on a work permit. Before coming to Singapore to work, he had been a freelance journalist in Bangladesh. In 2017, Zakir had also started “One Bag, One Book,” a book sharing initiative that aimed to have a book in every worker’s bag and to spread a healthy reading culture among migrant workers living in Singapore. He is also actively involved in “Migrant Writers of Singapore,” a platform dedicated to bringing together a community of migrant workers through a shared interest in creative writing and literature.

Zakir has already spoken elsewhere about his own experiences with COVID-19 – one of his roommates in his dormitory had contracted the virus in early April, before he himself began reporting symptoms a couple of days later. In his interview with Mothership, Zakir speaks about an environment of fear and anxiety among his roommates the moment the first few cases started spiking, and also talks briefly about his experiences circling between the dormitory, the hospital, and the Community Isolation Facilities set all around the island for patients who have fully recovered from the disease.

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

Wahid Al Mamun (WAM): What do you think are the biggest problems facing the dormitories at the moment?

Zakir Hossain Khokhon (ZHK):  There is a lot of stress and unhealthy and unacceptable living conditions in the dormitories. There is a lot of job insecurity, also – loans [to pay] agent fee, no earning or less earnings from our work than before, and so on.

WAM: How have you kept yourself occupied with One Bag, One Book during the lockdown, even as you were recovering from the disease?

ZHK: While I was in the hospital, in Expo, and in Tanjong Gul camp,11 I tried to work on the “Migrant Writers of Singapore” and “One Bag One Book.” This gave me a lot of energy.

Some friends called me, and they said their food was awful. They cannot even go out of the dorm. We supplied food twice daily to the migrant workers in different dormitories once in the morning and once in the evening. Every day we could provide food to almost 2,000 people twice. Luckily donors trusted me.

They also received fruits, coffee, Milo,22 milk, biscuits, noodles, and many dry foods. For Eid, we distributed 6,000 lunches with the special sweet dish we call ‘semai’ in Bengali. ‘Semai’ has a very close relation to the celebration of Eid, and no Eid is fulfilled without that. We also distributed biryani and some other soft drinks. Moreover, we also managed to supply prayer rug and prayer cap for Muslim friends so that they could mark the occassion.

Facebook post (dated 1 September 2020) by “One Bag, One Book,” detailing a recent distribution of mattresses, pillows, and other items.

We gave mattresses, masks, sanitizers, liquid shop, room cleaning items, mop, bucket, Vitamin C tablets, and even Dettol soap to workers who needed them. From the “One Bag, One Book” initiative, we are still distributing books to the migrant workers — books in Tamil, Bengali, English, Bahasa Indonesia, and Tagalog. We already have 457 volunteers in different dormitories. The pandemic has made me realize how strong our volunteer team is, and how secure communication is among us.

I am very thankful to all the donors who have contributed money and extended their emotions, love, and respect from the core of their hearts to help the migrant community. They have come to a lot closer to us.

WAM: Do you think more attention needs to be given to the mental health of migrant workers, even after the pandemic is over?

ZHK: Yes, please!

WAM: And finally, how do you think Singaporeans should talk about migrant worker issues in the future?

ZHK: Yes because for a healthy Singapore, they have to think of migrant worker issues long after the coronavirus. Migrant workers and domestic helpers don’t just come here to earn money, take care your child, take care of your city, and go back after a few years. They are also part of Singapore society, but the design of our society is that migrants are not visible to the rest of society. We need to make a new design of society where we have to interact with each other and treat each other as human beings.


[1] The Singapore Expo is a convention center that has been converted into a Community Isolation Facility, earmarked for patients recovering from COVID-19 who no longer require acute hospitalization. Tanjong Gul camp is a Community Recovery Facility run by the Singapore Armed Forces, earmarked for patients who have remained well for 14 days and are clinically stable.

[2] Milo is a popular malt energy drink which is readily available in Singapore.

Wahid Al Mamun is an undergraduate studying Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is a summer intern at Somatosphere.

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