From ground level… a Bangladeshi's view

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pic credits: TOC

By Benjamin Cheah 

Mr A.K.M. Mohsin, 47, is the editor of Banglar Kantha, the only Bengali newspaper in Singapore. He arrived in Singapore over 22 years ago as a student, and is now a permanent resident. In 2006, he started Banglar Katha after noticing his fellow Bangladeshis seemed isolated from the larger Singaporean community. The paper is published bi-monthly in a tabloid format and is distributed to Bangladeshi shops and foreign worker dormitories, and retail sales are held every Sunday at places where Bangladeshi foreign workers congregate.

In August 2011, he founded Dibashram in Singapore and in November of the same year he started the Migrant Sanctuary Foundation in Bangladesh. These organisations advise migrant workers and help to protect their rights. “Every night, 10 to 15 workers come to us for help,” Mr Mohsin said.

The Independent Singapore interviewed Mr Mohsin for insights into the Bangladeshi community following Sunday’s riots in Little India.

Q. What’s it like for Bangladeshi workers to work here? What kind of hardships do they face, and what kind of benefits or enjoyment do they get from working in Singapore?

A. It is very hard work. Many of the younger generation want to come to Singapore to work and their families want them to come, because their government can’t can’t provide them jobs and their education is very low.

Some of them are tricked by agents in Bangladesh, who say they will be paid very high salaries. But when they come here, the companies don’t pay them and they don’t do decent work.

Q. What do these foreign workers do during their days off on Sundays?

They come to Little India to meet their friends and their fellow countrymen. There are many Bangladeshi shops in Serangoon, so they come here to shop.

Q. Some Bangladeshi workers start relationships with Filipino maids in Singapore. How does this affect their lives? Do you have any hard-luck stories or good ones?

A. Not just Filipino maids. Indonesian also. These (hard-luck) stories are very common. Sometimes, when they like a new girl more, they change relationship. When they meet on the weekend, they spend all their money on the girl instead of sending it home to their families. Sometimes, the worker cheats the girl, or the girl cheats the worker.

Sometimes they also get married. They have to get permission to get married in Singapore, since they’re only here on work passes. If not, they go to Malaysia to get married, or maybe in Bangladesh.

Q. What is your personal reaction to the riot? What do you think caused it, and could it have been prevented?

A. I feel that it’s a really unexpected occurrence for Singapore as it is a well-developed and peaceful, harmonious country. I think the cause is controversial and can be argued over by many. In my opinion, this could be prevented by having a proper recreational place for migrant workers where they can destress after work or on weekends.

Q. Have you, personally, or your paper been affected by the riot? If so, how?

A. No, not really. But there are many people asking me various questions and that has kept me busy the past few days.

Q. Are Bengladeshi foreign workers affected by the riot, and if so how are they handling it?

A. Actually they are not affected much by this as they aren’t involved. But they are apprehensive, thinking about their future in Singapore.

Q. Do you know if the Bengladeshi business community in the area have been affected? If so, how are they coping?

A. At the place of the incident, there aren’t any Bangladeshi business. Mostly the Bangladeshi shops are near Mustafa Centre and Desker Road. But due to the riot, most of the workers are unable to move around freely. As most of the patrons of these Bangladeshi shops are migrant workers, their bushiness might experience some loss.

Q. Have things changed in the neighbourhood since Sunday? Apart from increased police presence and the ban on alcohol sales, what is the general mood of the community?

A. Firstly, the place is less crowded. Due to the police presence, most of people feel more secure and they highly appreciate the alcohol ban as one of the many reasons of  the problems in Little India is alcohol abuse.

Q. Do you think the riot was just a one-off incident? Or is it a symptom of underlying causes?

A. Firstly, the worker who was hit by the bus could have had one or two friends who got excited and started to throw things at the bus. But there were 400 others who came in. Which shows that this was just a small piece of a huge picture that we are missing out on. I feel that the workers used this riot as a means of venting out their frustrations. They are being exploited by their employers when they come to Singapore in search of a better life. Their living conditions, the way they are treated in their everyday lives, add to their frustrations.