Perfect Strangers: The Life And Times Of Singapore Migrant Workers

As told by journalist Serene Goh and lensed by ex-Straits Times photographer Bryan van der Beek

As COVID-19 forced everyone indoors, ex-Straits Times photographer Bryan van der Beek and journalist Serene Goh found themselves outside, volunteering on late-night food drops and essential hand-outs for migrant workers, witnessing firsthand how Singaporeans banded together for a greater good.


Aged six to 72, there we were, a household of five gathered around the light of our television set. That we were even watching a free-to-air broadcast in one room seemed primitive—we hadn’t done that in at least a decade. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong rolled out “circuit breaker” measures, dread filled my gut: This thing called the COVID-19 global pandemic was upending Singapore’s usual tidiness, wiping out any Lego Movie illusion that “everything is awesome”. I added it to the slideshow in mind of history’s worst disasters: That flaming asteroid that hit earth and wiped out dinosaurs. Chernobyl. The mushroom cloud blooming over Hiroshima. Replays of the Twin Towers imploding on September 11, 2001. Except this time, it was happening in my living room.

It seemed absurd that the big wide world could be at the mercy of something so minuscule—every news update pinned to an enlarged microscopic image of this urchin-like thing, responsible for a chain reaction so profound we might not comprehend for years the depth and scale of its damage.

BAZAAR Special Report: Perfect Strangers

Photo: Bryan van der Beek

THE DAY AFTER

To my six-year-old daughter, its impact remained abstract for weeks. She was still trying to process why she couldn’t go to school or have a birthday party, or needed to have dance lessons over Zoom. She wasn’t the only one. Among friends and loved ones, it became creature comforts that we first focused on, as if the magnitude of what was really happening was just too much to process. What—no more sitting in salons to colour your hair? No random stop-ins at Pedder on Scotts? No more coffee grabs or lazy Sunday brunches or evening theatre? (Thank god my last hit was Pangdemonium’s The Son.) I started to miss my chiropractor. We had to remember life before we became accustomed to its trappings. And like good, pragmatic Singaporeans, we switched to adaptation mode. I listened as clients wondered why they ever needed such large offices when everyone could work from home. Educators worried not just about the efficacy of home-based learning, but if students who relied on school meals would even be fed. Others bemoaned “rogue” boomer parents who couldn’t comprehend why they suddenly couldn’t leave the house.

Still others fretted about migrant workers in dormitories. Rightly, they became appalled as they came alive to the conditions under which so many among us were living. COVID-19 had turned up to max the volume of a collective conscience usually playing as a background hum. And suddenly, we knew we couldn’t not do anything.

Related article: Celebrities Take On The “Wear A Damn Mask” Challenge

BAZAAR Special Report: Perfect Strangers

A migrant worker at a hot water dispenser amidst drying clothes at a Factory-Converted Dormitory. Residents are encouraged to wash both themselves and their clothing often to maintain hygiene levels and laundry detergent and body soap are some of the most requested items from NGOs and volunteer groups doing distribution. Photo: Bryan van der Beek

DON’T WANNA CLOSE MY EYES

By late April, my family had adjusted to the initial shock and slowly settled into a new routine, trying not to get in each other’s way too much. We invented games and indoor events by wheeling in a plant or two for picnics. Then I noticed a dear friend’s feed on Facebook with a selfie of him garbed in full personal protective equipment (PPE). He had captured in his trademark, soulful style of documentary storytelling, the very community bearing the brunt of the virus: Migrant workers. It read: “Yesterday, I had the opportunity to volunteer with the Needs Assessment and Survey Teams (NAST) of the Crisis Relief Alliance (CRA) as they went to various factory dormitories housing foreign workers to assess and distribute identified needs.”

When I texted him to let me help, he said he’d embarked on a project to capture the work of groups such as the CRA, as well as others, as they threw their resources into making sure those in dormitories were getting aid. They were organising essentials for delivery, meals, even the distribution of prayer mats. He added there were many other groups assisting the vulnerable and needy, folks already on the brink and struggling even more after COVID-19 hit. So Bryan van der Beek—perhaps knowing I would keep pestering him—kindly let me tag along and write. A few nights later, the morning of Vesak Day, I found myself volunteering with the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO) during its pre-daw food drop. Staff at Nawab’s Briyani had spent 15 hours preparing and cooking rice with mutton and hard-boiled egg—$3 a packet—to be delivered to dorms. As a convoy of volunteer cars drove past, they loaded up trunks due at dormitories by 4.30am. Because gates at some dorms were locked, these bags then had to be hoisted over to workers inside. At other, smaller quarters, a single representative would collect the food, profusely thanking AGWO’s volunteers. These stories soon attracted other storytellers to the cause. Working with another photo-features colleague Caroline Chia, as well as veteran writer Stacey Rodrigues, we then documented the mammoth undertaking of the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC) as it deployed sanitisers and essentials to dormitories nationwide.

Related article: Brands Send Their Support To Those Impacted By The Pandemic

BAZAAR Special Report: Perfect Strangers

Photo: Bryan van der Beek

MWC, a bipartite initiative of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore National Employers’ Federation (SNEF), is a non-government organisation that champions fair employment practices and the well-being of migrant workers in Singapore. It had a target to fill 370,000 half-litre plastic bottles with sanitisers donated by Temasek Foundation for workers in dormitories islandwide. In under a month, the MWC had galvanised staff from Harry’s International and Scoot budget airlines—while F&B outlets were shut and aviation crews grounded—to dispatch 120,000 bottles of sanitiser/disinfectant to factory-converted dormitories (about 90,000 workers), as well as temporary quarters and makeshift dorms (about 30,000) in the marine or process sectors, such as shipyards or ocean-going rigs.

The work was mundane. Yet volunteers had kept up morale by putting up a scoreboard to try and outdo each other in friendly competition for numbers bottled a day. Mr Bernard Menon, Director of Migrant Workers at NTUC, said Harry’s volunteers had become such experts that “I practically begged them to give us five chaps a day, after they completed their month-long obligation, up until we completed production”. Meanwhile, our patron, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan- Jin, was supportive (he doesn’t seem to sleep much), suggesting ideas from among his extensive networks of “simple acts of kindness and generosity”.

BAZAAR Special Report: Perfect Strangers

A migrant worker at a hot water dispenser amidst drying clothes at a Factory-Converted Dormitory. Residents are encouraged to wash both themselves and their clothing often to maintain hygiene levels and laundry detergent and body soap are some of the most requested items from NGOs and volunteer groups doing distribution. Photo: Bryan van der Beek

Soon, we had built WhatAreYouDoing.Sg, with its own Facebook community page, as a way to document these pieces, capturing what went on behind walls and among vulnerable groups. Groups that, before COVID-19 hit, held far less of our attention. I remember confessing to a friend who’d asked how I was feeling, that I was heartsick looking at Instagram posts of lavish meals. “I’m really happy that so many are eating well,” I’d said. “But I wish everyone was eating equally well.”

The true impact of our project came later. Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen, Committee Chairman of the AGWO, said his organisation’s hotline lit up after the pieces were broadcast on Facebook. “They truly inspired those who read to stop complaining and do something meaningful to bless our brothers,” he said. “They’ve helped to bring some light into what we do. After the article, we had many who called our hotlines to offer their services as well as contribute towards the cause.”

We realised then that what began as curious storytelling had become something bigger: A counterpoint to the negativity online. Our lockdown project had become a mission.

Related article: How Fashion And Beauty Companies Are Giving Back During The Pandemic

BAZAAR Special Report: Perfect Strangers

Photo: Bryan van der Beek

BRAND VALUES

I am not immune to the allure of classic fashion icons, the excitement of the Met Gala, and the enduring grace of Gabrielle Chanel. I still suffer a voyeuristic couture nerdism from having spent three and a half years writing magazine features for a glossy in the mid-nineties. I own Tod’s handbags, Fendi limited editions, Prada heels, and an assortment of jewellery that mark key milestones in my life, their significance aligned with personal joys: The day our little girl came into our lives, that time my editorial team notched  a global award, the year I turned 40, our 10th wedding anniversary, that sort of thing.

These moments, like the brands I gravitate to, have an enduring, robust spirit. A zeitgeist. I buy them because they’re what I hope to give my daughter someday. Now, I think of the intangibles I’d like to give her too, like a portrait of the stock she comes from. As she lobs me a million questions about what she calls “The Covid”, I know these stories will show her how we got through it all, and to remember that kindness speaks loudest in deed.

There’s an oft-quoted description of a Singaporean by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1977, that he “is a champion grumbler”. We don’t focus as much on the former part of what he said: “You know the Singaporean. He is a hard-working, industrious, rugged individual.
Or we would not have made the grade.”

BAZAAR Special Report: Perfect Strangers

Photo: Bryan van der Beek

The most inspiring Singaporeans I know make a huge difference without uttering a sound. They represent the best of us. They are problem-solvers—maybe not the best at saying how they feel, but top-class at getting the job done. As COVID-19 halted so many things, it also revealed “only in Singapore” moments that no self- respecting storyteller should want to miss. Through WhatAreYouDoing.Sg’s mission, we were able to witness for ourselves how Singapore phrases were being reframed:

REGARDLESS OF: That reverend with an inter-faith group organising and delivering Islamic meals during Ramadan to Muslim workers confined to dormitories—with a special briyani treat on Vesak Day, a Buddhist holiday.

RE-SKILLING: Bartenders using their beer-pulling experience to dispense sanitisers into smaller bottles for distribution to migrant worker dorms. Flight attendants putting their service standards to social se vices, bringing cheer to the elderly.

CHIN CHYE LAH: Churches, mosques and temples housing the newly homeless who had lost their jobs due to the virus, until they could be relocated. Some religious organisations going to the extent of positioning in these temporary quarters qiblas (the direction to Mecca) for Muslims to perform prayers.

I BELANJA YOU: Individuals treating healthcare professionals to meals from restaurants. A student enterprise bee hoon (vermicelli) stall turning into a charity to donate its food to beneficiaries of The Food Bank.

OWNSELF DO: Individuals galvanising their immediate social groups to meet whatever needs they knew of, including buying laptops for under-privileged students so they could do home-based learning, and getting chicken rice to overworked healthcare professionals. When my daughter looks back at the single event that is changing the entire course of her world, I hope she remembers that, despite it being beyond anyone’s control, COVID-19 also brought out our ruggedness. And it’s not in what we said, or what we bought, but what we did.

Related article: How Singapore’s Fashion Community Is Giving Back During The Pandemic

BAZAAR Special Report: Perfect Strangers

Photo: Bryan van der Beek

More From

Exclusives