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LINES OF THOUGHT ACROSS SOUTHEAST ASIA

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Tales of the Pandemic

Poetry from Singapore’s migrant worker dorms: ‘First Draft’

The conditions for 20,000 migrant workers in Singapore's migrant worker dormitories has made headlines in the city-state in recent weeks. Bangladeshi writer Zakir Hossain Khokan offers his insight in the form of a poem on life for those inside

Zakir Hossain Khokan
May 11, 2020
Poetry from Singapore’s migrant worker dorms: ‘First Draft’
A migrant worker sits on the stairs at the Cochrane Lodge 2 dormitory, which has been declared as an isolation area in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus in Singapore. Photo: EPA-EFE/How Hwee Young

Zakir Hossain Khokan was born in Dhaka and is a graduate of the National University of Bangladesh. He first moved to Singapore in 2003 and is a quality-control supervisor in the construction industry. He is also an award-winning poet, editor, journalist, photographer, film producer, social entrepreneur and speaker at TEDx Singapore. His One Bag One Book project encourages migrant workers to read more.

Zakir’s poem ‘First Draft’ was written after dormitories housing almost 20,000 migrant workers were isolated on April 5 as part of Singapore’s ongoing “circuit breaker” mode to control the spread of Covid-19. Confining them to their dorms for over a month now, the move has prompted criticism about living conditions for migrant workers in the city-state. Translated by Debabrota Basu.


They are afraid.

Afraid

that their loved ones at Home

might get infected, with COVID.

What if they

have become carriers, in a faraway land?


They are afraid

of huddling together in a single room.

The room is stuffy,

with two ceiling fans working overtime.

Their warm breath suffocates,

as if the fans are weeping.

They are crying for help, for someone to save them…


The administration has ordered them

to maintain one feet’s distance

while standing, sitting, eating and sleeping;

like lovers over the phone who must also keep apart,

not touching.

They are puzzled.

How to keep distance in this crammed space?


Some measure the room with tape

and count the number of inmates to obey the government’s orders.

Others measure the dimensions of

the wrinkles on their forehead.


The administration has stated,

wearing masks is mandatory.

But they do not have masks.

Dormitory, administration, company –

who will give them masks?

They are barred from going outside.

If they don’t have masks, how will they wear them!

They gape at themselves.

They cannot understand who is belittling whom,

in this race of life.


They are afraid.

When their throats become dry

out of fear,

they visit the bathroom to drink water.

The bathroom – dirty, dingy, fetid.

A single bathroom serves more than a hundred.

Nobody has cleaned it for days.

Those who can are afraid.

Afraid of being attacked by the virus.


They swallow water to quench their thirst.

And sing:

‘I’ve turned into a migrant, I roam around the world’…

The song is dramatised, made into videos, and shared.

But they remain scared.


They are afraid

of speaking their minds.

Bound by the agent’s fee,

their lives are mortgaged to the unknown.

Days and years pass,

the beautiful city changes, but not their salary.


They are afraid

of speaking their minds.


They have neither commitment nor language,

only fear. They are alone.

Company and state feed on each other.

The government tells them to not be afraid.

But, yes, they are!


They are anxious.

They know the High Commission is only there

to parcel their corpses back home.


‘Worker brothers’, is what

their community leaders

from their own soil

call them

in their fancy enunciations.

Words like ‘bhai’ and ‘dost’

are not meant for them.


Journalists approach them

selectively, from time to time

with probing questions.

They are too fearful to answer

because they know

even the journalists are afraid

of Someone.


Sometimes literary folks and intellectuals visit them too.

They inspire them to read, speak up, write, draw, take photographs, make films

but emphasise that their art should be calm and not explosive.


They are afraid to read.

They are afraid to write.

They are afraid to draw.

They are afraid to take photos.

They are afraid to make films.

They are afraid to learn, to gaze.

They are even afraid of appreciation for their success.

Ssshhhh, they stay silent!


They are afraid of laughing too loud

because they are aware of the Ministry

receiving complainants about their hearty laughter.

They control themselves.

Laugh less. Sleep and eat even less.

They live outside the city, in the fringes.

Their dreams are lost.

Termites infest their bodies while rats, cockroaches have field days.

This way the state can say

migrant workers are resource and just manpower.


Some of them whisper at night

‘Now every moment is depressing

Now every afternoon is terrifying

Now every evening is endangering

Now we are counting the numbers every night

The number of infected

The number of the dead

The number of breaths we take

We can’t sleep

We read of our own nightmares

We draw our faces in the mirror

In the hope of a green dawn.


They are terrified.

Fear, labour and anguish mar their faces

and the state takes photographs of them

to claim its success in keeping workers happy,

in ensuring workers’ comfort.

The state is applauded for its effort.

They join the state in singing songs of praise:

‘The king and we are comrades in this kingdom.

How can we otherwise work with the same king?’


The news of their coronation spreads wide and far.

To their families and beyond.


But they are panic-stricken. They don’t utter a word.

They are abused but don’t quiver.

They can’t speak.

They lack empathetic ears. They are jittery of rest.

They know rest won’t earn them money.

Work pass and agents’ fees combine with loans to throttle

their Existence.


They are petrified.

They hide their diseases from roommates, companies,

and friends.

They are afraid of dying.

They know that in this time of gloom, they are just numbers.

Their close compatriots won’t come to shoulder

their mortal remains or to see them for one last time.


Who are they?

Are they really surviving with this burden of fear?


Their identity documents carry the seal of

‘Modern-day slaves’.

This has at least saved them from an Identity Crisis

while the state, government, citizen, company, agent

and dear ones have affixed a date to make them smile

for at least a day in the year.

They will laugh. They will laugh out loud.


They will survive

without fear.


Zakir Hossain Khokan can be reached at zakir.journal@gmail.com. This story is part of the Globe’s Tales of the Pandemic series, a collection of personal essays from across Southeast Asia called published each Monday covering different aspects of life during this unprecedented time in human history. All of these Covid-19 stories can be found here. If you’d like to contribute a personal essay of your own, please email your story of roughly 1,000 words to a.mccready@globemediaasia.com.



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