How Indian Migrants Live Under Hostile Conditions In Singapore

Posted by manishgohil in GlobeScope, Society
April 11, 2017

Following my week-long trip to Singapore in April 2016, I had the chance to reside in the ‘Little India’ of Singapore.

I have to admit, the only reason I decided to stay in this area was because of the ridiculously cheap hotel prices in this expensive city – the life living on a student budget.

The reason why the ‘Little India’ district offered cheap rates for hotels became apparent once we arrived. When I say the place looked exactly like India, it bloody well looked like India. Straight away when we all got dropped off by the taxi, the driver expressed his discomfort dropping passengers to this area, as the streets were always engulfed by people blocking the roads and selling goods.

My outlook on Singapore was a vibrant economic landscape with countless skyscrapers (don’t get me wrong, it is) but on my first day, I felt like I was back in the eccentric streets of India. Countless bazaars, chai walas and roadside dosa stands showed that the migrants who arrived in Singapore for an opportunity of employment had created their home away from home. However, this home is not one that is permanent for most unskilled migrant individuals in this nation, as workers come here for employment knowing that the prospect of a permanent settlement will be refused.

Unskilled Migrant Workers

It is tough making a living in the city of Singapore, with over 80% of Singapore residents living in public housing in the form of HDB flats. These structures dominate the landscape of Singapore, but these flats are not available to the Indian migrants. The migrants mainly reside in dormitories set up by the local authorities, with organised ‘pick-up points’ for drivers to transport the workers to their destination.

Many of these dormitories are very poorly looked after, and the spread of illnesses in this small community has become a serious issue. Places of worship are prominent throughout this region, with countless mosques and mandirs catering to the large variety of diasporic ethnicities of this community.

Living With The Riots

Singapore largely prides itself on its large variety of culture that represents its national identity, a harmonious one. However, in 2013, a large-scale riot broke out in ‘Little India’ involving approximately 300 migrants who reacted to an individual being hit by a bus and subsequently dying.

Ultimately, Singapore fears the outbreak of another riot following the one in 1969; so officials were quick to deport any individuals involved in the matter and brush the incident under the carpet.

Hundreds of South Asian workers rioted in Singapore late Sunday after being enraged by a fatal road accident, leaving 18 people injured and police vehicles burnt in the city. (Photo by Nicky Loh/Getty Images)

However, the desire for educated Asians to work in Singapore parallels the condition the unskilled migrant workers in this nation. The Department of Statistics of Singapore fails to include the numbers of unskilled migrant workers in their ‘official’ demographic statistics, as the workers are not official citizens of Singapore. The total population of Singapore amounts to 5.3 million but does not include the 1.6 million migrant workers originating from South and Southeast Asia.

The Life Away From Home

On the Sunday during my visit, we noticed a group of young Indian men with their Filipina girlfriends relaxing on the fields behind Dhoby Ghaut station, soaking in the sun and drinking beer. I noticed that the men were Punjabi, so I approached them and asked about their experience working and living in Singapore. We soon found out that these Filipino women were their girlfriends. This took me back a bit, as communication between them and their girlfriends was limited to broken English. Then, in Punjabi, they expressed how their girlfriends were only temporary as they have to return to India once their employment residence expires. Just like the Indian men, these Filipino women were also in Singapore as migrant economic workers.

“Of course, the relationship is not serious. This girl gives me, you know, fun. I am not allowed to bring any family with me, so the only people I do have are my friends. I cannot still be with my girlfriend when I go back to India next year; my parents want me to get a job and get married with a Punjabi girl,” said one of them.

View from within a South Indian restaurant in Little India

Obviously, the girls did not understand Punjabi, so were completely unaware what the men just told me, that their men are using them for sex. The women by their side looked extremely attached to their ‘boyfriends’ so let’s hope they can cope when their men leave Singapore to return to India.

Singapore Looks Away

The condition of Indian unskilled migrant workers in Singapore is one that is widely ignored by many Singaporeans. It was once said that “migrants want to work in beloved adopted country”. I don’t believe so. The total disregard of their migrant community in the national identity of Singapore represents that even though the nation prides itself on its racial harmony, it does not portray racial unity.

The complete marginalisation of the migrant community, including Indians, does intensify the parasitic relationship between the nation and the workers.

Whereas Indian migrant workers do benefit from the higher wages available in Singapore (the highest in Southeast Asia), the workers are concentrated in their own districts with limited liberties.

The migrant workers are not permitted to bring any of their family with them, with a short residency only allowed to a couple of years and their prospects of permanent residency being very unlikely.

Photographs provided by the author