Stranger to Myself is a collection of experiences by Bangladeshi migrant worker, MD Sharif Uddin, about his time in Singapore.
Published by Landmark Books and edited by Theophilus Kwek, the book features both poems and accounts by Sharif that touch on the work he does, along with his reflections on coming to Singapore to work.
Here, we reproduce some excerpts from the book, in which Sharif details some of his experiences with returning a wallet, a train disruption and encountering elderly cardboard collectors, among others.
Stranger to Myself can be purchased here.
Finding a wallet in a taxi
After a friend’s birthday, I was going back to the dormitory in a taxi one night. I felt something at my feet; I glimpsed a wallet.
I felt like I was winning a lottery though I had never won a lottery before. I opened the wallet and looked inside. No, nothing that much. A bank card, a cash card, address cards, IC, three marketing commission cards and three S$10 notes.
I looked at the picture of the gentleman who lost it. I thought of leaving it where I found it but felt sad for the man. Ah my poor buddy, you must be stressed. What if it had happened to me? So I decided to return that thing.
I asked the taxi man to turn and go to the address in the wallet.
It was too early in the morning, around 5am. There was silence in the streets. I was feeling too sleepy. I got a little fed up with the clicking meter of the taxi. The taxi driver was suspicious, looking at me through his mirror.
Refusing a reward of S$500
The condo was beautiful. Some exotic flowers were in the pot by the stairs. A woman opened the door because of how insistently I rang the doorbell. She looked doubtfully at me. She glared in disgust.
But she became kind when I showed her the wallet. I asked whether she knew it. Her husband was on the phone. He had gone to the police station.
Confirming that the wallet was his, she showed extra gratitude. He told me to wait. It was around six in the morning by the time I explained to him where I had found it.
The guy dropped me at my dorm. He was so happy and wanted to give me S$500 as a reward. But I didn’t take it.
Why should I take it? I just helped him in the name of humanity.
The struggle of boarding a bus
I cannot return to the room. I’ve been waiting for the bus since 7am, but it is now 8 o’clock and I have not been able to get a bus.
Meanwhile, my body is so tired that it is looking for a bed to sleep on. It is not possible to walk the 30 kilometres to work.
Every bus is full and the driver smiles and raises his hand. It’s full – he’s going on his way, not taking me.
Sometimes the bus stops but I cannot get in because of the competition from the other people who have also waited for an hour.
Everyone is in a rush too. It’s a good thing that they aren’t making noise. They know the problem is not ours. They know that they ought to have patience. Everyone is busy checking watches and mobile phones.
There’s something wrong with the train line; everyone is waiting for buses to bring them to work. The train station is beside the bus terminal so no one is greatly inconvenienced.
The time spent commuting to work needs to be counted too
They have an excuse for getting to work late but it will not work for me. It’s a big problem for labourers like us. We waste about two or three hours at the start and end of every day – time that is not accounted for in our pay – but is still time spent for the purpose of the company.
If the government were a little more generous towards migrant workers, resolving this issue would be very helpful to us.
All they need to do is to impose a rule on companies saying that the time needed for getting to and from work will be counted as work time would solve the problem.
Hungry, tired and fearful
Well, today I will not be able to collect my catered lunch because delivery stops at 9 o’clock.
Today, I have paid S$6 for nothing.
The problem of being an honest Bangladeshi is getting angry with irregularities and corruption.
It makes cold blood run through our heads. Developers are earning billions of dollars by drinking the sweat of the workers. Society is well fed. And we do not have the courage to ask for fair wages!
We are afraid of being sent home or kicked out of work. We, the workers, are responsible for our own fate.
Otherwise, why am I not allowed to protest? Roughly 90 hours of work per month and S$21 per day makes S$630 a month and S$7560 in a year and in six years brings around S$45,360.
But who will pay the price of my blood?
Oh, here’s an empty bus at last. Let me sit in the cool air-conditioning. I can think about the money later. But the loan I took to get here will not be forgiven!
Encouraging my wife to get a degree
People did not approve of my wife continuing her education
I remember when I got married almost eight years ago, there were so many problems and obstacles preventing my wife from continuing her studies after marriage.
Stopping school was customary in our illiterate society. She was then a Higher School Certificate student. We had lost my mother. My married siblings were separated. So I was very confused. Is it possible to balance housework and study?
We negotiated with each other and soon became confident. We made plans for her to continue her
schooling. That was preferable to me.
Many acquaintances were disparaging. There were many obstacles and social constraints. But we did not give up.
Came to Singapore just before my wife gave birth
After finishing her HSC she was admitted into the honours programme when our first child came. A few days before his birth, I came to Singapore.
She completed her honours. Meanwhile, my father died. I lived far away but I continued to encourage her to complete her degree.
Now the mother goes to college and the son goes to school slinging a bag from his shoulder. These feelings will never be forgotten.
Today, she has finished her final Master’s exam. Although her result doesn’t matter, I know she will do well.
My wife's education is a blessing for our child
And I also believe that educated mothers will make an educated nation. I now realise that practically, I don’t have to worry about my son’s manner of education.
I want my son to study, to be educated and become enlightened. If he becomes educated, jobs will chase after him.
So my son, never rush behind success, try to achieve excellence. Success will rush to you. I just pray to God: I just wish to be with you peacefully as a happy family.
Sex workers at Woodlands
When I arrived in Singapore at the end of 2008, I was housed in Block 7 Industrial Park, Woodlands Avenue 8.
Malaysia could be seen clearly from one side of the building. On the other side was a large, dark forest.
Our company had worked on the construction of three warehouse buildings. We stayed in containers at the work site. I cooked for myself then, so I had to go to market in the evenings.
There was a store selling Indian raw goods in the market about ten minutes’ walking distance from us. Almost everything could be found there. Many of us wanted to go quickly to the market after work because the track was only half-lit.
But many workers have been seen to drop their baskets of shopping to go behind the trees.
People who went down that path have been an hour late just because of twenty minutes spent there.
I can’t say what it’s about so directly. The whole truth is shameful.
Raided by the police multiple times
In the evening, some girls from Thailand pitch tents there dressed skimpily. They call to passersby in sweet voices or attract their attention with sexual signals.
So many workers spend S$20 to entertain themselves in those tents. The police would come to make arrests and I’ve seen those girls escaping in the nude.
Those involved in the crime were afraid and ran too but the innocent faced the police fearlessly.
The police knew who were guilty. I have never heard of the police picking up someone innocent.
Caught in the act, unable to return home
Eight years later, the sidewalks and forests of Singapore remain. Many migrant workers are unable to return to their country, defeated by the law.
Many live helplessly with different diseases. Here there are laws; there is clarity in law. There is crime, and there are those who deceive themselves.
Going abroad in Bangladesh is a sign of prestige
Now people are coming to Singapore, spending 12-14 lakh Taka (S$20,000-23,000) to get a job and working their hardest. If they spent the money and half of the effort in our own country, I think they would earn three times more than they would here.
We do not have so many investment opportunities. But I’ll still back my first statement because you can start a business so easily with a little cash in Bangladesh.
The problem is that we Bangladeshis always put ego and prestige first. We don’t like to start with a small job. And if we see anyone do something considered below him, we won’t give him proper respect.
A toxic way of thinking
We can do a lot to change our society if we change our ways and stop judging others.
There would be less corruption and crime. People would work according to their ability instead of being driven by greed.
They would achieve their dreams. And we know an idle mind is the workshop of evil. If people do physical work, they don’t have to go to the gymnasium to exercise.
But we are a selfish nation. We always think of ourselves. Some of us think that going to college and passing exams are the essential milestones to becoming educated.
And many of us think that an educated person shouldn’t do just any kind of work. He must find a job fit for the high classes.
But it is not necessarily so.
Working abroad can be the worse thing to happen to a young Bangladeshi
So many of our young generation finish their secondary or higher secondary school and come to work abroad.
Do our family members know what kind of jobs we have to do here? Well, I think they don’t have much interest in that.
They are used to the idea of working abroad from the very beginning. So they think taking that path is normal and people don’t like to disrupt what is considered normal.
But do they think about how much money it costs to send us here, or how much we are earning a month, or how much will be needed to support the family back home?
That’s how a young person can be destroyed.
We are like prisoners, far from the normal life we left. Everyone should first try to do something great in his own country.
On meeting elderly cardboard collectors
I saw two old ladies with stacks of paper, the work of their own hands. They were in white shirts, blue shorts and white sneakers. I guess they were eighty to ninety years old.
Every morning, for a livelihood, they waited at various train stations to collect the papers and magazines thrown by the passengers.
I asked one, why are you doing so much at your age? Don’t you have any savings for this time? She replied: My body is still working, so why should I depend on my savings this early? How ashamed I felt when I heard the answer.
Under the proud red and green flag of my own country, many people start begging from door to door without doing any work – or at least they don’t struggle to do anything.
Why should I blame them? That’s normal. I do not know when they will learn about pride.
Top left photo by Ilene Fong, right photo via FB/MD Sharif