December 12, 2016 | Mayo Martin, Channel NewsAsia

From books to documentaries to festivals, the annual Migrant Workers Poetry Competition has opened new doors for Singapore’s unheralded heroes.

SINGAPORE: For Bangladeshi worker Bikas Nath, weekends are precious off-days usually spent simply hanging out with his friends. But last Sunday (Dec 11) was slightly different – he was going to make his public debut in Singapore as a poet.

The 22-year-old, who hails from Chittagong and came to Singapore last year to work as a shipyard supervisor, spent the morning practicing in front of his test-audience, fellow shipyard workers Hassan and Raselhossain, in a lead-up to the finals of this year’s Migrant Workers Poetry Competition (MWPC).

His Bengali poem, Keno Probashi?, or Why Migrant?, was a heartfelt piece about how he misses his homeland and his lost childhood, peppered with descriptions of playing games with friends, and picking mangoes and jackfruits in a lush garden.

Bikas’ preparations paid off. That afternoon, he read his poem with confidence in front of around 200 people – including Hassan and Raselhossain who cheered him on – at the National Gallery Singapore Auditorium. He would eventually bag first prize at the competition.

“I work in the shipyard and when I feel lonely, the pen and paper are my friends. So when I have the time, I try to write down my feelings,” he said.


by Bikas Nath

I long to run back

into the warm embrace of my homeland

Among loved ones

Laugh over a steaming cup of home-made tea

to the sound of the impatient strumming of a guitar somewhere

Wearing my blue school uniform

I want to lose myself

Back into my childhood

Like a stubborn child on a rainy monsoon day

Hiding under the safety of Taro leaves in the swamp

I want to return to the embrace of what is my own

Golden mangoes ripe in the garden

Heady fragrance of jackfruits in the afternoon air

Drenched in the dew on the green grass

I will tie a tinkling anklet on her toes

Picking berries once again

Ferns, water-lilies, night jasmine

I will fly kites in the deep blue sky

over bright mustard flowers

and sunset evenings

Playing kabaddi with my friends even in a dust-storm

I will turn into a lilting folk melody to my mother’s fond rebuke

Deeply lonely without the touch of my first love

My heart struggles to set itself free

My life, my youth are held hostage

And yet I long to love

Fighting a battle with myself

I grow weary of my own heart

(Translated from Bengali by Anindita Dasgupta and Shivaji Das)

It was Bikas’ first time participating in the contest, after his friends had encouraged him to submit his writings. And with this success – which comes with a small trophy and a cash prize of S$500 – he said: “It will help me write some more in the future. It will be an inspiration for me.”


Three editions on, the annual MWPC has now become a crucial outlet to hear (and read) the voices emerging from Singapore’s fringes – migrant workers from different countries who flex their poetic muscles in various languages.

Bikas was one of the 17 finalists, who were chosen from a crop of 70 entries in Bengali, Tamil, Mandarin, Tagalog, Bahasa Indonesia, Cebuano and English.

The submissions, too, cut across themes, styles and emotions – there were poems with a hint of defiance, romantic lyrical pieces, and bittersweet depictions of their lives as migrant workers. This year’s second-place winner Palanivelu, who hails from Tamil Nadu in India, read an untitled, almost stream-of-consciousness piece about love that wouldn’t be out of place in a hipster poetry slam competition. The poem by third-place co-winner, Filipino Rolinda Espanola, depicted the struggles of a domestic worker.

Indeed, for many of them, poetry was a means of catharsis – one finalist remarked how she started writing poems because she could not leave the house for the first two years; another wept as she read her first-ever poem, which was dedicated to the son she had left in Indonesia.

“People belittle and judge us because of our job, but an event like this is a way of saying, here I am and I have talent to show,” said finalist Edna Pilapil Manatad, a Filipino domestic worker who continues to write poems and stories on her phone, and whose poem was among the 40 entries from female poets.


“The event has been a podium for these talent to surface,” said contest organizer Shivaji Das, a travel writer and consulting partner at management consultancy firm Frost & Sullivan.

“Since the event first happened in 2014, migrant workers have become a key component in the literary scene in Singapore, and the entire cultural scene as well.”

He pointed out how many of the poets have been featured in the past two editions of the Singapore Writers Festival and have also taken part in several poetry reading events. Migrant workers have also participated in events at the Esplanade and at visual arts competitions.

“They have really shown the multitude of talent they bring into Singapore,” he said, adding that this year has also seen more involvement among the migrant workers in helping to organize the competition. Sunday’s host, for instance, was Bangladeshi worker Zakir Hossain Khokan, who had won first prize at the first two editions. Others had also enthusiastically helped distribute event flyers at Lucky Plaza and Peninsula Plaza to encourage others to join.

But it doesn’t stop there. Das pointed out how some of the Bangladeshi workers would sometimes hold impromptu poetry readings among themselves at East Coast Park or outside the National Library. Occasionally, they would also invite Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers to join in these readings, he said. Conversely, the latter would also invite some of their male peers to their events.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie that is evident, and that is the spirit of multiculturalism that they have shown throughout the year,” he said.


Interest in the poetry of migrant workers has grown recently, too. During Sunday’s event, a bilingual anthology of Bengali poetry titled Migrant Tales was launched.

Earlier this year, Ethos Books released the book Me Migrant, featuring the poems of Md Mukul Hossine that were “transcreated” by Singaporean poet Cyril Wong.

A featured writer at the recent Singapore Writers Festival and also co-third place winner at Sunday’s event, Md Mukul has been regularly going to speak at schools – when he’s not working in the construction sector. “It was a big opportunity and I’m very happy (to have a book out),” he said, adding that there was initial skepticism about releasing the book in Singapore. But it has been a surprise bestseller – its first print run of 1,500 sold out in a few months and its second print run is doing very well.

The interest also extends beyond the printed page, with a couple of documentaries springing up from the contest’s efforts.

One of these is Poets On Permits by filmmaker Upneet Kaur-Nagpal, which premieres on Sunday (Dec 18) at Artistry Cafe. The 25-minute documentary features the five finalists from the 2015 edition, who hail from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, India and Bangladesh.

Kaur-Nagpal said she had been planning to do a film on migrant workers in Singapore but had been unable to find the right hook – until she came across an event featuring migrant worker poets at the Singapore Writers Festival that year. Intrigued, she attended the MWPC edition that same year.

“I didn’t want to go through the whole ‘look at them, this is how they live’, but to show their talents. This creative energy (that they have) is very important and it cuts across all boundaries, for me,” she said.

Another documentary in the works is Between Pudukkottai & Singapore, which centres on N Rengarajan, an Indian migrant worker in the construction sector, who was one of the winners at the first MWPC.

It’s by filmmaker Vishal Daryanomel, a volunteer for the contest who decided to take it a step further by collaborating with the poet on the film. Slated for release in February 2017, the 18-minute film will feature Rengarajan talking about his life story. It will also include three of his poems in Tamil, set against shots of Lakeside, Kranji and Little India. The self-funded project will also include music by former The Observatory member Dharma.


Even as the literary spotlight shines on Singapore’s migrant workers, Das envisions a growing scene beyond the country’s borders.

This year, the second edition of a Malaysian version of the contest took place. Despite describing it as a “much tougher place” to run such an event, Das said he has been heartened by the support of NGOs as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In its initial year, there were only seven participants, but this year it has grown to 45, of which 30 of them were refugees.

Photos from the Kuala Lumpur chapter of the Poetry Competition.

Next year, there are also plans to hold a similar event in Abu Dhabi, and there are also discussions taking place for contests in Hong Kong and Indonesia. “We are working closely with the communities to make this a global movement of sorts,” he said.

n the meantime, this year’s winner Bikas Nath will be relishing his literary success – and sometimes, words aren’t enough to describe the feeling of being a winner, even if you’re a poet.

When asked how it felt to be able to stand up and recite his poem in front of people, both strangers and friends, migrant workers or otherwise, he paused for a long time before eventually laughing.

“It’s hard to share my feelings, I just feel very excited – that’s why I lost my words!”

– CNA/mm

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