They are the workers that cook and clean for us as domestic helpers, or build our buildings as construction workers. It is time Singapore stood up to celebrate the unheard voices of our very own foreign talent. Right down where you live, you might have come across a bunch of tired Indian workers lazing about and sleeping on the cold hard floor. At times, you noticed them having lunch from food packets on the very same floor you step on each day. It may be an inhumane sight, you thought. Despite it all, these workers went about their business chatting happily together without minding having food under HDB blocks.
On another day, you met with your neighbour’s domestic helper wheeling her sick employer’s mother around to the nearest park for some fresh air. She looked withdrawn, cracking a meek smile and looking away just as she smiled. Her name is Siti and she is from Indonesia, once she told you when asked. Once, you caught her humming to herself whilst washing her employer’s car. You thought, as you passed by, what a beautiful angelic voice she had.
“Migrant workers in Singapore turn to the arts for release from their work woes,” says Shaun Teo, Treasurer and Co-Founder of Migrant Voices, an arts group run by volunteers to engage migrant workers into the arts. “We became increasingly involved with migrant workers in Singapore knowing how talented they can be.” he added.
With the Ministry of Manpower paying increased attention to foreign labour laws in Singapore, the unheard voices have various platforms they can use to their advantage. Most significant, is a group called Migrant Voices.
Migrant Voices CD
Starting as a one-off project in September last year with a group of independent volunteers coming together to compile a CD of songs written and performed by foreign workers.
The album was launched at the inaugural M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, an initiative by local theatre company, The Necessary Stage.
With the help of another non-profit group, Music For Good, who did the album pre and post production, the album signified a turning point for the young group of volunteers. They furthered the cause and registered themselves as a society with yours truly proud to be called President.
This marked a new beginning for the group who began holding free singing workshops for residents of a shelter called the Humanitarian Organisation of Migration Economics (H.O.M.E).
The shelter houses foreign domestic workers in distress from their employers and are battling cases with the relevant authorities. The singing workshops then gave way to a talent time competition. The women of H.O.M.E who come mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines, loved singing favourites from popular Indonesian singers and Filipino artists.
After some point, there came an eclectic combination of cross-culturalism as the Indonesians and Filipinos eventually picked up each other’s languages. They do this by singing the lyrics of songs, an easy way to learn another language.
Just recently, the group launched a set of greeting cards designed by migrant workers through a doodling workshop that happened on top of the drama workshops they held.
It was killing two birds with one stone, the migrant artists showed enthusiasm towards acting before flexing their drawing skills on paper. The drawings came out of these workshops depicted images of home and objects closely related to the artist.
“They miss home because being in a faraway land from their family, these are images the artists best relate to and further expressed on paper,” said Nina Siew, artistic facilitator of the drama and doodling workshops.
The group is working on an upcoming drama production entitled SOIL, a joint collaboration with the renowned local theatre group, Dramabox. The play will see migrant workers act in scenes depicting their life here in Singapore.
Another pioneering effort alongside Migrant Voices, was the Inside Out photo essay exhibition launched this year. The photography exhibition was a product of workshops held last year that teach migrant workers basic photography skills. These budding photographers then went on excursions in groups and snapped pictures of what they think Singapore represent to them. One of the themes was ‘Day Off’, an initiative to bring about awareness to how foreign domestic workers spend their Sundays off.
Handicrafts are a popular skill owned by women migrant workers. The women of HOME are ambassadors of it! These women make plastic flowers and decorative display items as a way of raising funds to keep the shelter running. They are also masters of culinary arts, lethal when enticing anyone’s taste buds you’ll want more of it!
Photography courtesy of Migrant Voices