In Singapore, workers cannot dream

AUGUST 25 — The other day I watched a CNA documentary on a young construction worker, an aspiring poet, Mukul Hossine.

Mukul,  a Bangladeshi national, has been working as a construction worker in Singapore, on and off, for seven to eight years. One of the city’s 200-300,000 foreign construction workers – but among this cohort, Mukul stood out. 

Unlike most of his peers who spend their spare time with cricket or downloading films and videos on their phones, Mukul devoted his spare time to poetry.  He even took to scribbling verses on cement bags at the construction sites he worked at.  

His verses and tenacity would eventually earn him recognition in Singapore and Bangladesh. Attending local poetry events, he introduced himself to local poets and found one willing to translate his Bengali verse into English.  

The resulting collection was well received and Mukul would be propelled to minor celebrity status – featuring on local television, giving talks on his life as a worker-poet at the National University etc.  

It was really an impressive accomplishment for someone born into rural Bangladesh with little formal education but rather than focus on the positive, the documentary took the form of a cautionary tale. 

It focussed on how Mukul’s success and attempts at poetry would lead to declining performance at his job as a construction worker. 

Between writing, attending events and appearing on TV his day job would suffer, and he would frequently find himself changing jobs. When this happened, his parents would often have to pay agents to find him jobs in Singapore.  

His failure (in fact he didn’t fail and for long periods did manage both) to do the virtually impossible – juggle back breaking construction labour with the world of poetry and art in a foreign country – was presented by the documentary as a warning. Workers, the documentary suggested, should not venture into the arts but should focus on their allotted task

The documentary introduces a local Singaporean community outreach volunteer/member who tells us: “He was always busy (with his poetry) on weekends, that’s typically when workers were trying to work overtime (or being exploited to work overtime).”  

This was Mukul’s transgression. On weekends he didn’t want to be exploited. Other transgressions include Mukul’s colourful fashion choices.

So, the man was not really cut out for the job he had to take to survive, he tried valiantly to pursue his passion but, in the end, found it difficult to make a living. 

Mukul doesn’t appear to have been drunk, abusive, fraudulent or a danger to anyone. A little naïve and perhaps slightly cocky from the sudden fame — but why are these being presented as deeply unacceptable?

It’s an unremarkable tale; in fact the only bit that stands out is the man made a reasonable success of himself as a poet, for a time, despite all the odds. 

In the documentary we see his former translator make a bid to take credit for Mukul’s work. The translator — who has all the advantages of a Singaporean not born in an undeveloped flood plain -- is unable to give the tenacious worker any credit claiming that all the work was his (the translator’s) doing.

Perhaps it is true but ultimately it is not relevant — the book is attributed to Mukul. Was Mukul a good poet? What does that even mean? It is rather subjective.

What is clear is that Mukul worked on his dream while carrying enormous sacks of cement — how many people can say they’ve done that?

The most outstanding thing about the whole piece is that the Singaporeans in it are so keen to vilify a defenceless man. The worst thing that can be said about him is that he was selfish about his parents – how many young men and women are guilty of this?

Yet, the piece is unwittingly thought provoking. It raises questions about the ‘“liberal”, educated, caring Singaporeans who say they are helping workers.   

When a worker tried to write poetry, when he claimed to be a human, a creator and an equal in his own right this group of people seem to have moved to viciously tear him down. To put him back in his “place” — because it is unacceptable a person has dreams beyond their station.

Being a struggling artist is solely the right of the privileged, they would have you believe. In my opinion, that is a petty and pathetic perspective but do watch the piece and make up your own mind. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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