Migrant workers in Singapore turn to online singing contest to beat lockdown blues

(From left:) Migrant workers Rocky Saha, Hossain Md Kazi Mozummal and Pabitra Sutradhar, who are participating in the singing competition. — TODAY pic
(From left:) Migrant workers Rocky Saha, Hossain Md Kazi Mozummal and Pabitra Sutradhar, who are participating in the singing competition. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Sept 20 — Just after coming out of a five-month lockdown at his dormitory in Kaki Bukit Road, Bangladeshi national Hossain Md Kazi Mozummal was slapped with a stay-home notice on Sept 9.

Another resident at The Leo dormitory, where he previously stayed, had contracted the virus and Kazi, who moved to a private residence at the start of the month, had to serve out the notice just two weeks after returning to work.

“Of course I didn’t feel good. Already, (for) the last four to five months, we were under quarantine So suddenly like this, I felt like a prisoner,” the 31-year-old maintenance technician told TODAY on Friday.

While Kazi had found his time “boring” during the initial months of quarantine, he was able to put his time on stay-home notice to good use instead — by practising for an online singing competition held for migrant workers such as himself.

The competition for Bangladeshi migrant workers has been organised by Billal Khan, a site supervisor who started a Facebook group called “Overseas Foreign Workers Singapore” in July.

The Bangladeshi national, who is an active volunteer with several migrant worker groups such as Transient Workers Count Too and the Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition, wanted to keep other workers informed of Covid-19 developments by providing Bengali translations of the news.

Through the page, Billal has developed a network of 45 volunteers of various nationalities to distribute donations such as masks and hand sanitiser to workers staying in dorms, as well as to domestic workers.

Billal, 28, said that he decided to organise the singing competition after followers of the page, which number over 6,000, requested activities to keep themselves occupied in the dormitories.

Organiser of the singing competition Billal Khan, pictured during his volunteering activities. — Billal Khan/TODAY pic
Organiser of the singing competition Billal Khan, pictured during his volunteering activities. — Billal Khan/TODAY pic

“Many people messaged me on Facebook and asked if I can do something for people in dormitories. They said they needed some fun and entertainment and requested for this song competition,” he told TODAY in an interview last week.

So Billal spent the last month tapping his networks to secure funds for the competition, and to convince professional Bangladeshi singers to judge the competition, which will be held online.

The response to the competition, which kicked off on Sept 14, has exceeded Billal’s expectations, with a total of 184 workers registering. They do not have to pay to take part.

Contestants have to submit videos of themselves singing, from which “mystery judges” from Bangladesh will narrow the contestants to 10 finalists.

The judges will be revealed in the top 10 round which will be streamed on Facebook Live at a date yet to be scheduled. The winner takes home prize money of S$500, which along with other prizes, are donated by sponsors.

Kazi said the competition will help to reduce the stress of workers who are going through financial difficulties or concerned about their loved ones back home.

“Some people want to return home but cannot. So everybody is feeling disappointed. This competition is a way for them to spend time on something else and take off the stress,” he said.

Kazi, who described himself as a bathroom singer, will be singing a song from a Bangladeshi film from the 2000s.

The song, which describes the sorrows of a loved one leaving, was selected by his wife whom he has not seen since March.

Another worker who will also be singing a song about heartbreak, is Pabitra Sutradhar, a 31-year-old construction worker.

Pabitra, who stays in Westlite Mandai dormitory in Mandai estate, said that he wanted to sing a Bangladeshi folk song that would relate to workers stuck in dormitories.

“Most people have this experience. We all go through heart pain. All of us are living alone, and the men miss their wives and girlfriends,” said Pabitra, adding that he too misses his wife.

Both Kazi and Pabitra’s wives are in Bangladesh.

Pabitra said that he spends one to two hours practising each day and seeks feedback from his 55-year-old father, who is a folk singer back in their hometown of the Tangail district in Bangladesh.

“I will record and send it to my father, and he will say if it is okay or not.”

Unlike the other two contestants who can practise in their residence, another Bangladeshi national, Rocky Saha, will be practising during his work hours.

“I cannot sing in my room lah, because I am shy. There are 14 people inside. I can only sing when I go to work,” said the 32-year-old construction worker, who also stays in Westlite Mandai.

Rocky, who is singing a patriotic folk song about Bangladesh, said that he picked the song to appeal to listeners.

But with all eyes on him during this competition, Rocky confessed he is nervous.

“I can sing anyhow and happily when I am alone, but in the competition, everybody will be listening to me so I’ll have to be careful and sing well,” he said. — TODAY

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