Top image from ‘I Dream of Singapore’ by Lei Yuan Bin.
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From time to time, I return to this particular quote by local playwright Alfian Sa’at: “If you care too much about Singapore, first it breaks your spirit, then it breaks your heart”.
From Singapore’s steadfast refusal to demolish the colonial statute of 377A and the continued discrimination of LGBTQ+ members, to the tacit acceptance of casual racism with the brownface saga amongst many more incidents—it can be incredibly disillusioning to be a part of Singapore. In a country that constantly emphasises its economic vulnerability during national day rallies and parliamentary sittings, Singapore’s urban landscape and its people are constantly subjected to the rhetoric of upgrading, change and improvement. Notions of cosmopolitanism, inclusivity and belonging are pegged to specific caveats and inhibitions, where equitable treatment is anything but the truth.
The stories of two such marginalised groups, migrant workers and Normal (Technical) students, are highlighted in Lei Yuan Bin’s I Dream of Singapore, and Yong Shu Ling’s and Lisa Teh’s Unteachable in the SGIFF Singapore Panorama Programme.
I Dream of Singapore is a quiet exposition about the lives of migrant workers in Singapore and where they come from, focusing particularly on the Bangladeshi worker, Md Feroz Al Mamun. There is a particular moment that succinctly encapsulates how migrant workers are treated in Singapore. A mass of migrant workers stands on the pedestrian walkway by Serangoon road outside AB Mohamed Restaurant , waiting to cross the road. Hundreds are kept at bay by a single security personnel clad in a neon-yellow vest, his body language languid and relaxed as he swings his left arm and rests his right hand on his hip. The shrill of a whistle sees the mass beginning to cross the road, bodies naked to the hawk-eyed gazes of a larger security entourage.
A migrant worker leaps over the green fence by the side of the road, only to immediately face the brunt of another security personnel shouting directly in his face. Cornered by another security personnel, the same worker is shoved back into the sidewalk carelessly, as if he weren’t a decent human-being like themselves. Overlooked and othered, migrant workers are only valued for their ability to take up “undesirable jobs” that Singaporeans are unwilling to partake in at low (and unfair) wages, dispensing their hard labour to build landmarks on extreme ends of the spectrum: dispensable and easily demolished, as well as the next jewels of Singapore.
At the same time, Feroz has a 15 cm wound on his belly, a souvenir from his day job at the construction site. Denied “proper medical treatment” by his employer, the country Singaporeans proudly call home is built on the back-breaking labour and efforts of Feroz and many others. Yet, they are still treated with a lack of human-rights and derision—not even deserving of proper food necessary to nourish their labouring bodies. Recently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted how the Changi Jewel epitomized “dream[ing] boldly” for Singapore, being a symbol of bold dreams. But these very dreams of a nation are supported by the individual dreams of migrant workers to attain a better future for themselves and their families back home.
If the value of migrant workers (in the eyes of Singapore) stems from the possibility to extract and exploit a much needed but severely underappreciated labour power from their naked bodies, Normal (Technical) students in contrast are almost seen as hindrances not worth helping. Unteachable focuses on an experimental teaching project introduced to Normal (Technical) students from Shuqun Secondary School.
During an internal meeting within the department of mathematics, the head of department states how the prospect of sacrificing “family time” to put in the extra effort to help out these Normal technical students is simply “not worth it”, thurs preferring traditional teaching methods. Embedded within such a statement is an almost quantitative application of a cost-benefit analysis, with the students being deemed as dispensable units as opposed to actual living beings with futures ahead of them. There also seems to be a thinly veiled insinuation that the children of these teachers are perhaps more important, warranting greater attention as opposed to their own students.
Shuqun secondary school subscribes to different mantras: from “Touching Hearts, Inspiring Learning” to “Dare to Soar to Greater Heights” and “An inviting school that brings out the Best in everyone” that are splayed across the school building. Yet, perhaps such mantras are less aspirational than perfunctory and performative in masking over the realities within the physical school compound.
At the same time, whilst schools seem reluctant to help out students in need, messages of high achievement are still continuously drilled into the students’ heads as they are constantly pressured to achieve good grades. Prior to the end-of-year mathematics examination, a teacher proclaims to the class “I expect nothing less than a distinction from everyone”. Another exchange, rather amusing, goes along the lines of:
Teacher: “You will do well right?”
Teacher: “Well, you’ll try your best right?”
With the exception of this particular student subverting the common expectation of good grades foisted on every child in the Singaporean education system, what is scarier is the normalisation of good grades as the standard to evaluate and judge our students. Being fixated only with the final results, we almost disregard the immense value of the learning process and the effort put in by the students. We seem to forget these Secondary two students are barely 14, placing immense pressures on them to achieve “good grades”. Indeed, certain forms of knowledge are privileged over others, regardless of whether their life aspirations match-up with the skills acquired.
The main character, Damian, expresses his earnest desire to be a chef. An understanding of surds and indices will not teach him to master cooking a bowl of say, prawn noodles. And yet, he valiantly struggles to grasp these mathematical concepts of basic algebra.
These fixations, however, gloss over the humanness of these individuals. Both films delineate the day to day lives of their subjects outside of their associated traditional spaces (work and school) all over Singapore. In Unteachable, Damian celebrates his birthday with his family by barbecuing at the BBQ pit, growing excited as he is gifted a bicycle as a birthday present. Jamie and Tenisha, two of Damian’s classmates, express a desire to become singers, with Tenisha exclaiming that “music is [her] everything”
Despite these dreams, their growing years are punctuated by an anxiety to constantly climb the ladder because their grades in Singapore are “almost the only thing that matters”. Damian recounts how he “cried” upon receiving his PSLE results when he was 12, expressing how he had “disappointed his parents”. Tina, a friend of Jamie and Tenisha, notes how the jobs available to N-Level qualifications “pay quite low” in an environment like Singapore, where education functions as a tool for social stratification.
Meanwhile in Lei’s film, migrant workers are seen visiting and taking photos of the Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands, two landmarks built on their very backs for everyone (i.e local Singaporeans and tourists) but themselves. In the Dayspace of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a non-profit organisation pushing for improved conditions for low-income workers, a small group of migrant workers have their eyes fixated on an LCD TV, watching the FIFA World Cup together.
In a secondary school, a migrant worker delivers a talk to a class of Singaporean students. Holding a Bachelor of Arts from the Bangladesh National University, he is also a poet back home. And yet migrant workers are subject to an odd flattening of identities as he is asked—“You are migrant worker right … How come migrant workers can write poetry?”—as if migrant workers can only be one or the other. Singapore can only see migrant workers for the cheap labour they provide, forgetting how these are human beings with families back home and identities outside of work.
This particular episode reminds me of a feature done by Channel News Asia on another migrant worker, Md Mukul Hossine. Having published an anthology of poems in Singapore, Mukul is portrayed in a disparaging manner for chasing his passion for poetry as opposed to working in construction — a field Mukul did not even expect to be working in upon his arrival. This echoes with many prior cases where migrant workers are duped into thinking that they will be doing something else. Chasing passions , something we tell our kids and citizens all the time, is not accessible to migrant workers. At the same time, streaming also cuts off the opportunity to pursue certain passions, as Normal (Technical) students are funneled directly into Institute of Technical Education (ITE) colleges that already restrict some pathways of progression.
In a country that chooses to celebrate past figures that had literally stolen and pillaged our lands for self-gain and opts to marginalise and push down on members of our community that very much made what Singapore is today, Singapore is a country full of contradictions. And whilst active steps have indeed been taken to deal with such issues, such as the introduction of the weekly rest day for migrant workers and the phasing out of streaming by 2024, more has to be done by the state. Greater structural change and the shifting of mindsets has to occur, where migrant workers are not thought of as bodies to extract labour power from and that academic results are not seen as the metric to gauging achievement.
If we truly believe that art can be used to incite social change, perhaps SGIFF’s 30th anniversary can be twofold in both commemorating the occasion and taking active steps to push for systemic change in the issues surfaced. We, as audience members, also share a larger collective responsibility in doing more. For as we are watching these films in the cinema, outside the screen, there are migrant workers and Singaporean students who are experiencing these lived realities at the very same moment.
‘I Dream of Singapore‘ and ‘Unteachable‘ are screening as part of the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). The festival returns from 21 Nov to 1 Dec with over 90 films from 40 countries. Browse the full programme here.
All Rice readers enjoy S$2 off the opening film and S$1 off all other titles with the promo code SGIFFxRICE.
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