A Personal Reflection on SOIL: Migrant Voices and Dramabox’s Forum Theatre Initiative with Migrant Workers in Public Spaces in SingaporeBy Sha Najak and Prashant Somosundram
Article courtesy of:
FOCAS Forum on Contemporary Art & Society, Vol 6, Regional Animalities,
The Substation Singapore/documenta 12 magazines project Germany July 2007.
Edited by Davis Lucy
Migrant Voices grew out of the awareness that some migrant workers enjoy channelling their personal emotions through artistic expression. The arts society was registered in April 2006, more than a year after a diverse group of volunteers, led by Ruby Pan and Alvin Tan of The Necessary Stage, collaborated to produce the Migrant Voices CD, a compilation of music, songs and poetry created and performed by migrant workers in Singapore. Since then, Migrant Voices has reached out to numerous migrant workers, including female domestic workers and male construction workers from many different nationalities. By conducting drama and voice workshops, Migrant Voices has provided an alternative avenue for migrant workers to express themselves and be heard by the general population.
Our participation and growing involvement with Migrant Voices both began when we responded to online calls by The Necessary Stage, which was looking for volunteers to help in the production of the Migrant Voices CD to raise funds for migrant worker organisations and services. Sha Najak took on the role of artist liaison for the Thai rock band, Singsaderd, and the women from the HOME shelter. Despite being of North Indian origin, she had minimal contact with the Tamil band. She had grown up detesting Indian migrant workers, due to the constant teasing and staring episodes when she walked by spaces where migrant workers gathered. The perceived disrespect for women by South Asian men frustrated her and manifested itself in prejudiced feelings across the board; she would deliberately avoid Little India, where these migrant workers tend to congregate, particularly on weekends.
However, in the course of her volunteer work on the Migrant Voices CD and the subsequent development of Migrant Voices as an organisation, Sha interacted with numerous South Asian migrant workers, whose personality and attitudes ran contrary to her earlier prejudices. Participation in Migrant Voices, particularly now in her capacity as president of the organisation, has given her a far more balanced perspective of migrant workers as diverse individuals with multiple talents, not merely as a collective whole.
Before the initiation of the project, Prashant Somosundram was conscious of the dearth of interaction between second-generation Singaporean Indians and migrant workers from South Asia. After his introduction to and consequent friendship with Indian construction worker Thangamani Jeganath through a mutual friend, Prashant recognised the class divisions that existed within the South Asian community in Singapore. The Migrant Voices CD project was an attempt at integrating these different groups, with Prashant facilitating a collaboration between Indian migrant workers and a local Tamil band. His continued participation in Migrant Voices has been a humbling experience, and he has been particularly touched by the hospitality shown by migrant workers during his outreach efforts at their living quarters.
After the successful launch of the Migrant Voices CD in March 2006, Migrant Voices initiated a drama production, SOIL, in collaboration with Drama Box, a professional non-profit theatre company that has gained a reputation for the sensitive way in which it raises issues of social awareness and civic responsibility—particularly through interactive community theatre in the ‘heartlands’. Through the medium of community theatre and relevant content, they have been particularly successful in reaching out to and engaging audiences that are otherwise not exposed to the arts.
When Drama Box was in the midst of preparations for their year-end community theatre tour in 2006, Migrant Voices representative Ruby Pan met with Kok Heng Leun, Artistic Director of Drama Box, and introduced the possibility of collaborating with Migrant Voices to bring an awareness of migrant worker issues to a larger general public. This collaboration culminated in the November 2006 staging of SOIL, a double bill of two plays focusing on migrant workers: The Story of Shah and The Story of Atin. The former related the experiences of a male Indian construction worker new to Singapore while the latter dealt with a homesick female Indonesian domestic worker.
Prior to the staging of SOIL, Heng Leun met with the participants of our Sunday drama workshops, conducted in a space in Little India donated by spell#7, a performance theatre group. The drama workshop participants were migrant workers who were aware of Migrant Voices from previous collaborations, through direct community outreach and our networks with other migrant worker organisations in Singapore. Through repeated interactions with migrant workers during our drama workshops and with Heng Leun’s guidance, we created the two plays based on the experiences of our participants. The actors, consisting of migrant workers and Migrant Voices/Drama Box volunteers, were carefully selected based on suitability, talent, interest and availability.
SOIL was staged in the heartlands—specifically, Ang Mo Kio Central, Bedok Central, Chinatown and Tiong Bahru Plaza—to reach out to an audience living in proximity with migrant workers but who might not be cognisant of issues confronting them. It aimed to offer an alternative perspective to the often negative and one-dimensional portrayal of migrant workers in the public realm. During its four stagings, SOIL reached out to a diverse community of Singaporeans from various age groups and races. Particularly encouraging was the spontaneous participation of migrant workers from neighbouring construction sites during the staging at Tiong Bahru Plaza. During the interactive portion, SOIL offered these workers an opportunity to enthusiastically articulate their thoughts and perspectives to a captive audience.
The Story of Shah
The Story of Shah related the experiences of an Indian construction worker who had been in Singapore for less than a month. The play addresses his adjustment to life as a construction worker here: living in cramped conditions, enduring long hours of work and eating strange food. His longing for his family back home in Tamil Nadu exacerbates his isolation in Singapore. Shah’s character was played by Thangamani Jeganath—or ‘Thambi’ (‘little brother’), as he is affectionately called by Migrant Voices volunteers—an Indian construction worker who animatedly drew from his personal experiences stemming from eight years of working in Singapore.
In the play, Shah befriends Prem, a streetwise Bangladeshi worker who has been roughened and toughened by living in Singapore for six months. Prem’s character was realised by two actors, Jared Tham from The Choice Initiative and Md. Abul Khair, a Bangladeshi technician, due to the latter’s conflicting work schedule. Prem is a model for Shah, providing an example of how his life might develop in future. However, Shah begins to question some aspects of Prem’s character, the rough exterior and brashness necessitated by the tough living condition and because money is needed back home for his family to survive. In Prem, Shah recognises a resignation borne out of necessity that is at odds with his youth.
Shah’s difficulty in adjusting to the new environment leads to a loss of appetite and sleeplessness, and his health deteriorates. One day at work, a physically weak Shah drops a concrete slab and injures his leg. Despite the severity of the condition, his foreman, jaded by such incidents and stressed by production deadlines, ignores Shah’s pain and demands that he continue to work. Jolovan Wham, a social worker from HOME, enacted the role of the foreman. He depicted the character with humour—a sympathetic caricature of the foremen he encounters in his work for migrant worker rights. He comments:
As a social worker with HOME, I have come into contact with many employers and have had the opportunity to understand some of their concerns. I was conscious of portraying the foreman in a way that reflects my experiences when I interacted with them. It is easy and often tempting to fall into didactic representations. The big bad ugly foreman has feelings too! Production deadlines, the frustration of having to handle so many human beings of disparate cultures and languages can be a trying experience. Of course, this does not excuse the systemic exploitation, racism, class bias and bigotry that exist, and the fact that the foreman’s frustrations are also coloured by such prejudices; but it does give a more nuanced, and in my opinion, accurate, portrayal of the role of the traditional oppressor.
Jolovan’s view of the foreman was echoed by another young Singaporean Chinese woman during the interactive portion of the play when it was staged in Bedok Central. ‘Foremen are not always the real bad guys, [because] they only take orders from a higher authority who will in turn scold them if they don’t finish on time,’ she commented. This highlighted a chain of exploitations, where another antagonist binds the antagonist.
Back in the workers’ quarters, Prem manages to fall asleep with ease despite the noisy, cramped and uncomfortable conditions. An injured and dejected Shah is tossing restlessly and bothered by the hovering insects. He seeks solace by sitting outside the workers’ quarters to play his treasured flute from home. The flute and its soulful melody connect him to his family in Tamil Nadu. The emotional rendition by Thambi successfully communicated to the audience his isolation and longing for home.
Awakened by the soothing yet sad melody, Prem senses his friend’s uneasiness and suggests that they go for a drink. The next scene opens with the two men at a Housing Development Board (HDB) coffee shop. Prem offers Shah a drink, but he declines, as he doesn’t drink. Prem continues to drink while questioning Shah about the song that he was playing. At this juncture in the play, to bring in other characters—apart from the three ‘types’, the typical characters seen at a construction site—Heng Leun decided it would be appropriate to bring in two other characters for Singaporeans to identify with. A Mandarin-speaking female passer-by (played by Migrant Voices volunteer Ong Li Wei) walks in, talking to someone over her mobile phone about ‘Bangla’ workers in the area and how they were staring at her. She comments that she is scared to walk by them, afraid that they may do something to her. She walks past Prem and Shah, gingerly covering her nose to demonstrate her repulsion based on her opinion that they are smelly. Prem takes offence to the passer-by’s pejorative attitude towards them and needs to be restrained by Shah.
Soon after, a second female passer-by walks past and Prem accidentally shoves Shah towards this woman in his drunken stupor. While a Filipino domestic worker was originally slated to play the second passer-by, she could only make it for the second show and Sha stepped into the role for the first show, drawing from her past prejudices and present work with Migrant Voices. Shah stumbles from the unexpected shove from Prem and falls onto this woman. Disgusted by the act and misunderstanding the event, she shouts back at him and Prem for their misbehaviour. Thinking this was another woman launching a racial attack, Prem lunges forward with his glass bottle. The passer-by feels threatened and calls the police. Prem runs away, while Shah, hampered by his leg injury, is caught instead and brought to the police station.
The station scene is particularly poignant, with Shah’s foreman railing at him, listing all the problems he is facing and the expense of settling this case. The foreman threatens to deport him back home as this episode is wasting his time and money. Shah’s pleas of innocence appear to fall on deaf ears. His helplessness is further amplified by his recognition that repatriation would sink his family further into debt, as he would be unable to pay off the large amount of agent fees he had borrowed to fund his journey to Singapore. True to the genre of Forum Theatre, the play ends with uncertainty, with Shah facing repatriation. This gives the audience a conflict in which they need to intervene to resolve.
One of the most revealing responses during the interactive portion for The Story of Shah was when two migrant workers from the nearby construction site at Tiong Bahru Plaza came up to switch roles with Shah. One of them, a Bangladeshi worker, broke down in tears in front of everyone, relating how this story was so very real to him. He recounted a similar scenario happening at his workplace, where work accidents are not treated with seriousness and workers are left to tend to their injuries amidst escalating medical fees. Jolovan was particularly moved by the participation of the migrant workers during the interactive portion:
I was struck and touched by how, during the last performance, the Bangladeshi workers took the stage and offered to be a part of the performance. We often see but don’t hear the migrant workers in our midst. The closest many of us get to construction workers is when we are stuck in a jam on the highway and there is a lorry-load of them peering at us through our windscreen. When he broke down and cried as he related the frustrations many migrant workers in Singapore face, his was a voice which for too long has remained in the margins.
The Story of Atin
The second play in the SOIL double bill focused on Atin, played by Indonesian domestic worker Siti Muyasaroh. Atin is a young Indonesian girl who is first seen learning cleaning techniques with two other Indonesian women in a foreign domestic worker agency. Despite arriving in Singapore only a few weeks ago, Atin is already feeling homesick.
The agency supervisor, enacted by The Choice Initiative volunteer Jaime, walks in suddenly and one of the foreign domestic workers drops a spray bottle. The supervisor reprimands the one who dropped the spray, demanding, ‘What if it was glass? Who’s gonna pay?’ She then instructs them how to reply to their employers when asked to do things. When posed with unreasonable scenarios, including waking up in the wee hours of the morning to cook for their employers, the three workers are instructed to reply, ‘Yes, Ma’am.’ The only exception articulated by the agency supervisor was to politely decline the dangerous act of cleaning windows in their employers’ high-rise apartments. Through this exchange, the audience becomes cognisant of the power differential between foreign domestic workers and their employers, and the potential danger of this deference to authority, for example in light of the spate of incidents of these workers falling to their deaths while cleaning windows in high-rise apartments. The multifaceted role of the agency supervisor as concerned superior and businessperson is also introduced, opening an avenue for intervention in the interactive portion of the play.
Atin then leaves for her new employer’s home, where she has to care for an elderly woman and her employer’s children. She misses home deeply and often eagerly looks out of the window when she hears the sound of an aircraft engine. This scene was drawn directly from the personal experience of Sumarni, or Arni as she is affectionately called, who plays one of the domestic workers in the first scene. During the weekly drama workshop, Arni had related that she would often wonder if the aircraft she was hearing heading to Indonesia. Yet, peering out of her employer’s high-rise apartment, dwarfed by other taller buildings in a foreign land, she had no sense where Indonesia and home were. Arni’s experience was incorporated into the play to demonstrate Atin’s isolation and consequent fixation with returning home.
In the next scene, Atin’s lack of command of Mandarin leads to a breakdown in communication with the elderly woman she is to care for. The elderly woman was signalling her need to xiao bian (‘to urinate’ in Mandarin) but Atin could not understand and help her in time, leading to the elderly woman urinating in her pants, creating a foul smell. Atin’s failure to understand her charge, compounded by an increased sense of seclusion, leads to intense frustration. Before she can clean up the mess, the employer, played by Indonesian domestic worker Suprihatin, returns home. Shocked at what she finds, she reprimands Atin harshly and demands an explanation. A cowed Atin is not responsive which heightens her employer’s anger. She repeatedly asks, ‘Why?’ and a pressured Atin replies, ‘I don’t know.’ Atin resolves to return home.
Some days later, Atin approaches her employer to ask for leave, lying that she has to visit her sick father in Indonesia. Telling her employer the truth was not an option, as she felt it impossible to return home only on the grounds of disliking the work. While Atin felt it was a harmless lie for her greater good, her employer quickly finds out the truth and does not allow her to return home. Instead, she punishes Atin by loading her with additional chores, including cleaning the windows in the apartment. Mindful of her training at the agency, Atin politely declines, saying this was too dangerous, but her furious employer is insistent, leaving Atin no choice. The play concludes with Atin cleaning the windows, with other domestic workers in the vicinity calling out to her, ‘Jangan eh, bahaya!’ (‘Be careful, its dangerous!’).
The Story of Atin was difficult to forum as Atin had lied to her stern employer. One audience member remarked that Atin should not have lied and should have told the truth despite having been intimidated by the employer’s stern voice or mannerisms. However, the facilitator probed the audience to contemplate the power differential between the employer and the foreign domestic worker, and question if a subordinate in a foreign environment is empowered enough to engage her employer.
SOIL is presently being re-worked and Migrant Voices is re-staging it as Tales Within Borders as part of the Singapore Drama Educators Association’s (SDEA) Celebrate Drama festival at The Arts House in July 2007. The actors are still participants of the workshop. We have noticed that Thambi has become more committed to the workshops and is less inhibited as compared to his shy demeanour in the beginning. ‘I look forward to Sundays [because] I get to see my brothers and sisters now,’ he shares, referring to the close kinship he has developed with other migrant workers and volunteers.
1. Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) is an NGO that runs a women’s shelter in Siglap in eastern Singapore for distressed foreign domestic workers in need of a temporary place. HOME runs a similar shelter for men in Little India in central Singapore. HOME runs IT training classes and puts together an annual International Migrants’ Day event each December. For more information, see http://www.home.org.sg
2. See John Gee, ‘M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2006: High Visibility for Migrant Workers’ (pp. 254–257) in this volume.
3. The term ‘heartlands’ refers to the suburban community spaces with high-quality government Housing Development Board (HDB) flats and inhabited predominantly by middle- or lower middle-class Singaporeans.
4. Migrant Voices volunteers participate in ‘Grass Day Out’, a migrant worker outreach programme held on Sundays to engage migrant workers and raise awareness of arts activities available to migrant workers.
5. The Choice Initiative is a registered not-for-profit youth society started in January 2004, when a group of young Singaporeans returned from a life-changing Youth Expedition Project to Bangalore, India. The organisation aims to empower youth to make better choices and to take the initiative in social issues that concern them.
6. Wham shared some further thoughts on Forum Theatre: ‘Effective social change cannot happen if it is based on a model that excludes participation and silences dissent. Forum Theatre, with its emphasis on audience participation, stimulates dialogue rather than monologue—and this should be the foundation for social activism. By encouraging the audience to express different viewpoints, Forum Theatre is an ideal way of engaging them in important social issues in a critical way, rather than their being a passive recipient of preconceived pedagogical messages. In Singapore, the state is the one that serves up and decides what we consume and how we consume. Forum Theatre, if done well and facilitated with skill, opens up possibilities and celebrates pluralities—and this welcome antidote, is what ultimately, I like about it.’ Email correspondence with the authors.
7. Thambi formally learned to play the flute from Ustad Sharafat Khan, another migrant artist in Singapore. He would attend flute classes every Saturday after work and has been practicing the instrument for more than three years. He also contributed a flute composition to the “Ocean” track in the Migrant Voices CD.
8. SDEA was established in 2002 to establish drama methodology as a vital element in the development of every individual in society. It advocates and advances the development of drama in education, therapy and performance. Celebrate Drama is the SDEA’s annual outreach project consisting of performances, workshops, talks and films.