Ex-SMRT China bus driver on working in S'pore: It's like we were lesser people

In a recent hour-long phone interview with Yahoo! Singapore, former SMRT bus driver He Jun Ling opens up to JEANETTE TAN and PEACE CHIU to share why and how more than 170 bus drivers ended up going on a two-day strike against their employer on the morning of 26 November 2012. You can read Part One here. In this second part of the series, he shares his views on xenophobia and integration of foreign workers in Singapore.

When former SMRT bus driver He Jun Ling stepped off the bus at his home in Henan for the first time in almost two years, the first people he met and hugged were his wife and five-year-old daughter.

“The first thing my daughter said to me was, ‘What took you so long to come home?’,” He told Yahoo! Singapore in a recent phone interview from Henan.

“I asked her whether she was happy to see me and she said yes, very happy. I explained that the bus was slow, and to that, she said, ‘The bus must have moved at snail’s pace!’”

The 33-year-old had more emotional words for his wife, though, remembering that while he was gone, she had to be breadwinner, mother and father to their daughter all at the same time. “I told her it must have been tough on her — she suffered quite a lot,” he said.

Why work in Singapore?

Back in 2011, as He mulled the decision to spend two years working abroad, away from his wife, daughter, parents, other relatives and friends, he said he had only heard good things about Singapore.

“We had two modes of thinking about why we were inclined to go to Singapore to work: in terms of remuneration, we knew that we would earn more in Singapore,” he explained.

“The other is the language barrier (in Singapore) wouldn’t be as great as it would be elsewhere — after all, 70 per cent of the local population is Chinese, and our English is very poor, so we thought we would be able to integrate here faster. We all thought Singapore was a very good country; a really, really good one.”

He did not have friends or relatives who had Singapore-based work experience, however, and relied on the little he was told by the agents who secured his job with SMRT.

On the first point, He saw it was true enough. He was able to send the bulk of his salary — amounting to more thanS $1,000 a month — back to his family, living off a remainder of about $400 for food, phone bills and his share of the broadband bill in the dormitory he shared with other drivers.

On days when he worked the morning shift, He was able to chat with his wife and daughter on QQ, a popular messaging platform used in China, and on other days, they spoke over the phone. These conversations, said He, were what kept him going despite his daily experiences and encounters with Singaporeans at work.

‘It’s like we were lesser people’

On the second point, He found he was considerably off the mark.

“From what I’ve seen, experienced and heard personally, Singaporeans don’t view people from the mainland in a very positive light,” he said. “Some of them look down on us… there is a breakdown in communication between Singaporeans and Chinese people.”

He related incidents where he and several of his ex-colleagues faced harsh criticism on their driving from elderly passengers, some of whom told them to return to China if they couldn't drive properly.

“These incidents gave us the impression that some Singaporeans really didn’t welcome us,” said He.

He feels that Singaporeans have little idea of the struggles faced by foreign workers, noting that many Bangladeshi workers go without food because they earn too little.

“After my time there I ended up feeling that the way Singaporeans looked at and treated us made us feel quite uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s like we were lesser people than them… as if we were second-class citizens.

“Whether you’re from China, Bangladesh or India, Singaporeans treat foreign workers very passively,” he continued. “They feel that problems experienced by foreign workers should be handled by their employers only and are less helpful when it comes to problems we face… this is something I feel isn’t too good.”

He can understand what is driving some of the tension.

“A lot of online comments accuse Chinese nationals of stealing Singaporean rice bowls, and that our coming here aggravates the stress some locals face in searching for jobs here, so from that perspective I do understand where the angst comes from,” he said.

“But the government knows it needs to rely on foreign workers — there are a lot of jobs Singaporeans won’t do, and we are here with the backing of the government to do these jobs. And when you bring in so many foreign workers, of course there will be problems or issues, so you need to think of contingencies to accommodate them and to ensure that (social integrity is maintained),” he noted.

He was also forgiving of the negative comments made online against him and the other 170 bus drivers who went on strike last November.

“I also can understand where they’re coming from,” he said. “After all, Singapore is their country, and they would definitely be unhappy when foreign workers create unrest. But they might not have understood the background and the issues leading up to our action… so I really can understand their reaction, where it was negative.”

Companions concur

When asked, two of He's three companions, who served six weeks in jail with him and travelled home a week earlier, shared similar sentiments on the issue.

"Singaporeans are like frogs in a well," wrote Liu Xiang Ying in an email interview with Yahoo! Singapore.

"They didn't treat me with a friendly attitude, and I was often looked down upon. (In responding to the strike) Those who were more fluent in Chinese were slightly better, while those who spoke English tended only to look at the end-result (the strike) and not the process."

Liu, who worked in Singapore for more than four years, said he would not have come to the Republic had he known about the "severe lack of freedom" and workers' rights.

"However, I don't regret coming to Singapore to work, because I observed and learned a lot there," he continued. "I can only say (in reference to his participation in the strike) that when they discover the truth, they will understand why I had to do this... it's a matter of fighting for our rights and dignity."

Added Wang Xianjie, "Any foreign worker with courage and a sense of uprightness would confront such unfair and unreasonable treatment."

Not all bad

However, He said it was not all bad and there were many Singaporeans who came forward to help him and his three compatriots. Assistance ranged from bailing them out to finding them temporary housing in Kallang for the three months their case wore on in court.

“There were a lot of kind-hearted Singaporeans helping us after this incident occurred — non-governmental organisations, the lawyers who defended us pro bono and many others whose names we don’t even know,” he said. “One of the first things I did when I got home was to text them to let them know I was back safely, and some of them called me too. I’m really grateful to them.”

He also shared that, ultimately, he still harbours a positive view of Singapore.

“I do think the environment there is very good. Even after everything that happened and my return home, I still think (Singapore’s) infrastructure and transport is very good. The roads are orderly, living standards for locals are high, landscaping is beautiful and the streets are generally safe. I still think it is so.”

Read the first part of our interview with He Jun Ling here.

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