Singapore photography festival captures closer ties between locals and migrant workers

Dewey Sim

When Jean Ragual first started work in Singapore 11 years ago, the Filipino domestic helper felt misunderstood by Singaporeans.

On one occasion, during her first months in the Lion City, she recalled being turned away after asking for directions at a railway station.

“The auntie looked at me and asked if I was a domestic helper. I said yes, wearing my smile. She told me not to talk to her,” said Ragual, 38, a native of Mindanao.

“I was very disappointed. I wanted to cry. [It was] the first time … I felt someone was against me.”

The Migrant Workers Photography Festival in Singapore. Photo: Handout

About 1 million migrant workers hailing from countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, and China live in Singapore. They work mostly in the construction and manufacturing industries, or, like Ragual, in domestic services.

Efforts have been ramped up in recent years to bridge the gap between these workers and Singaporeans, as activists warn of surging xenophobia in the country.

Advocacy groups started organising poetry contests some five years ago with the goal of using literature to break down these barriers. Migrant workers also showcased their different cultures through dance and drama at a cultural show last week to forge friendships within and beyond the migrant worker community.

On September 8, close to 100 of them gathered at a gallery in downtown Singapore, hoping to show their creative side to locals through a new channel – photography.

One of the photographers taking part in the exhibition. Photo: Handout

They were there for the inaugural Migrant Workers Photography Festival, which this year saw 118 submissions across three categories: landscape and nature, people and culture, and places and architecture.

Ragual’s submission of a railway station near her workplace, with Singaporeans from all walks of life rushing to work, won her first place in the architecture category.

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The avid photographer, who shot the picture with her Samsung smartphone, said the railway station was telling of Singapore’s multiracial and religious make-up, and that its people were united as one.

“The MRT best shows the life in Singapore. [Many people] are on their journeys, and life is a journey,” she said.

Zakir Hossain Khokan, one of the organisers of the festival. Photo: Handout

One of the organisers of the festival is Zakir Hossain Khokan, a Bangladeshi native who came to Singapore some 15 years ago.

Khokan, who is also an award-winning poet, said he hoped the festival could help change Singaporeans’ perceptions that migrant workers “just [do] dirty or difficult or dangerous work”.

“We want to change this view that because migrants do not have much education, they do not have much passion for anything,” said the 41-year-old quality control coordinator. “Migrant workers have that kind of creativity. Migrant workers also do photography.”

Migrants often feel lonely or homesick. This festival and exhibition will help them to know that outside their hometown, Singapore is also their home

Festival organiser Zakir Hossain Khokan

Khokan said that while misunderstandings and societal gaps were inevitable due to cultural differences, he hoped that the festival could bring like-minded people from both sides together in the name of photography.

He also hoped that by asking migrant workers to submit photographs of Singapore, they would come to realise that Singapore was a home away from home.

“Migrants often feel lonely or homesick. This festival and exhibition will help them to know that outside their hometown, Singapore is also their home … that they have the same passionate people surrounding them.”

People attend the photo exhibition. Photo: Handout

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said there had been greater awareness among Singaporeans of the needs and challenges faced by migrant workers, thanks to outreach activities by welfare and religious organisations.

“I’d say that the efforts have worked, and that Singaporean-migrant worker relations have generally been harmonious, but of course more could be done to enhance social integration,” Tan said.

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“Initiatives aimed at bringing Singaporeans and migrant workers together as equals – reflected in the fact that a migrant worker is part of the [festival’s] organising committee – and as fellow human beings to collaborate on projects of common interest would be useful to facilitate social integration.”

The Migrant Workers Photography Festival exhibition in Singapore. Photo: Handout

Given the positive response from the photography festival, Khokan said more were in the pipeline to bridge the divide, including a literature festival for migrant workers come December.

He also hoped that such activities could help migrant workers find their place in Singapore.

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“Singapore is a harmonious society, and all our activities are based on that understanding,” he said.

“We are a community of Singaporeans and migrants, and we can live together harmoniously.”

– The Migrant Workers Photography Festival runs until September 15 at Objectifs gallery in Singapore.

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