Veteran migrant workers: Singapore is land of opportunity

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SINGAPORE – When Mr Rahim Islam first arrived in Singapore in 1999, there were just two MRT lines – the North-South and East-West lines.

Then 19, he left his single mother and two sisters in a rented house in Dhaka for a job where he would earn $600 a month as a construction worker. The plan was to return home in five years.

Now, 21 years later, he works as a safety coordinator and earns $4,000. He owns three properties and a plot of land back home.

The rent from two of his properties is enough to support his wife and four-year-old daughter.

“What I get from my salary now, I keep for investment,” said the 40-year-old, who has begun to watch farming tutorials on YouTube. He plans to go home in three years to run his own fish, dairy and poultry farms.

Close to a million work permit holders work in Singapore in hopes of a better future for themselves and their families back home.

Like Mr Rahim, some of them end up dedicating nearly half their lives here to achieving that dream.

Over the years, Mr Rahim has also invested in his own education.

Having quit school at 14, he has signed up for courses every year since 2006. Most recently, he obtained a specialist diploma in architectural technology from the Building and Construction Authority Academy, adding to his list of qualifications that include basic IT skills, workplace literacy and numeracy, workplace safety and health and environmental control.

“Every year I upgrade myself,” he said, as he flipped through his certificates. He has spent close to $20,000 in total on improving himself.

But this has come to a halt due to Covid-19. Instead of attending a safety officer course, Mr Rahim found himself under lockdown with a malfunctioning laptop and a broken Internet connection. And the course was postponed.

He was left with only his old textbooks to pass the time.

More than ever, he misses his wife and daughter. This is the first time in five years that Mr Rahim has not gone home to celebrate Eid al-Adha, or Hari Raya Haji.

“I am worried about them because the situation is worse in Bangladesh,” he said, adding that cases in the country are still increasing. “I pray for them every day.”

As much as he would like to stay in Singapore, the lack of a permanent resident (PR) status makes it difficult to stay long term, said the S Pass holder. He applied to be a PR in 2015, but was unsuccessful.

A Singaporean at heart

After working 12-hour shifts six days a week, security supervisor Subburayan Palanivelu likes to unwind on his rest day with a friend over a drink. PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

Mr Subburayan Palanivelu, 45, counts himself as one of the luckier ones.

After getting a National Technical Certificate Grade 2 qualification, which certified him as a trained and competent craftsman in precision engineering, the Indian national was given PR status in 2004, after just four years in Singapore.

“With PR, life is much better. I can change jobs, rent a house, leave Singapore and come back any time.”

The father of three goes back to Chennai three times a year to visit his wife and children, aged nine, seven and five, but never for long.

“I was born in India, but really, Singapore is my home.”

Since coming here, his family has moved from the village to the city and gone from renting a house to owning one.

“When I go back to India, my relatives and neighbours all give me respect, because I work in Singapore.”

But all of this comes at a price. For a monthly income of $4,000, Mr Subburayan sleeps only two to three hours a day.

The security supervisor first does a 12-hour shift, then works part-time at his friend’s food stall. This leaves him time to sleep from 4pm to 7pm.

He has sustained this for nearly five years and is working towards starting a business that he can eventually pass down to his children.

“I know my health condition. I still have the energy,” he said. “Maybe in another two to five years, I will cut down the working hours. But now, I can still do it.”

He plans to work in Singapore until his children graduate from university in another 10 years.

Helping others from here

Mr Hossain Shahadat spent two months installing air-con systems at what was to become Jewel Changi Airport. PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

Construction supervisor Hossain Shahadat, 32, not only supports his family, but plans to build up a non-profit organisation with 11 of his childhood friends to help the poor and needy in Cumilla, Bangladesh.

Since 2011, Mr Hossain has been putting aside $16, or 5 per cent of his monthly spending, every month as capital for the organisation.

Although he and his friends have not yet accumulated enough to fund large-scale projects, they have started to provide food and clothes on special occasions, like Eid al-Adha.

He considers himself fortunate to be able to earn a living here, so he wants to help those who do not have the chance.

But Covid-19 has put a strain on his finances. His monthly salary of $1,300 was cut to $400 during the lockdown and was barely enough to cover his living expenses.

While he usually sends home $1,000 every month, he could only afford $200 in the months with no work. “It is a difficult situation for everybody everywhere,” he said. His wife and two children had to depend on savings to tide them over.

The Straits Times – Tiffany Tan

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