Can the Migrant Speak?: Migrant Worker Poetry and the Art of Advocacy in Singapore


BY POH YONG HAN

Ask Singaporeans what the most pressing issues facing Singapore are, and you might get a range of answers: public transport gripes,  the crisis of confidence in the National Service system after a recent spate of unfortunate and preventable deaths, or impending political transition in an uncertain global environment. What you’re unlikely to hear, however, are issues relating to migrant workers’ treatment in Singapore. Rightly or wrongly, most citizens of most countries – not just Singapore – care more about their own direct concerns than the concerns of the migrants who perform some of the most basic, but crucial, services that keep a busy city going, from helping households at home as domestic workers, to building the physical infrastructure we largely take for granted. But a humane society must cater to all of its members, and migrant workers in Singapore face difficult conditions and unique challenges (like poor living conditions and exploitation by bad-egg employers or agents) that anyone would acknowledge are important to deal with. Still, dealing with these issues is hard. Low-wage migrants working in Singapore are treated as transient aliens – neither here nor there, entitled to rights in home countries they left, and lacking rights in the countries in which they live. In a global system that ties rights to citizenship, on what grounds can rights for non-citizens be advocated on?

Scholars and activists worldwide tend to use human and labour rights as frames to advocate for migrant rights. In academia, a human rights approach is based on visions of postnational citizenship (Soysal 1994), cosmopolitan citizenship (Linklater 1998; Benhabib 2005) and trans-border citizenship (Schiller 2005). All of these describe more inclusive visions of citizenship that could address issues with existing citizenship regimes. National citizenships today are underpinned by deep logical problems, including the fact that most citizens of a country owe their citizenship to their luck-of-birth rather than any choice of their own; and that passports-for-sale schemes turn citizenship into a commodity available only to a lucky, select few (who are typically rich). A human rights frame instead argues for universal access to core rights for everyone, based solely on their status as a human being, grounded in institutions like the United Nations that transcend our current nation-state framework. Proponents thus celebrate human rights as a form of universalized citizenship, that uses global treaties and conventions to create more inclusive citizenship regimes (Ruhs, 2015).

However, the global infrastructures that help turn ideas of basic human rights into concrete reality still operate through the nation-state. Obviously, this makes them dependent on individual countries ratifying and carrying out any agreement that would give ‘human rights’ legal force. Thus, if countries choose not to ratify these conventions, there is little that international organizations can do, since the principle of sovereignty still largely underpins today’s global order. Singapore, for instance, has yet to ratify the International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families, the most comprehensive convention for migrant rights thus far. It is also not a signatory to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) conventions No. 97 and 143, the two ILO conventions that relate directly to the rights of migrant workers. The UN, for example, has no right to force Singapore to follow any of these. Thus, for human rights to be effective, a culture of celebrating human rights should also exist in the country in question. While countries such as Canada and Switzerland have long histories of championing human rights both in international and domestic settings, the same cannot be said for Singapore. Indeed, the state has regularly characterized ‘human rights’ as an alien concept, branding it a foreign Western liberal import that has no place in Singaporean society, and outright disregarding human rights laws (Piper, 2010).

If human rights are unlikely to be resonant in Singapore, could labour rights be the answer to migrant rights advocacy? Similar to human rights, a labour rights frame disentangles the notion of rights from citizenship, focusing instead on rights entitled to all workers regardless of their legal status. Worker-based mobilization also acknowledges that both temporary low-wage migrant workers and local citizens engaged in ‘low-skill’ industries are equally disadvantaged, since both groups face the same structural barriers in entering employment, and are located in a neoliberal market that devalues their skills.

The extent to which a labour rights frame could work in Singapore, however, is also questionable. For a labour rights frame to work, a culture of strong labour movements is required for the concept of ‘labour rights’ to have any resonance. In Singapore, our labour rights movements have generally been restricted and structured through a strong ‘tripartite alliance’ that effectively prevents the emergence of a bottom-up grassroots labour movement. Thus, migrant workers’ attempts to organise themselves to pursue their interests are undermined in four major ways. They lack access to the benefits of citizenship; they are easily deported; and their host society’s labour movements are either incorporated into controlled structures, or repressed (Bal, 2015). These issues make it extremely difficult for migrant workers to advocate for their own rights. While the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) set up the Migrant Workers Center (MWC) to help address migrant workers’ grievances, it tends to focus on diffusing immediate issues rather than challenging the fundamental status quo. Thus, ‘assisting’ migrant workers becomes possible without the pressure of independent advocacy (Chok, 2013): an approach more laudable for its pragmatism than its ability to actually help migrant workers deal with systemic issues in their lives in Singapore.

Given the limits of human rights and labour rights frames in advocating for migrants rights in Singapore, what then are the possibilities for advocacy? One possibility is to rely on the home countries of migrant workers to advocate for their rights. After all, the whole point of the nation-state system is to ensure that every person would have some kind of institution invested in and responsible for protecting their interests. However, the sad truth is that not all countries are equally concerned about protecting the rights of their nationals abroad. Whereas countries like the Philippines have strong protections for their foreign nationals, the same cannot be said for some other countries, whose embassies tend to be more concerned with representing the interests of its elite ‘expatriate’ community than the low-wage migrant worker community in Singapore.

Another possibility is to shift the focus away from advocacy for non-citizens (which human rights and labour rights implicitly assume) to advocacy by non-citizens themselves, captured by Isin’s (2009) concept of “acts of citizenship”. Acts of citizenship refer to the actions enacted by non-citizens themselves that embody some kind of citizenship-making – participating in protests, engaging in civil society, or speaking out in public forums – that render non-citizens citizens in the process. Thus, an undocumented citizen in the United States participating in a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) rally for example would be enacting an act of citizenship. Through their protests, non-citizens can thus make claims in creative ways that can help change perceptions of whether they ‘belong’, and thus change the rights they hold (Bloemraad, 2006). This approach thus recognizes that “unless migrants themselves or their advocates explicitly claim these rights, the rights are likely to be ignored by policy makers and employers” (Basok and Carasco, 2010: 344).

However, while the concept of ‘acts of citizenship’ has been fairly resonant in Western liberal democracies (Bloemraad, 2018) the radical potential of acts of citizenship is undermined in a country like Singapore, where modes of enacting acts of citizenship are often unavailable to citizens themselves. Freedoms of speech and assembly are highly restricted through the Public Order Act, which requires a police permit for any assembly held in a public place, or if any members of the general public are invited (Ong, 2017). Public protests are rare, given the harsh consequences of civil disobedience. On rare occasions when non-citizens in Singapore have tried to advocate for themselves – for instance when 171 Chinese migrant workers at SMRT protested against poor living conditions and income disparities – they were arrested, and their ringleaders were jailed, had their work permits revoked, and subsequently deported (Neisloss, 2017).

In the absence of political space to protest, how can non-citizens themselves enact acts of citizenship? One answer might be more ‘creative’ ways of enacting acts of citizenship such as the arts, which can avoid being overtly political. The arts have played a particularly important role in ‘soft authoritarian regimes’ like Singapore: in spaces where direct political protest is strictly controlled, the arts become a staging ground for activism, providing a relatively safer means of critical expression, often in subtle ways (Luger, 2015). Thus, if acts of citizenship were to manifest in Singapore, it might be possible that it would manifest through artistic acts of citizenship, which can use advocacy through the arts to push for social change (Elliot, Silverman and Bowman, 2016).

In Singapore, there has been a flourishing of migrant arts of late. The Migrant Poetry Festival, which started in 2014, has since expanded to include more than 170 participants across 7 nationalities. Migrants themselves have released several books, poetry, and short-story anthologies – one of which even won a Singapore Book Award for best non-fiction title. This has been complemented by an emergence of literary collectives like Migrant Writers Singapore, whose members participate in regular poetry and short-story recitals, and Migrant Birds, a migrant theater outfit that stages plays. Through these platforms, migrant workers have been able to gain some measure of a voice, and many of them have used these literary and artistic platforms as means to advocate for better migrant rights. For example, MD Sharif’s book, ‘Stranger to Myself: Diary of a Bangladeshi in Singapore’, highlights issues of poor accommodation and food faced by migrant workers.

Of course, artistic acts of citizenship are not a panacea – there are still limits (subtle or otherwise) on artistic representation in Singapore, and migrant workers who possess sufficient resources (time, educational background, and literary talents) to participate in these artistic forums constitute only a small fraction of the entire transient worker population. While growing, audiences of migrant arts are also largely small and self-selected, which might give impressions of ‘preaching to the choir’. Furthermore, many migrant workers who participate in these literary collectives have no intention of using it for advocacy at all, seeing it as stress-relief, for instance, or simply an exercise in literary engagement. This is no bad thing, and putting the burden solely on migrant workers to push for their own rights is unfair, given the challenges they already face as transient non-citizens. But it remains important to note that artistic acts of citizenship are no cure-all, and cannot be expected or even encouraged to be.

Still, all hope is not lost. As with any form of change-making, successful advocacy is often achieved through multiple channels, actors, and institutions, and the limits of one frame or avenue might be overcome by a combination of all the strategies mentioned above. Additionally, just because frames like human rights and labour rights might be less resonant with the government or ‘general public’ does not mean we should abandon them altogether. NGOs like TWC2 and HOME, which often cite human and labour rights in their campaigns for migrant rights, do great work, and their continued campaigns (as with those of the rest of civil society) have helped these ideas gain traction. In the meantime, however, given that rights to claim-making are still tied to citizenship status, migrant advocacy might have to rely heavily on non-migrants. This means that concerned Singaporean citizens should actively make their voice heard in public forums, engaging sympathetic Members of Parliament, volunteering at NGOs, and supporting migrant arts in whatever capacity possible. After all, if rights-claiming has to continue operating through the problematic logics of citizenship, then citizens who are supporters of migrant rights should use their citizenship privileges to help claim rights for everyone. In the end, the differences we delineate between migrant/non-migrant or citizen/non-citizen are arbitrary and constructed. They should not prevent us from treating everyone as human beings and ensuring the protection of their core rights.

Poh Yong Han is a junior (third-year undergraduate) at Harvard University concentrating in Social Anthropology and East Asian Studies. This piece was adapted from a paper written for a Social Studies tutorial.

This article is the first of four commissioned pieces for our February 2019 Migrants in Singapore Spotlight series, which explores the issues facing migrants, and in particular migrant workers, in Singapore today. To see the other pieces in this series, click this link. If you’re interested in contributing an article to this series or responding, we welcome article submissions and letters to the editor (links below).

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Image Credit: Global Migrant Festival (via Facebook)