26/09/2015 8:20 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Mobiles, Mustafa And The South Asian Migrant In Singapore

Manishankar Prasad


Photo Courtesy: Author

It was a crowded Sunday evening (as usual) in Singapore's Little India area, at a major bus stop perpendicular to the iconic Mustafa Centre on Syed Alwi Lane. The retail cathedral of South Asian migrants, Mustafa is also an organising node for social interactions on the weekly off for them. Evening was receding into the night, and the bus stop was getting more crowded by the minute with migrant workers from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Bangladesh. There was a sense of the precious Sunday having flown away, and the early morning Monday commute looming large.

The motley cacophony of these different linguistic sounds defines the ethos of the area, which without any doubt is very South Asian. It is a lively part of the city, perhaps too much so for my Singaporean friends who try to avoid the area on weekends due to the crowd; some taxi "uncles" have often complained to me about the migrants' disregard for traffic regulations as the crowd often spills on to the street. One taxi uncle of Indian decent once quipped: This is not India, in Singapore you have to follow rules. Perhaps the impact of the Little India riot a few years ago is still fresh in the consciousness of the people and hence there are (recently imposed) restrictions on drinking liquor across the Little India area on weekends after a certain time in the evening in the interests of maintaining public order.

"One taxi uncle of Indian decent once quipped: This is not India, in Singapore you have to follow rules."

These hundreds of thousands of migrant workers build and maintain Singapore's global infrastructure such as the Marina Bay Sands, public housing estates, hospitals and universities. But they stay far away from the city centre, inhabiting dormitories on the outskirts of the city-state near the Malaysia border. These dormitories are on the lines of integrated, self-contained townships, some with even a cinema hall screening South Asian films at a subsidised cost. Not all the dormitories are that fancy though, with cramped accommodation being a defining characteristic.

But no matter the distance and the time required, the Sunday ritual of travelling to Little India, to catch up with friends and buy weekly provisions, is a sacrosanct ritual for the South Asian migrant. It doesn't matter that it takes almost two hours one way on public transport to reach the Little India area from Tuas Industrial area on the fringes where the dormitories are located.

I really enjoy the atmospherics and the cultural milieu of spending Sunday in the alleys of Little India, perching myself next to Khana Basmati, a prominent Bangladeshi restaurant frequented by migrants. Here I observe deep-fried snacks (bhajiyya in Hindi or tele bhaja in Bengali) being sold and consumed. They are brutally unhealthy and lukewarm, but they remind me of the street food in Mumbai/Kolkata.

It was on such a Sunday, late in the evening, that I and a crowd of workers converged on the bus stop. Bus number 66 arrived. I was pushed and shoved without any regard for the orderly etiquette of the usual queue in Singapore -- it reminded me of my days in a bus stop in South Asia certainly. The workers seemed to be in a panic to grab a seat on the bus, probably because their journey back to the dormitory would take a while.

The bus was theoretically a spacious, double-decker one, but there was hardly room to breathe. In this rather limited space, my neighbour, who seemed to be a South Indian, took out his Android phone and started reading the news on the website of Dinamalar, a prominent Tamil newspaper in India. I could also see a Bangladeshi man reading news on the online edition of Prothom Alo, the premier Bengali language daily in Dhaka. I saw a few others also reading news on the phone during my 30-minute bus ride with my South Asian compatriots.

"Almost every migrant carries a smart phone nowadays, much as Syrian refugees in other countries hold on to their smart phones at any cost..."

The migrant keeps in touch with the daily developments in his home country with his smart phone and the reasonably priced high-speed 4G data connectivity in Singapore. Almost every migrant carries a smart phone nowadays, much as Syrian refugees in other countries hold on to their smart phones at any cost, as these are their last connection to their old lives.

Migration is a development resulting out of poor employment opportunities in their home markets and slightly better pay in manpower-importing countries such as Singapore. Connecting with their families via Skype on their phones, or catching up with the news of their native districts back home surely make the burden of being a migrant more bearable. I am a second-generation economic migrant with my wife in India and parents in Oman, and I do understand the sentiment very well.

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