By Poh Yong Han
(1,279 words, 7-minute read)
I Dream of Singapore follows an injured Bangladeshi migrant worker, Feroz, who is temporarily residing at a Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) shelter, Dayspace, as he waits for his case to be sorted out so he can make his compensation claims. At the shelter, much of Feroz’s time is spent waiting. We see Feroz watching cricket, practising push-ups, and even hosting an impromptu disco dance party in the confines of his little bunk bed. But mostly, Feroz spends his time staring into space, standing above the balcony at the shelter located in Little India, which offers him a glimpse into the shophouses nearby. The film begins and ends with Feroz’s haunting face: we see a man dreaming, but of where? And what?
The film’s title is a reference to how “The Singaporean Dream” is marketed to prospective migrant workers back in Bangladesh. We see evidence of how Singapore is constructed as an ideal country to work in when the filmmakers journey to Bangladesh: a smattering of individuals comment on how Singapore is a “good country” to work in, comparing Singapore’s protection of “human rights” to Bangladesh’s lack. Even Feroz’s fellow migrant workers at Dayspace heap praises on our efficient, sensible government in contrast to Bangladesh’s “chee bye” one. Visually, the vibrance and energy of Dhaka is contrasted to Singapore’s clean, curated architecture. I was struck most by the vivid colours of Dhaka, of Little India, and of Feroz’s village; from the intense reds and golds of fabrics to pastel blues and pinks of buildings. The footage of Singapore (epitomised by Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay and Jewel) is colourful too, but in a rigid, techno-dystopian sort of way that lacks the fervour of Bangladesh and its enclaves. Still, the migrant workers regard our landscape with awe and wonder, snapping photos at observational decks of our glittering cityscape.
Yet, the romance of Singapore is quickly deconstructed when we follow Feroz’s journey to recovery. Little is said about how he got his injuries, or the struggles of obtaining proper compensation from his employers. Instead, the hard-hitting accusations are masked under a more subtle critique facilitated by director Lei Yuan Bin’s observational approach. Indeed, the film could easily pass off as a visual ethnography, where traditional storylines are abandoned in favour of candid moments that spontaneously arrive, a testament to the filmmaker’s patience and the genuine relationships built between the subjects and the filmmaker. The non-linear narrative serves the filmmaker’s premise well, a fitting metaphor for the timeless and beginningless journeys of migration that the subjects undertake. The film conveys the vastness of these migrant journeys that are beyond the scope of one individual; even as I Dream of Singapore humanises the migrant worker who is hitherto reduced to a mere statistic, it also reminds us that Feroz is one of many migrant workers in Singapore, and that in some ways, his story could be any other migrant’s story. It is also immensely lyrical, paying tribute to the local migrant worker poetry scene in Singapore by quoting lines as inspiration and featuring migrant poet Zakir Khokan who recites a poem about the Buriganga River. Zakir’s words are layered over gorgeously shot footage of Bangladesh’s river, an apt image as a site of great movement across time and space.
One of the film’s strengths is its ability to convey depth of emotion. In particular, the departure of Ethan, a TWC2 social worker, is presented as a moment of great drama and affect: Feroz cries, his family cries, Ethan cries, and Feroz is seen sobbing all the way to the train station as he bids Ethan a final goodbye. Perhaps this attention to emotional intensity is also its weakness; at times, the film veers on the sentimental and clichéd, and Ethan is presented as some sort of saviour who showers Feroz’s family with gifts like a modern television set and desk lamp. Still, the portrayal of affect is ultimately powerful especially in highlighting the display of intimacy between two men, an intimacy that feels sincere.
The film certainly does not shy away from the crude. We are presented with a series of stomach-churning shots of Feroz’s injury: a gaping wound right down the middle of his tummy in all its angry rawness. But there is also a lot of humour, if dark. In one shot, we see a man sobbing earnestly in a mosque, as the camera pans to his t-shirt that reads, “I <3 Singapore”. In another scene, Feroz is explaining to Ethan that back at the training centres, places that prepare prospective migrant workers for their jobs in Singapore, the instructors would often beat students with large, heavy pieces of timbre. “Not slowly,” Feroz clarifies in response to Ethan’s disbelieving face, “very quickly,” Feroz says, “and very hard! It’s true!”. Throughout his explanation, Feroz is smiling, as though it was merely a riveting, if outlandish tale, rather than a sorry state of affairs that highlights the myriad violence and abuses hidden behind the walls of these training centres.
The film also underscores the wildly separate social lives Singaporeans and migrant workers lead, even as we inhabit the same space. Footage of migrant workers on Sundays show a large congregation of mostly South Indian male migrant workers alongside a patch of grass in Little India. The migrant workers are eating, laughing, and catching up with their friends, but the camera pans to a seemingly never-ending apparatus used to surveil them. In Little India, we see signs stating the alcohol consumption ban enacted in the aftermath of the 2013 riots; in migrant dormitories and migrant enclaves we see numerous CCTVs tracking their every act. Such attention to surveillance undercuts most of the film, making a stark commentary on the way in which migrant workers are framed in Singapore, i.e., as security threats that need to be managed by a watchful state. The distrust of the state is juxtaposed against the close relationships witnessed between staff and volunteers at the NGO. In one scene, Debbie Fordyce, a long-time volunteer at TWC2, is seen patting Feroz’s head reassuringly, the way a mother might comfort a young child. Ethan is also seen interacting with Feroz’s family, demonstrating a genuine concern for Feroz as a fellow human being situated in his own life-worlds, rather than just another nameless worker-automaton in Singapore.
Where does this leave us? What then are the ethics of migrant worker regimes like Singapore’s, which takes in young, able men from developing countries in the region only to repatriate them at the first sign of injury, illness, or old age? I Dream of Singapore eschews cutting political commentary, instead showing us the complexities and ethical ambiguities of Singapore’s labour regime. Even as it documents Feroz’s injury, it also shows us the hope and optimism prospective migrant workers harbour before coming to Singapore. In an early scene at one of Bangladesh’s many training centres, we see bright, sanguine young men who dream of coming to Singapore, a fitting image for the film’s title. By the end of the film, we are left wondering if the act of coming here has left them disillusioned; if Feroz, like many other migrant workers, are left dreaming of home instead. Still, who is to say “home” cannot too be Singapore, or really, both Singapore and Bangladesh? Excited as Feroz is to return to Bangladesh, he is also devastated at Ethan’s departure. We are reminded that the act of migration is transformative; we are displaced twice, first in the act of leaving, then in the act of returning, adapting to new lives and building new social ties that render us connected to both worlds, simultaneous yet apart.
I Dream of Singapore screens this Sunday 19 January, 1.30pm at The Projector, as part of a double-bill with the short film, Salary Day. Part of the proceeds will go to Transient Workers Count Too to aid migrant workers in need and to advocate for better policies. More info here.
Poh Yong Han is a socio-cultural anthropologist at Harvard University.