A cultural space for migrant workers? Hit play
Six, sometimes seven days a week, Somon Mohammad labours away as a construction worker.
Once a week however, the Bangladesh native heads up a narrow flight of stairs in a Little India shophouse, and enters a room filled with the sound of musical instruments being tuned, and snatches of poetry being recited.
When Somon raises his flute, the weight of his day, for a moment, falls away. “I practice my music, I write poems, I write songs. My mind is on the music, I don't think of other things,” he says.
Such is the spell of Dibashram. For migrant workers, who typically arrive heavily in debt in exchange for the chance to take on low-wage jobs in Singapore, Dibashram is a welcome relief that allows them to express their thoughts and feelings through the arts.
The space was set up by AKM Mohsin, who publishes Banglar Kantha, a Bengali newspaper with circulation in Singapore and Malaysia.
“Human beings are not machines that work every day. They need a day off, they need space to relax, play their music, discuss their literature, exchange their views, exchange their culture, meet each other,” says Mohsin. “This inspired me to make a space for them.”
Also hailing from Bangladesh, Mohsin arrived in Singapore in 1991 to study. His connection to migrant workers began by helping those who did not speak English write addresses on the envelopes of the letters they sent home.
When workers encountered problems with their employers, Mohsin would help them communicate with local authorities.
Later, he started Banglar Kantha to help the Bengali-speaking community stay informed, and provided a platform for them to be heard. “They don’t speak English properly, so Banglar Kantha is a platform that they come and write in Bengali, tell their problems.”
This evolved into Dibashram, a place where Banglar Kantha contributors could gather, as could anyone who wished to practise music and other literary arts.
“Some of them, if Sunday there is no work, they come and stay, sleep here. They feel that they've come home,” says Mohsin, now a Singapore permanent resident.
As a result of Dibashram, the Bengali-speaking migrant worker community has nudged a shift in how migrant workers are perceived.
In 2014, Dibashram inspired the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, with Singaporean poets Alvin Pang and Kirpal Singh roped in as judges. Since then, Mohsin has worked with local academics on various books and publications, while poets and musicians who used his space have gone on to participate in cultural events. Each year, Mohsin also publishes a volume of poems by his poets for sale.
Dibashram’s success is not without its hiccups — dwindling circulation of Banglar Kantha has affected advertising revenues, and by extension, funding for Dibashram’s expenses. Past fundraising efforts have kept it open, but Mohsin has had to shift to a smaller space to manage costs.
Still, he continues to dig deep into his resources to keep Dibashram open, and remains steadfast in advocating for better employment policies in Singapore.
To some, low-wage migrant workers are “inferior” and “not human beings”, says Mohsin. “At least we change their [locals’] mindset. Migrant workers are not only labourers, they can write stories, they can write poems, play their music, like other people in our society,” he says.
To celebrate Singapore's National Day 2019, we spotlight the many in Singapore supporting a community that has helped our nation thrive - migrant workers. Watch the video here.