It Wasn’t That Hard to Be Friends

Senthil and Sok Hwee: an uncommon friendship that helped a migrant worker feel at home in a foreign land.

Filming Sok Hwee's and Senthil's story of friendship reminded me to see migrant workers as people. Not migrants, not workers, not an economic necessity or worse.

It reminded me to be grateful for my own friendship with Mahes.

I met Mahes at a neighbourhood Lantern Festival party in 2010.

He didn't speak much English then, and I didn't speak Tamil.

I'm still amazed at how we were able to talk to each other.

If our friendship were a photo album, it would make for a great tourism advertisement.

We've taken funny photos with the animals at the zoo. Mahes screamed on one of the roller coasters at Universal Studios. We held hands while skating at Marina Bay Sands.

We bought those nice photos at the Singapore Flyer where they put you inside different sunset scenes inside the Flyer. Mahes and I have even visited the Istana, the president's official residence, together with a small group of Indian friends.


Ours is an unusual friendship, but it feels like it shouldn't be all that unusual.

I'm from the US; he comes from India. We're about the same age and we both graduated from university.

I have a so-called professional media job while Mahes, despite his degree in mathematics, works in construction as a lorry driver.

We're concerned about similar things: future, finances and family.

We often hang out at coffee shops to talk. He's visited my apartment and I've visited the container where he lives.

He's one of the only people I get to celebrate holidays with, here in Singapore.

The first time we celebrated Christmas together in 2010 was also the first time I ate Indian food with my hands. And that was when I made Indian Bru coffee so strong that I'm sure neither of us will ever forget. Just ask him.

In July 2011, when he turned 25, we celebrated Mahes' birthday for the first time in his life. Apparently celebrating birthdays isn't such a big thing in his family.

Mahes faces things that I will never face, and I can't do much for him, but there are simple things I can do, like helping him to apply for jobs or update his CV.

But perhaps the most important thing we can do is simply be a friend to each other.

I felt this most acutely when Mahes' supervisor, Raj, committed suicide right outside Mahes' container in July 2013. It deeply affected him – and me - and I was glad to be there for him as he gradually got over the trauma.

I'm so glad for my friendship with Mahes. I know I'm better for it.

And I'm looking forward to spending Christmas with him again.

Sok Hwee and her friends welcome anyone who would like to help in the English classes, whether as facilitators or support crew working behind the scenes. The classes, run by Agape Community Services, are held on Saturday evenings at a migrant worker dormitory near Yishun in Singapore. Originally catering only to Tamil-speakers, the classes now help workers from China and Myanmar as well.

Please email [email protected] to sign up or learn more.

About Sok Hwee

Tan Sok Hwee is a working mother who began befriending migrant workers and organising English lessons for them after reading of a tragic death one such worker in Singapore.


Director & Additional Camera Work

Ivan Tan


Robert Cristobal

Additional Camera Work

Joel Lee

Producer & Writer

Thomas Franks