By So Young Chang
Being a migrant worker rights’ advocate can mean confronting very unflattering aspects of a society. It means challenging ideas around national identity, the right to belong, pathways to citizenship, and other sensitive topics. Considering the civil society landscape in Singapore, I picked up on the perception that many NGOs working on migrant support and advocacy are spearheaded by expats.
That made me curious. What does this imply for the NGOs and their impact? How do the “expats” position themselves and present their message? What compels them to campaign for the rights of outsiders as someone who might be perceived as an outsider by others? Do they tend to appeal to globally established norms around human rights? The context lends itself to thinking critically about what makes an activist and what it means to be an activist. What are the values and ideals that one fights for and just how universal are they?
Debbie makes her way to Little India on weekday mornings around 07:30. She has committed to this routine practice of volunteerism and humanitarianism for many years. I first find her huddled around a table outside a small restaurant in Little India, surrounded by a crowd of men, each eager to tell a story that she would diligently document and process, the way she has been doing for many years now. Isthana Restaurant serves free meals to migrant workers who are awaiting decisions on various claims related to their salaries and/or injuries in their precarious work. Since its beginning in March 2008, the Cuff Roads project has served more than 660,000 meals to migrant workers. Varying degrees of injustice connect the men who go there with their makan cards (meal cards).
Her presence around the block is evident from the way every passerby nods with a smile when we walk down the street to have breakfast together. This is a lady who hosted migrant workers in her own home for more than six years. She seems to be motivated by something special, not satisfied with just doing things from a comfortable distance. In a previous interview she had spoken about being invited back to the villages of those she had helped. But the story she shares over freshly made roti blurs the narrative of a moralist whose world is black and white.
She recalled an occasion when she had gone to great lengths to assist a migrant worker. She had accepted an invitation to visit his family and his community. On arrival, she received a warm welcome from everyone, but at some point later, a different attitude emerged. For him, the fact that she had been able to travel there to meet with him sent a message to him, his relatives, and his neighbours. This must mean that she is a very important person whose resources and connections would then be able to benefit him in a transformative manner. “But now you’re not giving me anything more”, he pleaded.
On hearing Debbie tell this story, the first word that surfaced in my mind was betrayal. I voice this to her. But Debbie insists that she does not see it as such. Her response is, simply: “How can you blame them?” There is depth behind these words. It reveals genuine empathy honed through experience. Since that encounter, she merely allows herself more room to discern which friendships are worth continuing.
And friendship is a word that Debbie emphasises several times. It’s what sustains her work despite her pessimism about the current migrant situation in Singapore. She believes that the exploitation of migrant workers under the modern labour migration regime is going to worsen in the coming decades. And while there are those amongst us who would crusade for structural change, Debbie takes a different approach.
Debbie tells me: “There’s nothing I can do to really address the disparity of wealth within a community except as an individual, and if you have a close friend who’s really in need, you’ll do what you can.”
Be kinder than you need to be, expand your circle
Debbie sees the migrant workers who come to Cuff Road as potential friends. It would be hypocritical, she says, not to try her best to help when she has the voice and the means to improve the situation for someone who is sitting across the table from her. And suddenly, her exceptional actions make sense: this spirit of seeing every individual at eye level is what allows her to go that extra length. She sees each migrant worker for the totality of his circumstances. Opening up to interpersonal relationships can mean enriching insights, albeit not all of these will be straightforward affirmations for “doing good”. Through it all she has harnessed a remarkable capacity for compassion, which makes her daily work all the more valuable and impactful. For others who want to get involved and help out, she just tells them this:
“Be kinder than you need to be. Be kind to people outside your own circle. Be assertive, even aggressive when necessary. And reach out to people and understand things from their point of view, not your point of view.”
That circle can be defined by socioeconomic status, skin colour, or nationality, and these are hurdles that we all have to learn to go beyond. This can mean seeing the construction workers lifting concrete blocks as sons, brothers, and husbands who are shouldering the livelihoods of entire families back home. This can also mean seeing “expats” for their actions and messages rather than their accent or appearance. Differentiating the ‘other’ may be a biological impulse. But finding the familiar in the foreign and embracing the humanity in another are virtues. It is quietly remarkable how Debbie, and others like her, allow others to breathe easier, one by one, one at a time.
What Debbie taught me is that seeing the same view from one street every morning can impart immense wisdom. During our interview, she adds that we need to be less attached to outcomes. We shouldn’t refrain from doing something just because we may not succeed.
The ultimate irony may be that she doesn’t quite believe in advocating for universal human rights. Perhaps this calls for another blog post and another visit to Little India to ask her why.
Debbie is a long-time volunteer with a local NGO called Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), working under the banner of the Cuff Road Project (TCRP) which she began. Born in the US, she has been living in Singapore since the 1970s and is a familiar face to many locals for her advocacy work. Her story was featured in an Al Jazeera special, and she has helped to edit a book titled A Thousand and One Days: Stories of hardship from South Asian Migrant Workers in Singapore.