Monday, 17 November 2014

Singapore Notebook: Sunday and Monday
Little India and Migrant Workers 2

Yesterday - Sunday - we had arranged to meet Alvin at Raffles Hotel. Well, I mean Raffles Hotel. You don't get out of Singapore without visiting Raffles. We wanted to see Raffles.

For the first time we go by public transport which takes a little over an hour. I should explain that the NTU campus is at least half an hour by taxi and a bus ride beyond the end of the MRT or tube line. The trouble is you can get a taxi back from town but a taxi into town is rare. You can't blame the cabbies. They have to drive half an unpaid hour out here and that must seem a trial. You could argue that having driven us from town to NTU they still have to drive back but at least the money is in their pockets by then. The fact remains that calling a cab here is like fishing by a river not known for its fish. You can wait a very long time.

But it's not necessary. Public transport is just fine and we have bought the equivalent of Oyster Cards that are good for a couple of weeks on both bus and tube. The bus takes us to Boon Lay, a shopping mall with an MRT station, maybe more, but that is all we see. The train is clean, efficient, air conditioned, and the travellers are well mannered. Seven out of ten are on mobile devices of one sort or another. The line takes us directly to the station we need and after a while we find our way to Raffles. We are prepared to be disappointed with Raffles because others back in England - not all by any means - have told us it is not what it was. The thing is we don't know what it was but could still be disappointed if we had undue expectations. But that could be said about most of life and there's not much point in constant disappointment so we don't have undue expectations.

We sit and wait for Alvin in the wrong place. We are also meeting Jill Jones the Australian poet on her way back to Stockholm. Alvin finds us and we all find Jill then proceed to high tea where we are joined by Annaliza.

High tea at Raffles is accompanied by a white orchid and a stern Filippino waitress. It is lovely and airy and somewhat Agatha Christie. The food is top class fingerfood: little Wildean sandwiches, cakelets, sconelets, dim sum, endless tea, and very expensive champagne (which we do not order). The colony lives on if nowhere else then here. It is almost a frisson but we know what year it is and, frankly, I have never felt a true frisson for empire. It is, however, elegant, and crystalline, and precise.  It is another treat. We talk employment and union laws as a kind of corrective. We compare notes on our respective countries. I am still working out - with a great deal of help from Alvin - just how things work here. It is simple in some ways and very complicated in others.

After high tea we walk a little round the area where Alvin's father used to live. It is close to another red light street but is now overhung with the vast modernity that is downtown Singpo. Beach Road where Raffles stands actually used to be the beach but now the sea is two km out. Reclaimed land. New high buildings. We work our way over to the National Library which is in fact beautiful and eco-friendly. It is here that Alvin, along with two others, is to judge the very first poetry competition for migrant workers.

The country relies on migrant workers. There is no minimum wage but apparently there is a sort of wage floor and some state aid for those living under floor level. The migrant workers do what migrant workers everywhere do - construction, sanitation, hotel work. They are ignored as non-persons, figures on scaffolding, figures flitting down hotel corridors, figure emerging from ditches. There is little safety or security for them. They are not all unskilled but many earn more from unskilled work here than from skilled work at home.

The migrant poets here are mostly Bangladeshi. The big room is filled with standing room only, a mixture of young and old, of this and that ethnic group. Elements of the press are here with cameras and recording devices. The editor of a Bangla newspaper does part of the introduction then we are briskly taken through the ten finalist poets. They take turns coming up to the lectern and reading in their own language while an English text version of their poem appears on the screen and, once they have read, a student from the drama school reads the poem in English. The construction workers - since that is what they mostly are - are confident in delivery, some dramatic, some songlike, some gesticulating, some very still. Some of them have published back home. Some are primarily political. There is a poem celebrating May Day that distances itself from both the political left and the right. Several speak stirringly about the workers and heavy duty labour. About missing home. About world peace. The best of them do more. They have idea, images,  a sense of place and of complex emotions. Some are particularly moving but all are moving. Here they are, for the very first time in public, recognised for the creative human personalities they are, not just lost figures in the distance.

Music follows. They make the music with drums, guitar, and a harmonium. Three of them sing. The middle one has Elvis sideburns and is clearly used to performing. Another gets up and dances. A third joins in. One of them has written the words for one of the songs. He is the first to dance.

Then the prizes are given and the press interviews take place. Annaliza sneaks us out and away to City Space, another bar in the sky, seventy floors up with magnificent views. No throbbing music here, but semi darkness, comfort and cocktails. I try a Pennicilin 2. There's whisky in it. That's the main thing. Alvin - whose brainchild the Migrant Poet competition was  - eventually returns and we all share a pizza. We talk more about Singapore. The country is pure Thatcherism but working on a different population and cultural base. It doesn't produce much and it doesn't tax much but it makes money. It has had the same government since Independence almost fifty-years ago. There is what Alvin calls, 'a pyramid of power' which is stable and includes the opposition. Is there corruption? You betcha. There is legal money laundering but the showy super-rich tend to be foreign. Are the people living in, say, Little India, an underclass? Not exactly. Annaliza and Alvin are both involved on the cultural politics level. Still much to learn.

Thunder and lightning outside but all silent in the penthouse bar except for the background music. Big cars down below. Alvin drives us all the way back in his more modest, quiet car. If there is anything Alvin doesn't know it is a mystery to me. But then Annaliza might know it.

Pics later.

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