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Foreign workers find it a hard slog in matters of faith

SINGAPORE — Most Sundays, Bangladeshi construction worker Sushir Roy heads up to the third floor of a nondescript-looking shophouse in Little India into a sparsely decorated room with a few Hindu deities lined along the wall.

Indian migrant workers at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes. Photo: The Catholic Archdiocesan Communications Office

Indian migrant workers at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes. Photo: The Catholic Archdiocesan Communications Office

SINGAPORE — Most Sundays, Bangladeshi construction worker Sushir Roy heads up to the third floor of a nondescript-looking shophouse in Little India into a sparsely decorated room with a few Hindu deities lined along the wall.

Called Gour-nitai Temple, the makeshift, rented space is a far cry from the nearby Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple on the main road, which draws throngs of tourists with its distinctive blue facade.

Amid the sonorous chanting, rhythmic drumming and lively music, the 30-year-old listens attentively to the leaders while poring over texts of Hindu scripture and spiritual books.

“We (cover) one chapter of the Bhagavad Gita every week, and learn about the stories, ask questions about what’s the right way, and how do you get to God,” he explains.

For the Bangladeshi community, such places have become a place of refuge, where religion is sometimes practised in an ad-hoc, informal setting.

Last Wednesday, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that 27 Bangladeshi construction workers had been arrested here under the Internal Security Act after they were found to be contemplating armed jihad overseas as well as in their homeland.

In the aftermath of the arrests, migrant workers of various nationalities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and religious institutions describe where they turn to for spiritual sustenance and guidance in a foreign land.

DIFFICULTIES IN PRACTISING RELIGION

The long working hours make it difficult for them, with many making do with hasty prayers at their workplace. Some devote a few hours of their days off to visit temples, say workers.

It is even harder for shipyard workers or those on isolated offshore islands, says Mr AKM Mohsin, editor of Banglar Kantha newspaper and the unofficial spokesperson for the Bangladeshi community here.

Space is limited in some dorms, with some carving out “prayer corners” for greater privacy. Mr Mohsin recounts how large groups of workers have taken to praying in the open space or courtyard during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Mr Sushir recalls how living in far-flung areas like Tuas would deter them from going down to Little India on weekends. Together with some workers, they would settle under a tree in an open field for some quiet time. “There was no official (teacher) ... We just took turns to share, reflect and listen to the one who knows the most,” he explains.

There is also the danger of workers being misled, with Mr Mohsin pointing to many Bangladeshi religious “devotees” who come to Singapore on one-month visas to solicit donations near Mustafa Centre shopping mall, asking for funding for religious activities back home.

“They target innocent Bangladeshi workers who take pity on them ... In fact, some of the money goes to funding destructive activities against the state,” said Mr Mohsin.

ROLE OF NGOS and places of worship

By and large, NGOs say they keep a respectful distance from spiritual matters.

HealthServe’s executive director Colin Chia said while he was aware that some of the mainland Chinese workers he sees do attend church, his case workers do not specially “track these areas”.

“We provide professional help and guidance for their social, emotional and mental well-being, but other than that the boundaries are quite clear,” he explains.

Migrant Workers Centre’s (MWC) executive director Bernard Menon adds: “From what we have seen, the various faiths here have led the way in welcoming migrant workers into our community, with many even having special interest groups that specially reach out to the workers. Migrant workers seeking spiritual sustenance are aware of what is available and these needs are quite well catered to.”

Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) executive committee member John Gee notes that the degree to which migrant workers observe religious practices “varies considerably”, from those who simply celebrate annual religious holidays to those who are strictly observant.

“The workers we see are generally open-minded and respectful of others’ religions. They are not hostile to others on the grounds of their faiths ... I don’t think there are major problems as far as religious observance is concerned,” he adds.

With ACMI (Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People), its programmes are driven by faith. “We render our services a little differently ... Beyond taking care of their physical needs, we also try to meet their spiritual needs,” says chairman Mark Goh, stressing that ACMI does not not proselytise. In fact, 30 per cent of its beneficiaries are Muslim, he adds.

There is a network of religious institutions that workers can turn to, although the support for the Muslim and Hindu migrant workers are less extensive than the more established Christian and Catholic groups.

While the centrally located Abdul Gafoor mosque in Little India makes it convenient for worshippers to visit its premises, it does not have any programmes specifically tailored for the many foreign workers who frequent the mosque on weekends.

But these foreign workers are welcome to join the classes which are open to the public, says Ms Basyira, an administrator at the mosque.

“(The foreign workers) can register for these classes, and (all they have to do is) fill a form ... Sometimes after maghrib to isyak, (we) teach Koran lessons and hadiths and the history about Islam,” she explains, adding that the mosque does not actively publicise such lessons.

As classes are conducted in Tamil, it is easy for the Indian workers to find a sense of belonging there. “(Whenever) they hear the name Abdul Gafoor mosque, they will know it’s for the Indians,” she says, noting that the workers mostly hear about the mosque through word-of-mouth.

Newer migrant workers less familiar with the local scene can also turn to Mr Mohsin, whose newspaper publishes a detailed list of religious places for workers to visit.

Some migrant workers even turn to mosques for financial help. According to a spokesperson at Wak Tanjong mosque in Paya Lebar, it sometimes gives cash handouts out of goodwill to foreign workers in dire situations. Some of the foreign workers are diverted to the Islamic Council of Singapore (MUIS) for further help, she adds.

Compared with the Bangladeshi and Indian foreign workers, Burmese and Thai workers practising Buddhism may not find it as difficult to practice their faith, as they are able to go to “any Buddhist temple around Singapore to pray,” says Mr Zaw Naing Oo, secretary of Sasanaramsi Burmese Buddhist Temple.

“In Buddhism, we can pray individually, anytime and anywhere. There are no regulations or rules,” he explains.

Mr Minthu, a 45-year-old Burmese shipyard worker who has been in Singapore for 10 years, says: “I don’t always have time to go to the temple, but I try to pray, in the mornings, or even when I’m out on the boat.”

Meanwhile, the Christian and Catholic organisations also draw their fair share of foreign domestic helpers and foreign construction workers, with most having programmes specially catered to them.

For instance, the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes on Ophir Road holds Tamil Mass for the Indian-Catholic population on Sunday, drawing a nearly 3,000 strong crowd of migrant workers monthly.

It also conducts Mass for other minority groups in their local tongue like Sinhalese and Malayam. Workers can receive free dinner after Sunday evening Mass, said a spokesperson of the Catholic Archdiocesan Communications Office.

Aside from safeguarding their rights, the church’s Welfare Committee For Tamil Migrants also provides counselling services, free medical screenings and legal seminars to educate them on their rights, for instance.

Still, there is a “sizeable group” of migrant workers here struggling to assimilate due to the language barrier, and more should be done, says ACMI’s Mr Goh. “It’s good for more of our (volunteers) to try to speak their language.”

MAKING DO WITH WHAT THEY CAN

For the most part, most workers interviewed say they are happy that Singapore is a place where they can readily practise their faith, and coexist peacefully.

Bangladeshi construction worker Buttmolla Mohiuddin, 26, describes how he fastidiously prays five times a day, while the workers demarcate certain corners for their own religious groups.

“(The Muslims) pray in one place, and the Hindus, and the Christians ... It’s like Singapore ... It’s good, you can worship all the different religions (alongside) each other,” he says.

TWC2’s executive committee member Debbie Fordyce describes how she has seen some injured workers waiting for their cases to be settled who volunteer to work as the mosque as cleaners.

“(Through this), some of these men come to have very good associations with Singaporeans ... They get to know the regulars, or people working within the mosque ... It’s a nice way for them to befriend Singaporeans, where they feel they can find a common ground,” she explains.

For now, migrant workers are mostly self-sufficient, forging their own networks in the local community, particularly those with the capacity to to speak any of Singapore’s four official languages.

For instance, Filipino domestic helper Gilda Malaluan, 58, invites maids living at Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics’ shelter, who might be interested to join her for service at Every Nation Church. “Being a domestic helper is stressful ... (Through church), we can come together to share our problems, and give moral support to relieve our problems.”

Likewise, Burmese maid Ei Ei Thein, 35, gets her friends to attend Myanmar fellowship at Redemption Hill Church twice a month.

Last Christmas, they also did an informal outreach to other Burmese migrants near Peninsula Plaza, where they distributed gift packs of body lotion and traditional Myanmar slippers.

Whether or not more formal platforms for proper, systemic guidance should be established for the migrant population remains to be seen, say NGOs and churches, who feel that the ISA arrests announced last week was an isolated one that owed to “internal politics”.

MWC’s Mr Menon stresses: “The important thing is to ensure that migrant workers continue to be integrated in our community, across nationalities, faiths and any other lines of difference. The MWC will continue to champion integration and acceptance of migrant workers, particularly because we see these as beneficial, rather than detrimental, to our society and security.”

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