How Singapore left its mark on a backwater village in Bangladesh
Singapore is the land of opportunity for many in Baluchar, Bangladesh, where one in three men in the village are migrant workers. Have the years of hard labour in our city-state helped fulfil their dreams of a better life? CNA Insider finds out in part 2 of the series, Life After Singapore.
BALUCHAR, Bangladesh: When Mohd Yusof came up to speak to us out of the blue, my younger colleague Chiew Tong burst into hysterical laughter.
“I’m so shookt,” she declared her excitement in typical Millennial speak.
By this time, we were halfway through our production trip in Bangladesh and had gotten used to curious locals approaching us with questions about where we were from and what we were doing.
What set Yusof apart from them was the accent.
We did not expect - at the end of a long day in a small riverside village 30km south of Dhaka - to suddenly get a dose of home from a man who looked typically Bangladeshi but spoke fluent Singlish, ah beng-style.
“I've worked in Singapore for almost ten years mah,” he explained, drawing another guffaw from Chiew Tong.
In retrospect, we should not have been surprised.
Baluchar, with a population of 100,000, may be a rural backwater, but one in three adult males here work abroad. And their top destination is - you guessed it - Singapore.
The CNA Insider team spoke to migrant workers who had returned home from the city-state where they built homes, cleaned the streets and cast metal parts in factories.
We wanted to know if years of toiling away in a foreign land had paid off for them; if their Singapore dreams were fulfilled.
The reactions were mixed. Many spoke about incurring a large debt just to get to Singapore. We also collected stories of misadventures, lucky breaks, but never, surprisingly, regrets.
It would seem that for most Bangladeshis living in this rural area, so harsh is the reality of staying put that they would grasp at any chance of making it overseas, however high the stakes may be.
And whatever the outcome, when they return home, pieces of Singapore stay with them.
Here are the different ways the island nation has left its mark on Baluchar and its people.
WATCH: The Bangladeshi town with a Singapore dream (Dur 9:55)
INSPIRED BY FAIRPRICE
If the forklift hadn’t hit him, K M Salahuddin wouldn’t be where he is today.
“The forklift driver was moving two boxes but he didn’t see me standing there. Then the iron containers fell on me,” recounted the 48-year-old who had worked in Singapore from 1994 to 2013, first in a shipyard, then a foundry.
The accident left him with a fractured leg, broken ribs and an extended stay in the hospital.
When he got out and resumed work, he could only do light duties for a few hours a day, earning way below his usual S$1,200 a month.
So against the wishes of his employers who he said were “extremely nice” to him, he made the painful choice of ending his 20-year career in the Lion City.
“My daughter was sitting for her ‘O’ Levels, and my son was not getting the proper guidance to study. With these considerations in mind and my injuries, I decided to come back,” he said.
Life back in Baluchar was tough. Salahuddin didn’t have much savings because not only was he supporting his wife and three children, he also had to take care of his ailing parents and three siblings with disabilities.
Thankfully, a year later in 2014, he got a break. Under his company’s insurance scheme, Salahuddin collected S$40,000 in workplace injury claim.
And that was when he saw an opportunity to be his own boss.
“I thought that since there are no crockery and electronics stores in the village, maybe opening one would be a good idea,” he told CNA Insider.
And in designing the layout of the store, he drew inspiration from an iconic Singapore brand - NTUC FairPrice.
In Bangladesh, goods are usually not on display in the shops. Instead, customers stand outside stores and ask for the items they want, which Salahuddin said he finds “very annoying”.
“But the Singaporean system is so beautiful. If I want to buy, I can open the goods and see. If not, it’s totally ok,” he recounted.
What is important is for (customers) to have an experience. This is what I learnt from Singapore.
Indeed, along the main shopping street in the dusty village, Salahuddin’s shop stands out for being brightly lit and welcoming. Customers can walk along the spacious aisles to admire the dinner sets and electrical appliances that are on full display on the shelves - much like supermarkets in Singapore.
The Singapore connection also extends to the store name “Sun Moon” - coined by Salahuddin’s former employers who used to ask after his twins by referring to them as his “sun and moon” rather than son and daughter.
“I thought if one day I have my own business, I would call it ‘Sun Moon’,” said Salahuddin whose store stays open from 7am till late.
“After working (in Singapore) for 20 years, you get into the habit of waking up at 5am and working all day. I still do that,” he said.
With the store being a big hit with the locals, moving about “ten rice cookers, four gas stoves, two to four water filters and 40 dinner sets” monthly, Salahuddin is ready to expand the business.
Of the unfortunate circumstances that had led to his return to Bangladesh, he said: “I don’t look back. Let bygones be bygones. Now I look to the future.”
THE DREAMER DROWNING IN DEBT
Unlike Salahuddin who managed to turn misfortune into a chance to capitalise on his experiences in Singapore, there are some who risked everything to seek fortunes abroad, only to end up in a worse position than before.
42-year-old Jamal is one of them.
His brief stint in Singapore lasted only 20 months from May 1979 to December 1980. But two decades later, he is still paying off debt that had stemmed from that experience.
“I heard from my friends and relatives talk about how good Singapore is,” Jamal said. “People go there with hopes of owning a house and cars when they come back.”
Enticed by this dream of a better life, at the age of 22, Jamal tried to convince his parents to mortgage their home to raise the S$4,000 agent fee.
“I said no to him but he did not listen,” recalled Jamal’s mother, Sharifunnesa, 60.
But eventually, she and her husband gave in to their son, after he started “screaming and arguing” with them. The father, a farmer, even had to borrow money from friends and relatives because the bank loan alone was not enough to cover the agent’s commission.
The first month Jamal was in Singapore, he did not work for even a day.
“(I was told) that they would give us a job immediately,” he said. Instead, for the next 19 months, he was given an irregular series of gigs in cleaning and construction, earning an average of S$14 a day.
“Another time, I went without work for 10 to 12 days.”
Jamal told us that he thought there was nothing unusual about the situation, because it happened to everybody he was staying with in the warehouse that was home to about 40 men who would sleep on the floor at night with just pillows.
On the days when they had nothing to do, they went to the parks.
“I had hope and I loved everything about Singapore,” Jamal said.
But that hope was dashed one day when his agent showed up and told everyone that “there was no more work to do”.
“They gave us back our passports and dropped us off at the airport. It felt really bad. I was under a lot of debt that I couldn’t repay. I cried a lot,” Jamal said.
When he arrived back in Baluchar without notice, Sharifunnesa was furious.
“I screamed at him,” she said. “We had no house, no roof. We sent him there with the hope of a better life. But all he would say was that he was back and there was nothing to be done.”
To repay the loans, Jamal borrowed more money to fund a hardware business and a private transportation venture. Both failed.
He is now anywhere from S$16,000 to $24,000 deep in debt, he reckoned.
Still, he said he has no regrets: “There are always two sides to every coin.”
Had I not gone, I would not be under this pile of debt. But if I didn’t go to Singapore, I would have missed out on the good stuff, too.
“I will take my kids to Singapore one day,” he said.
PINING FOR ONE MORE CHANCE
Jamal’s neighbour, Mohd Yusof, also thinks about Singapore with the same kind of affection.
In fact, the 33-year-old loves the Little Red Dot so much that he even speaks like a Singaporean. That was what caught our attention and amused Chiew Tong and me so much when we were in Baluchar.
Yusof was a cleaner with Pasir Ris-Punggol town council from 2007 to 2016. When his Work Permit expired, he was sent home.
“The government said more than ten years cannot do, then our town council, even our company people also said, ‘Sorry brother, no choice, you have to go back,’” said Yusof.
At that time, a Work Permit holder could stay in Singapore for only ten years. Although Yusof knew the rule, he thought that an exception could be made given his good work performance.
“We liked to keep (the estate) clean because we knew that was the Singaporean standard,” he said.
As the estate cleaners’ supervisor, he was well-loved by the residents he served, saying that “they even invited me to birthday parties”.
“One of them also told me to meet up with him when I come back to Singapore next time,” he added.
From our conversation, it was clear that Yusof was not ready to move on from his dream of returning to Singapore.
For the last three years, he has been living in limbo, trying again and again to get a job in another sector with no success.
“Singapore is constantly rejecting my visa for unknown reasons,” he said, showing us on his phone screenshots of the Manpower Ministry’s web page that employers use to check Work Permit application status.
“My documents are just not getting approved,” he lamented.
Yusof claimed there is no work to be had in his hometown, so for now, he is relying on what is left of his savings.
“When I worked in Singapore, I saved enough to buy a piece of land. So if I still can’t find a job, then I might need to sell the land next time,” he said.
His goal is to work in Singapore for another three to four years.
“I came back home suddenly, and I haven’t yet completed my dream. So I have made up my mind that I will go there again,” insisted Yusof.
THE MAN WITH A PLAN
By contrast, when Shahidul Islam got sent home from Singapore prematurely by his agent without an explanation, he took it in his stride.
What makes the difference for him was having a clear direction and plan in mind.
Before heading to Singapore from Baluchar in 1999, he already had his own wood business that he wanted to expand and modernise. To do that, he needed to raise S$3,000.
“This was my plan, to earn more money and start a sawmill,” he said.
Back then, Shahidul had to cut wood for his clients by hand. Without machines, it was impossible to scale up the operation.
So at the age of 45, he left his family to move to Singapore to work in construction. His plan was to stay and earn for at least three years.
“It was very painful work and had to be done with a lot of risks,” he said.
At the Jurong Island construction site where he sometimes worked till 9pm, he saw people “break their hands and legs”.
“If we fell down, then we would die,” he added.
However, he managed to keep his morale up because “the salary was good”. With overtime pay, he could earn up to S$10,000 to S$12,000 a year.
The biggest drawback, though, was being away from his two children who were aged three and nine then.
“It felt bad,” Shahidul said. “I used to worry all the time about how the kids were doing.”
Making international calls was expensive, so Shahidul got through the tough times by writing and sending the children letters every fortnight.
In 2001, after two years in Singapore, Shahidul was told, abruptly, along with 60 other workers, that their contracts had been terminated. They had one week to pack up before being flown home.
Fortunately for him, he had already managed to save enough to buy more land in Baluchar.
The moment he got back, he went about setting up the sawmill he wanted - one of only two in the area then - that has since helped make life easier for many villagers.
“People do not have to go far away to cut their wood. Now they can easily get it from my shop to build their homes,” Shahidul told us with pride.
For all four migrant workers that CNA Insider spoke to in Baluchar, Singapore remains the land of opportunity that can help make their dreams come true.
But when forced to leave before they were ready, some were better prepared than others to face life after Singapore. They are the ones who had a plan.
Left grappling are those who just cannot move on; who keep wishing for a second shot at the Singapore dream.