HABIGANJ, Bangladesh: When Joy Sudip Bhadro wasn’t toiling away on a construction site in Singapore, he could be found outside a polytechnic, gazing in awe as students streamed in and out of the school gates.
To Singaporeans, it is nothing special to see. But to this Bangladeshi, it was a whole new world, one he never had a chance to be part of and could only watch from afar.
As he observed the students, he thought about how he was unable to complete high school owing to financial constraints.
He had come to Singapore at the age of 24, earning S$600 a month to support his extended family of 11. “I was a poor man who had absolutely nothing,” says the now 42-year-old.
He then, by chance, met a Burmese studying for a diploma here and who “now works in an office” — while he, with his primary school certificate, could only do menial work. And Joy knew, he was not the only one.
In his small hometown of Habiganj, many youngsters graduating from primary school were faced with unemployment or low-paid, laborious jobs, owing to their lack of technical knowledge. So he dreamt of opening a polytechnic in his town 3,917 kilometres away.
That was seven years ago. Today, in the heart of this town, along its busy and dusty streets, is a three-storey building with a banner bearing the words “North East Ideal Polytechnic Institute”.
Home to more than 200 students, it is the town’s only vocational institute. And the man who started it was Joy.
This is the story of a migrant’s “crazy” dream and how his vision came to pass, in the CNA Insider series Life After Singapore, about what has happened to migrant workers after they returned home.
ALL GOOD IN SINGAPORE UNTIL …
When his older brother suffered kidney failure, Joy found himself stepping up as the head of the household. There were eight young children in his extended family, looking to him to support their education.
“Realistically, I thought if I don’t try to improve the situation, more lives will be ruined like mine was,” he said. “So I gave up my life for them.”
Through an agent, he secured a job in Singapore in the automobile industry. Over 11 years, he worked in a range of jobs, from construction work to MRT maintenance.
It was hard work, but all was good — until May 2012. He was cycling alone along Nicoll Highway when he was knocked off his bicycle by two youths, who then punched, kicked and stepped on his face and body.
He lost consciousness and was robbed of his wallet and phone. He also suffered fractures on his face and had to undergo an operation. “It was all over the news in Singapore,” he recalled.
While he was recovering and still in pain, the only thing on his mind was to get back to work as soon as possible so that he could continue sending money home.
That resilience served him well as he stayed on in Singapore to work — while pursuing an idea that had just been put into practice.
WATCH: The migrant worker who founded a polytechnic (5:55)
HIS WIFE THOUGHT IT IMPOSSIBLE
A year earlier, Joy had come to know of free skills training for foreign workers, which he admitted he was sceptical about initially.
But he decided to stick around when he saw a class of 30 to 40 other migrants and “hot food being provided”.
So every Sunday for a couple of months, he attended courses on waterproofing works and other construction-related training conducted by the Building and Construction Authority and the Ministry of Manpower.
Before he knew it, he was hooked. For someone who only had general education in Bangladesh, receiving vocational training was an eye-opening experience. “I realised practical knowledge was real knowledge. I fell in love with it,” he said.
That was also when he met the Burmese who was on the way up. And so, the idea of setting up a polytechnic was conceived in his mind. But he knew his hands were tied.
“I’d observed so much in Singapore, but I still had to get my head down and work,” he said. “That’s when I decided to call my wife.”
Ripa Datta was a primary school teacher. When she received his call, she could hear the excitement in his voice — let’s do this, he said — but at that moment, she thought it was an impossible, “crazy” idea.
He remembers her words: You can’t ride a bike, and you’re thinking of flying a plane? How would they fund the school? And what about their own children? (Their daughter was two years old then, and the couple would find out they were having another girl that year.)
He thought she probably could not believe “a poor man’s wife would be able to do anything large-scale”. Needless to say, he was upset.
But the next day, she called and said she was willing to try. She would ask her father and brothers if they could chip in money for the school.
“Whatever income she made would go to our family. My income would go towards the school,” said Joy, who was then earning S$1,200 monthly. He handed more than half of it to his family, trusting them to build his dream school.
I asked them if they could take up the responsibility. They said they could, so I let them.
As he continued to work in Singapore, his wife and in-laws got to work, going door to door to look for students. “People were very sceptical of the polytechnic initially,” said his brother-in-law Rintu Datta, who is now the school’s director.
It took much effort to convince families that vocational education could make a difference to their children’s lives. In the end, they found a group of eight to 10 students, who gathered in a tin shed with two teachers.
And that was the humble beginnings of this polytechnic.
HOPE FOR THE TOWN
Its current premises are still bare, run-down and very humid, but it has come a long way. When CNA Insider visited the school, even a power failure — which is no rare occurrence — could not faze its students.
Sitting in dim light and clad in dark blue uniforms, they had their eyes fixed on their teacher as he explained, ironically, how a circuit worked.
It is a sight that makes the leap of faith Ripa took to pursue her husband’s vision worth it.
Now a primary school principal, she has witnessed her own students being unable to fulfil their aspirations to further education owing to financial constraints.
“(For) the students in this area, their level of success compared with other prominent areas is very low. There are very few jobs available in the market if you only had (general studies),” said the 35-year-old.
This is why I want students to be equipped with technical knowledge. (The hope is) they can live above the poverty line. It would develop our district.
Only three courses are offered here: Civil engineering, electrical engineering and computer engineering. “These sectors have high demand in both the government and private sectors,” Rintu explained.
Since 2012, two batches of 57 students have graduated, and 85 per cent of them have found jobs related to their area of study — which Ripa considers an achievement. “Some of them get a job even before graduating,” she said.
Former student Mohammed Al-Amin Shah was already working — as a general worker — at a ceramics firm before he decided to pursue a diploma in electrical engineering. But upon his graduation, his company offered him a better position.
“Now I can call myself an engineer,” the 32-year-old beamed. “I can even catch on to things quicker than (my colleagues) who studied in the general line.”
He also attributes his success to the institute’s teachers. “If we didn’t understand something, our teachers told us to call them at night. They even encouraged us to come back to school on Fridays (a rest day) if we needed help,” he said.
Furthermore, it is cheaper to study at an institute in the town centre. Before the polytechnic was set up, town folks who wanted a vocational education had to travel to cities like Sylhet and Dhaka, where fees were more expensive.
Mohammed said that if he had pursued a diploma in Dhaka, it would have cost him at least eight times more. The North East Ideal Polytechnic Institute’s fees are about S$130 per semester, and students from poorer families receive subsidies.
With the polytechnic, women’s access to higher-level education has also increased, noted Ripa. Growing up, she always had support from her mother and former teachers to go above and beyond, but her father had doubts.
“When I joined an honours programme (in Sylhet), my father said, ‘Girls don’t need to go so far to study’,” she recalled. Her “progressive” mother protested, however, and Ripa went on to complete a master’s in 2003.
She knows that not every girl in her country has the same opportunities. “Many times due to family pressure or religious outlook, many parents don’t want their daughters to continue studying,” she said.
Poojal Pal, a first year studying computer engineering, questions the rationale. “Will girls remain unmarried just by studying? No way,” said the 17-year-old. “Studying is extremely important for girls because girls are always seen as useless.”
Ripa hopes that with the polytechnic, mindsets will start to change and women can also return to school after marriage and childbirth. They can be motivated to study again, she believes.
A SIMPLE MAN
The school is where it is today because of “combined efforts”, said Joy. For example, the plot of land it stands on was given by his father-in-law while Rintu, 27, takes care of administrative matters.
Joy himself has no clue how many students have graduated. He returned home only three months ago to seek treatment for a back injury.
His homecoming has been bittersweet. While he is bummed about being out of work, he has seen with his own eyes the polytechnic he envisioned in Singapore, and spoken to graduates who are now working in established firms.
“I lived abroad for 18 years. But when I come back here, people greet me out of respect,” he said. “I get shy.”
His contribution is not discounted either. “He helped a lot financially. He gave us many directions as to what’s right,” said Rintu. “We wouldn’t have made it this far without him.”
There are also plans to open a second branch at Srimangal in Moulvibazar, another town in the Sylhet division.
For now, Joy can bask in the success of the lives in which he invested. His own nieces and nephews, whom he helped to put through school, have become doctors, educators and police officers.
While he enjoys his “celebrity status” in town, he remains humble. “I’m just a simple human being,” he said. “But I realised that even if I can’t become somebody big, I could do something small.”
WATCH: An introduction to CNA Insider's Life After Singapore series (1:41)