SINGAPORE: He has visited their homes. He has joined in their festive celebrations, from Hari Raya to Deepavali to Chinese New Year. The cleaner from Bangladesh has even hosted barbecues for the Yishun residents whose estate he cleans.
They, too, have treated him to meals. They talk to him daily. A resident even helped to arrange for his wife’s visa for a visit to Singapore. They have provided a home from home for their cleaner of 13 years.
It is here where Mohammed Hanif found a job that has given him more than he thought possible. It is where his baby was conceived. It is where he is not just any foreign worker but a friend of residents.
All the little efforts from the residents and from the Nee Soon Town Council have given the 35-year-old a better today, so that he can continue making sacrifices to give his family in Dhaka a better tomorrow.
“Sometimes I’d think of my family. But (when) I see residents, I can forget about everything in Bangladesh,” he said.
CNA Insider’s video of Mr Hanif’s Yishun family and his family back home has been viewed 330,000 times on Facebook and YouTube. And viewers have responded with words of encouragement for him and other estate cleaners.
“They deserve our respect. Truly, these cleaners are very hardworking,” Ms June Ho posted on Facebook. “So … a smile, a wave, a hello, how are you (or) thank you to them goes a long way.”
Ms Sue Samm commented on YouTube: “Let’s appreciate the hard work and kindness of these cleaners by being courteous (and) humble.”
Watch: This Yishun cleaner and his two families (8:06)
Not too long ago, however, Mr Hanif’s stay in Singapore could have been cut short if not for a small intervention, one of several that have made his life what it is today.
FROM DHAKA TO NEE SOON
He was 22 when he found himself at the crossroads that brought him to Singapore.
The eldest of six children was midway through his degree in social work when he saw that it was getting “very difficult” for his father to support the family.
The father has had a tea shop since Hanif was born, but its income of S$200 to S$300-plus a month was no longer enough as the children climbed the educational ladder.
“Actually, I (wanted to) study more,” admitted Mr Hanif. “(But) by coming to Singapore, I could get a good salary, then all my brothers and sisters could study.”
After working here for about two years, his manager asked him to become a supervisor, to his consternation.
“I said (being a) supervisor, actually, is something (of a) headache. You can choose another person. I’m sorry, I don’t want it,” he recalled.
His manager returned the next day to say he had to step up because of his educational level. Mr Hanif was “not happy”, worried that it would be “too much” to handle. The extra income was far from his mind.
“If I can take care of my job (and) everything, then I can be happy. Now as a supervisor, I have money … but if I can’t control everything, it won’t be good,” he reasoned.
But he grew to love his job. As a supervisor, he mainly goes around to check on his colleagues, with fellow cleaner Yousuf, 31, attesting that Mr Hanif “never gets angry” with them.
When work gets heavy going, he pitches in as much as he can, whether at the apartment blocks, the car parks or the bin centre. And he works 10 to 12 hours a day, every day.
“We can choose to have a day off every week, but my salary would be (less), hence I choose to work,” he explained.
The best part of his job has been the residents, who can be seen greeting him, and vice versa, as he goes about the estate.
“It makes me very happy to talk to them. That’s why I’m so happy working here,” he professed — though when he first arrived here, trying to understand them was a “headache” because “my country’s English and Singaporean English (are) different.”
Language is just one of the barriers that have since broken down, with Mr Hanif having picked up Malay too.
He has even given up cycling block to block to inspect the cleaning, as he kept having to stop for conversations with residents.
“I’d also (put my) hand up (to wave hello). Sometimes I might brake, and controlling (the bicycle) was very difficult,” he said wryly.
Residents whose blocks were once under his watch miss him, for his work and his company. “Too bad he relocated to other blocks. The newer (cleaners) aren’t as good as him,” said Facebook user Koh Gek Fong.
Resident R G Shameer commented: “I was so lucky to have him. He’d always laugh and talk to my family. Also, one Hari Raya, we invited him to eat with us on the first day.”
FROM GROOM TO FATHER
Two years ago, when Mr Hanif entered into an arranged marriage, Yishun residents were excited for him. “Many aunties and residents asked me, ‘Hanif, I want to see your wife,’” he recounted.
With the help of a resident for the visa application, that became a reality when she came for two months last year, putting up in the spare room of a Singaporean household who were originally from Bangladesh.
Her husband put on a barbecue for over 100 residents to introduce her. “All the people (came) together to eat … I was very happy,” he said. “My wife was also very happy. She (still) says, ‘Oh, that day.’”
Before she returned home, they learnt that she was pregnant. On March 8, baby Al-Amin arrived, two weeks before he was due. Mr Hanif’s joy was dampened only by the fact that he could not make it back in time.
But the good news was that he was given a week of unpaid leave, on top of his seven days of annual leave, to spend more time with his newborn.
And to celebrate his entry into fatherhood, a couple in their 50s invited him, together with other residents, to a home-cooked lunch. “We’re happy for him,” said Mr Sandara Segaran, 58. “He’s also one of us.”
All smiles as he showed them photos of his baby, Mr Hanif was overcome by a different emotion a few days later in Dhaka, with CNA Insider accompanying him. “I think I’ll cry,” he said just before the ride home.
There have been ups in his 13-year journey, but at the same time, it has not been easy for him or his family.
The first time he went home was after 10 years, and two years had passed since the last family reunion. And it showed when his mother fell into his embrace.
“My son, where have you been all this while? I have cried and cried for you,” said an emotional Monwra Bagom. “I wanted to see you with my own eyes.”
His wife, Lutfunnahar Tania, has also struggled without him, relying on her mother and mother-in-law during her pregnancy and after childbirth.
“I miss his presence,” said the 23-year-old. “Obviously, I feel sad for my son, that he’ll be deprived of his dad’s love and affection.”
For the duration of his return, however, there was only happiness, not least when he set eyes on Al-Amin, lay down beside his baby and planted a kiss on his forehead. “He’s so tiny,” he whispered. “He looks bigger on my phone screen.”
His son’s name means “honest”, so Mr Hanif hopes that, “like his name, he’ll become an honest man”.
Asked how he felt, knowing that his son may not see him for a long time, he replied: “We’re poor people, and to survive, we have to make these kinds of sacrifices.
“For the sake of our brighter future, we’ve accepted our life to be as such.”
A TREASURED WORKER
There was another question that CNA Insider had asked him, several times in Singapore: About the challenges he faces in his job. Each time, he smiled and said all was okay.
But one of his brothers disclosed that he has mentioned over the phone that he often “doesn’t even have time to eat”. Mr Halim, the second eldest, added: “He can’t even rest well due to work pressure.”
One of the most stressful times, however, came when Mr Hanif thought he might have to go home, out of a job, because there was a change in the cleaning company for the town council.
He is thankful that Member of Parliament (Nee Soon GRC) Louis Ng helped him to stay on and switch to the new company. To the MP, it was a move that only made sense.
“We wanted to retain cleaners who’d worked hard in Nee Soon East for quite some time already and who’d become a part of our family. They were familiar with the ins and outs of Nee Soon East and could help mentor the new cleaners,” explained Mr Ng.
“The longer we can retain our cleaners, the better it would be for our residents. And if they feel more appreciated, they’d work better. It would benefit not only our cleaners but also residents.”
That is one of the reasons he asked in Parliament last month whether the Foreign Construction Worker Directory system, which facilitates job matching between employers and foreign workers, could be expanded from the construction industry to the cleaning sector.
“A lot of the contracts are two years. So a lot of these cleaners who come to Singapore to work and gain their experience, sometimes, go back within the two years,” he had said.
“I think it’ll benefit both the cleaners and the companies to hire the skilled workers.”
In reply, Minister of State (Manpower) Zaqy Mohamad said that if the industry association in the cleaning sector was prepared to set up such a database, his ministry could “take a look”.
“We’ve facilitated some of these (changes between employers) to ensure that cleaning service isn’t disrupted. That’s something we’re prepared to do, but not as a broad-based policy, nationwide.”
As for Mr Hanif’s current employer, the company is in no doubt as to his worth, hence the decision to allow his leave extension recently.
“He's responsible, he has done a good job and we treasure his efforts. (Extending his leave) is an incentive for him,” said Lian Cheng Contracting managing director Cher Peng Ho, 69.
“We consider the welfare of our foreign workers. They come to Singapore and do a great job. … Without the help of these Bangladeshis, our estates would be affected."
Mr Ng agrees and believes that “we can and we should do a lot more for our cleaners”.
“That’s why, here in Yishun, we take them out every quarter for outings — to see a sight of Singapore they seldom get to see and … to give them a chance to rest, relax and to bond with Singaporeans as well.”
HEARTACHE, BUT PUSHING ON
The most grateful of all to Mr Hanif, however, are his family members. Thanks to him, his brother Harun has completed a diploma in electrical engineering, while his youngest brother Hasan is studying for an honours degree.
“(He’s) a very good human being and … I thank God a thousand times for letting me have a brother like him,” said Mr Harun. “All he wanted was to get us educated, so that we can hold our heads high.”
Their eldest brother was the apple of their mother’s eye, she admitted, so it was “painful” to send him away at first. “I said, ‘You shouldn’t go, as I’ll miss you, and I don’t need that much money,’” she recalled.
But without his salary of S$1,600 a month, their growing family would have to rely only on his father, who is now 70 years old.
The younger brothers have been unable to find jobs in Bangladesh, and Mr Hanif, who took care of one sister’s wedding expenses, may now have his other sister’s wedding in his hands.
It all means that he must stay in Singapore for another three to five years, if he is to move his family from their rented place to their own home.
For now, his wife can only imagine “how amazing” it would be “if he could come back”. “However, reality is very tough, so he has to work hard abroad for us. I’ve compromised and accepted this,” added Ms Tania.
When asked what he has given up to work in Singapore, Mr Hanif said: “(It’s) one person’s problem, but never mind. (For) my family … life (will be) good for sure (and) I’ll be very happy.”
He could not disguise his feelings, however, after his leave ended and he was back in Yishun. “My heart is very pained. (But) after I work for a few days, I can adjust,” he said on the second day.
Residents were there for him as a barbecue hosted by the cleaners and co-ordinated by the town council brought them together again.
He was back to sharing photos of his son, the conversations and laughter that keep him going in Singapore, and on this special occasion, there were ang pows for him too.
The words of Mr Sandara echoed once again: “He’s also one of us.”