SINGAPORE: Last Sunday, Filipino domestic worker Glory Ann Balista spent her day off pretending to be a Singaporean – in a manner of speaking.
Together with a handful of her fellow migrant workers from Indonesia and Bangladesh, the 33-year-old was at literary non-profit organisation Sing Lit Station’s premises at Jalan Kubor rehearsing for a play they had created from scratch.
In the 20-minute no-frills production titled Other Side, Balista takes on the role of a Singaporean who discovers the creative sides of various different migrant workers, from playing in bands, doing photography and painting murals.
The work, which was done with some mentorship from Singaporean playwright Haresh Sharma, will be staged at this year’s Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, which will be held on Sunday afternoon (Dec 3) at the National Gallery Singapore.
And first-time actor Balista is feeling the jitters. “I’m a bit nervous but I’m doing this for other migrants like myself so I’ll do my best,” she said. “When I’m with others who are interested in the same thing, it makes me think that I can do this and stand in front of other people to perform.”
From exhibitions and books to documentaries and now this one-off performance, the creative efforts of Singapore’s migrant workers are slowly going mainstream. And crucial to this has been the annual poetry contest. Since its inception in 2014, it has become a regular event to catch migrant workers flexing their literary chops.
Its fourth edition will be showcasing works in eight different languages from 19 poets coming from seven different countries. These were chosen from an impressive 107 submissions. At the event, the anthology Songs From A Distance will also be launched, featuring 31 poems from previous editions. Also for sale will be a similar anthology from Malaysian counterparts, who also hold its own Migrant & Refugee Poetry Competition.
While the event is more low-key and arguably has less tangible results compared to other migrant worker-related efforts done by other organisations, one of the organisers said it has been encouraging – in terms of response from audiences and the growing sense of ownership among the migrant workers themselves.
“The migrant poets and artists have delivered some of the most powerful oral performances in every show and that has been one of the main reasons we have packed audiences time after time,” said author and management consultant Shivaji Das.
He reckoned that when the contest first started “it came as a shock that people they would see toiling with brooms, drillers and earthmovers could have such creative power and depth of intellect.”
The folks behind Other Side certainly hold their own creativity-wise.
Balista herself writes poems, which have been published, including in the upcoming Songs From A Distance. She was also featured in the documentary Poets On Permits, and belongs to an informal group called the Power Of Ten, comprising Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers who write poetry collectively.
Fellow actor Almas Uddin, a 42-year-old Bangladeshi supervisor at an electrical company, signs for Migrants Band Singapore (which performed at last year’s event). He has also acted in similar mini-plays performed at various events in Singapore – and even at the Bangladesh embassy.
Meanwhile, Other Side co-playwright Wiwik Triwinarsih regularly writes short stories and poems. She was shortlisted at last year’s poetry contest and her poem is also part of the new anthology being launched. The 33-year-old Indonesian domestic worker has also been published in four anthologies in Indonesia.
Wiwik’s literary pursuits has been a way of empowering herself. “I don’t want to spend my off days just shopping or sitting here or there. And when I’m writing I feel I have power,” she laughed.
“Writing is playing with imagination and a way to release stress. It’s a hobby I love and enjoy. If you’re writing, you can be a powerful and very beautiful person. You can imagine yourself as someone with a superpower.”