As part of my research with Tamil migrant workers from India, in 2012, I carried out a participatory action research activity with some of the migrant workers. This was a photo diary project – I provided willing participants with a disposable camera and told them to take pictures of their daily life to capture their favourite spots, moments, of Little India or Singapore. Upon completion, photos were developed and given to them.
This was followed up with a discussion with them individually about their photo diary project. The endeavour allowed me to see and feel through their eyes as they navigate and experience Singapore, beyond the headlines that I saw all the time.
The majority of photographs in this series were taken by Mr Aandiyappan from Tamil Nadu. Some were taken by me, of different migrant workers at work around Singapore or at leisure in Little India.
“I feel happy coming here. I can see some familiar faces, it’s like meeting them in India. If I am in the dormitory, only in the room, I can only sleep. Here (meaning Little India), can meet friends as if we are meeting in India. Can meet relatives too, it’s like India when I come here (referring to Little India).” Mr Bala, 28, another migrant worker from India, who has worked in Singapore for 3 ½ years in the shipyard.
Mr Aandiyappan, 43, has worked in Singapore for 16 years. He hails from Kallapettai, a small village in the Sivaganga District of Tamil Nadu State, situated 423 kilometres away from the state capital, Chennai in India.
“I married off my younger sisters and younger brother with my earnings from here. My father is a farmer and has no other form of income. I came here to work, bought all the jewelleries for my sister and married them off,” Mr Aandiyappan shared the above with a sense of pride and achievement. He shared most of the men come to work in Singapore as they have responsibilities to fulfill to their families first before themselves.
“I come to Little India to buy different things, things for my children to send back home. During Deepavali, I come to Little India to pray in the temple. I also visit my brother-in-law, all of us cook and eat together. Here in the temple, I pray to God, just like how it is in India. My heart feels contented.” Mr Aandiyappan
WH: So why did you choose (to work in) Singapore, 16 years ago?
Mr Aandiyappan: “There were some from my village who worked here and they built a house there after working here. So I thought I should also come here. I came here after I finished my 10th grade… I came in 1994… My first pay was $13 per day in 1994.”
Mr Aandiyappan started out as a bricklayer initially, and then underwent forklift training after some years in Singapore. This was followed by an electrical training years after. His last job was as an electrical fitter in Singapore.
Mr Aandiyappan shared that he had worked in the construction of the Esplanade building, on fixing the electrical wirings. He also mentioned excitedly that he saw President Obama there during the 2009 APEC Meeting’s evening cultural event. Mr Aandiyappan’s company was hired to provide back-up electricity and he was maintaining the generator.
Mr Aandiyappan has also worked on various National Day Parades over a couple of years. He was part of the team that took care of electrical wiring and stand-by generators. He noted that he enjoyed seeing the parade, and it gives Singaproeans a sense of parade. He has also seen how the parade’s pyrotechnic system and fireworks has changed over the years.
As the sole breadwinner of his family, Mr Aandiyappan sends money home for his son and daughter, as well as his sickly elderly mother who incurs medical expenses. “I keep telling myself another 1 or 2 years to fulfil my duties but the years keep running. Married my sisters off, built a house and now my children have started studying, so I need to spend on them.”
Most of the migrant workers pay a huge some of money to be able to come here to work. A majority of the men take loans, sell of their ancestral land or even mother’s jewellery to be able to finance the cost of working here. Even when the going gets tough, the men think about their families and press on, as seen by Mr Aandiyappan’s reflection above.
This landmark is located within the War Memorial Park at Beach Road. The four identical pillars, each 70 metres high, represent the shared experiences and unity of the four major races of Singapore – Chinese, Eurasian, Indian and Malay. The memorial is one of Singapore’s iconic heritage landmarks that embraces the virtues of a multiracial and cultural city. Not popularly known, the remains of the unidentified war victims are buried beneath the monument and adds to the material significance of the structure whose history it represents.
Mr Aandiyappan liked the heritage of the structure and that it embraced all the four different races of Singapore. It was built from the contribution of all the four communities alongside state funding.
“There is some importance given here to Tamil language, here in Singapore. Even within India when I was working in Andhra before, you cannot hear or see as much Tamil language there. Here there is importance given to Tamil language.”
The bottom two photos in this series are taken of a monument built in memory of the Indian National Army in Singapore. Mr Aandiyappan explained that it features the historical ties Singapore once shared with India, and the use of the Tamil language exemplifies it.
As a Singaporean born and brought up here, I had not seen the monument close-up, neither have I managed to attend any National Day Parade!
Mr Aandiyappan’s sharp and keen eyes in identifying with the monuments have demostrated that people search for ties that bind wherever they go. I am grateful that Singapore has become an independent nation for nearly half a decade, and has carved out a culture of its own that is different from the home country that my forefathers hailed from, our shared history and common language is something that binds us together. It is in my hope that Singaporeans from all walks of life are able to see through the eyes of migrant workers occasionally.
Speaking to Mr Aandiyappan and seeing his photographs of Singapore has made me understand, feel and see through his eyes things which we are not usually privy to and might have taken for granted. It enables one to better understand them and see that migrant workers too share similar hopes and dreams for a better future. I have gained substantial understanding of the migrant workers community through this project. As a follow-up to this participatory photography exercise, I have teamed up with my sister, Aishah, and The Ordinary Man on a photography project, to explore the perspectives through which migrant workers and Singaporeans see Singapore. We are in need of donations of disposable cameras for their use, so if you wish to contribute to our project, please refer to [http://on.fb.me/MHwJrQ] for more information.