More than Words

Abdul Khaeer Mohammed Mohsin, editor of Singapore’s only Bengali newspaper, talks about growing a cultural space for migrant workers in Singapore, his life here and his advocacy work.

BY CORINNE KERK

ILLUSTRATION THAM SZEMIN

T

he office of Abdul Khaeer Mohammed Mohsin, editor of the monthly Bengali newspaper Banglar Kantha (Voice of Bengal), sits above an eatery in a bustling corner of Rowell Road in Singapore’s Little India. A simple sign on the door reads: “Bangladesh Centre-Singapore. Connecting Dhaka and Singapore. Bridging two cultures seamlessly…”

The room is not much more than 500 sq ft, but quite a lot happens here. Mohsin, 53, is dedicated to serving the needs of the estimated 140,000-strong Bangladeshi migrant community in Singapore. His office has become the go-to place for Bangladeshi migrant workers in need of assistance.

Apart from a section he uses as his office, the rest of the space is dedicated to a small library of Bengali books, traditional musical instruments and games – all of which are used by workers who visit mostly in the evenings and on weekends. This is where cultural space Dibashram, started by Mohsin in 2011, holds its free artistic activities like poetry competitions, photography exhibitions and drama workshops. These are funded by earnings from Banglar Kantha’s advertising revenue.

Growing up in Brahmanbaria, the cultural capital of Bangladesh, Mohsin was inspired to start Dibashram because of the poetry, stories and musical talents of the migrant workers he met in the course of his work. He says: “I wanted them to have a place they can go to read literature and practise and uphold our glorious culture in a multilingual country. When each person is involved in his own culture, he feels empowered – that he is not only labour but human. People can then see that we are all humans, with feelings.”

“When each person is involved in his own culture, he feels empowered – that he is not only labour but human. People can then see that we are all humans, with feelings.”


Abdul Khaeer Mohammed Mohsin, editor of Banglar Kantha

While it is mostly Bangladeshi migrant workers who use the space, Dibashram has evolved into a meeting place of sorts for the different communities in Singapore. It is where locals come to befriend the workers.

Students from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University make it a point to visit on Sundays to spend time with and help the workers learn English. In addition, many students have made films on the workers as part of their school projects. As a result, they have built relationships and come to appreciate their struggles and hardship, says Mohsin.

Friends from India and Sri Lanka also join them for informal sessions where they sing and play music together. One of Dibashram’s initiatives, an annual poetry competition started in 2012, has grown to now include Chinese, Indonesian, Filipino, Indian and Sri Lankan participants.

All this leads not only to greater interaction, but also greater awareness and support for the migrant worker community, says Mohsin. He adds: “Nowadays, migrant workers are behind all the construction and developments in Singapore, so people must realise they work very hard and see them not just as foreign labour but human beings. In this way, those who cheat migrant workers should also feel ashamed, as locals support and encourage these workers’ rights.”

A PURPOSE-FILLED LIFE

Mohsin first came to Singapore in 1991 to study English and computing. He later received a job offer in the printing industry and returned here to work. Home today is a three-room HDB flat (public housing in Singapore) in Kallang Bahru – about 30 minutes’ walk from his office – with his wife and three daughters. “I regard Singapore as home because two of my three children were born here, they all grew up here and study here,” he says. “They like Singapore and see it as their home too. As for me, I am very settled here and also very satisfied with what I do here.”

Because he sees his newspaper as a platform for the workers’ voices, Mohsin has used it to expose unscrupulous agents and employers who exploit Bangladeshi migrant workers. For that, he has received threats. But he remains unfazed. He says: “When I was a student, my country was ruled by a military government so I fought against them as an activist and got thrown into jail. This inspired my work life, so that besides being a journalist, I am also an advocate for migrant workers’ rights.”

Last year, he was almost forced to give up Dibashram as he could no longer afford to pay the venue’s rent and utilities. Publicity in the local papers eventually helped get him additional advertisers for his newspaper, which meant he could continue funding the cultural space. This also adds to his sense of belonging in Singapore. He says: “The local media and authorities recognise and value my work and what I do for my community.”

 


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