Words with Friends

Through teaching English to migrant workers in Singapore, a Singaporean forms a unique and enduring friendship with one of the participants.



anguage is a powerful tool that can either alienate or bring people together. Singaporean Tan Sok Hwee chose to use it to facilitate understanding across cultures by teaching migrant workers simple conversational English.

“If they can converse in simple English, they can better communicate with the different communities here. Buying things and going about their daily life will also be easier,” says Tan.

The idea for this was prompted by an article she read in 2010 about a worker who had been left to die in a monsoon drain by his employer after being injured in a workplace accident. She was deeply shocked and saddened.

This spurred her to strike up a conversation with Ambu, a migrant worker from Tamil Nadu, India, who washes cars in her housing estate. Ambu, who had been working in Singapore for four years at the time, was able to speak some basic English, so the duo started chatting about Bollywood movies and exchanging news on India. “Getting to know Ambu made me want to help improve the lives of foreign workers. While I can’t help them pay off their heavy debts, or help them fight for higher pay or better welfare benefits, I thought of another way to help, which is just as powerful,” she says.

"Learning basic English will help them understand instructions and other safety rules better. Workplace accidents could be reduced as a result. They will be able to communicate better with their bosses as well as workers from other countries and locals. If they can speak and understand English, they might be able to do their work better, and this could increase their chances of promotion."

Ambu introduced Tan to his Singaporean dormitory manager, who welcomed her and two Singaporean friends, who also wanted to help. They then started to offer free English lessons at his dormitory in Yishun in 2012.

“Exchanging a smile or a simple hello puts people at ease. Donʼt worry about language barriers. Many times you can say more with your heart than with words. People can pick up more from your body language and gestures than your words. ”

Tan Sok Hwee, volunteer for Agape Community Servicesʼ English lessons programme

The lessons, held on Saturdays from 8.30pm to 10pm, are taught by a small group of volunteers comprising locals, an Australian and an American. Although they initially catered only to Tamil speakers, they have now also incorporated workers from China and Myanmar. There are around 14 to 20 foreign workers taking the lessons.

At one of these sessions, Tan met Senthil, 32, a migrant worker from Tamil Nadu. “He was a little shy but friendly, and he was eager to learn,” Tan recalls. Their friendship grew over time. Tan and her husband were soon inviting him home for meals and to family outings. “I enjoy seeing him playing and laughing with my sons,” says Tan, who has two boys, aged eight and 10.

Senthil, who works as a supervisor in the electrical division of a local company, says that when he first came to Singapore six years ago, everything felt alien. He adds: “Singapore was very different from the remote village I came from. I was afraid that I would offend people as I did not know the local customs. I did not know anyone at that time as well, so it made it even more intimidating.” That changed when Tan befriended him.

Senthil says: “Sok Hwee is like family to me, and she treats me like I’m part of her family as well. She invites me to her home and takes me to her church as well as restaurants and places like the Singapore Zoo and Marina Bay Sands.”

When Senthil got married in February 2015, he invited the couple to his wedding in India. Tan says: “We got to meet his family and fellow villagers. We saw for ourselves what his life was like back in his hometown. We were humbled to be so warmly accepted by his family and friends. Their smiles, handshakes and greetings put us at so much ease, even though they are from a culture that is so different from ours.”

Since Senthil and Tan’s story was featured in a video on Our Better World, the Singapore International Foundation’s digital storytelling platform, Tan has received more enquiries from interested individuals wanting to volunteer to teach. She hopes more Singaporeans will reach out to the people around them, even if they come from different backgrounds and cultures.

“Exchanging a smile or a simple hello puts people at ease,” says Tan. “Don’t worry about language barriers. Many times you can say more with your heart than with words. People can pick up more from your body language and gestures than your words.”

To find out more about Tan Sok Hwee and Senthil’s story. Visit www.ourbetterworld.org/en/story/it-wasnt-hard-be-friends or e-mail agapebc@agape.org.sg to volunteer for Agape Community Services’ English lessons programme.

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