Not Everyone in Singapore Has a Happy New Year

Singapore’s migrant labor muscled its way into the news recently when a riot broke out in Little India over the accidental killing of an Indian worker by a public bus. The authorities insisted on treating the riot as a matter of law enforcement and refused to see the issue as one of social justice too. A number of thoughtful commentators, including journalist and essayist Cherian George, pointed out the workers’ legitimate causes for anger. The question was even taken up in a New York Times editorial.

How does a fiction writer treat such large social issues without resorting to preaching, grandstanding, sentimentality or caricature? In the following story, Shelly Bryant treats her protagonist, a woman police officer, with both empathetic insight and well-judged irony. Through the eyes of Officer Kali, we see the foreign sex worker not just as a victim, but as an agent of her own fate. We see also how Officer Kali is complicit with the system that exploits women and workers. Her complicity, in the form of compliance, is ours too.

 

ENOUGH  by Shelly Bryant

Having successfully chased the monkey from its perch on the motorcycle, Officer Kali headed back to the police post, disgusted at having been assigned such an ignoble task. A team from the centre for Animal Welfare and Control had been on hand, ready to cage the creature and take it off to be dealt with in whatever manner deemed to be most humane. Really, this affair had not been a police matter at all, and Kali was mortified that she had been assigned to attend to an inconvenience even worse than directing traffic at the causeway, a duty each officer in her post had to do once a week.

That morning, she heard just before she left the office that the construction of the buildings that would eventually house Republic Polytechnic had turned up plenty of beasts wilder than the monkey, all of them scampering out from the quickly receding jungle. The rest of her colleagues in the post – all the guys – had gone out for a raid. It reminded her of the early days after she had joined the police force, when the jungle was being cleared just south of Woodlands to make way for the Seletar Expressway. She remembered setting off many mornings, the humidity as thick as the jungle around her, as she trekked along well-worn paths to the camps deeply entrenched in the undeveloped hilly plots of land between Mandai and Woodlands. She had broken up one encampment after another, usually with at least four or five illegal workers to each cluster of tents erected around a central cooking fire. She had quickly become jaded to the pleading tone in the voices of the illegals as they were apprehended, a task made easier by the fact that she did not understand a word they said to her. The only thing that occasionally made her resolve waver was the presence of children in some of the camps. Most of them should have been in nappies, but they were usually left running naked about the campsite. She knew these children had probably been born in Singapore to parents who had no right to be here. It was not the kids’ fault, and the look of terror in their eyes when their flimsy homes were raided made her think twice about hauling them in with the adults. “Would they be handled kindly before their deportation?” She had learned to shake that question off. It was a Ministry of Manpower problem, not a police matter.

She could not help but draw the parallel in her mind between those now-extinct campsites, buried under concrete to facilitate the construction of the SLE, and the jungle home of the monkey she had attended to this morning. ‘Woodlands’ was becoming a less apt name for her surroundings with each passing day. It had remained a small smattering of HDB blocks left hovering between the straits and the jungle for a long time, but that had changed over the past decade. She remembered when there were no more than forty blocks for her to manage. Today, there were nearly three hundred. And the types of problems she was called to attend to had changed accordingly. Before, it was mostly jungle-dwelling illegal workers and a series of causeway-related problems like the daily backup of traffic that used to bring the whole estate to a standstill when factory workers returned to their homes in JB each evening. The easing of that traffic had been one welcome change, at least. The opening of the Second Link in Tuas had changed the face of Woodlands more than any development that had taken place in the estate itself, as far as Kali was concerned. The daily ritual of clearing a colossal traffic jam was a thing of the past, though the rest of the problems associated with being a border town remained. Most of her daily calls now still centred around picking up contraband that had crossed the causeway or breaking up fights between rival JB bandits that often crossed over to Woodlands to put some finishing touches on ‘negotiations’ with their Singaporean clients. Oddly enough, it was this feeling of proximity to Malaysia that made her like working here in the north. She felt she was more in touch with the outside world than the average Singaporean. Even if much of her contact with the international community came in the form of pursuing motorcycles from Johor through the winding HDB carparks before they made a run for the causeway, it was still a sort of interaction that made her feel like a more cosmopolitan cop than most of her peers. They were, after all, overseas bikes.

Her reverie was momentarily disrupted by a rush of cool air as she opened the door to the police post. Air conditioning in the police post was one of the other positive additions to the ever-expanding estate, she thought. Sitting in an air-con office was the most pleasant aspect of her job. Upon entering the office, she found that her male colleagues were all assisting in processing the band of foreign workers who had been smoked out of their hiding places. They had had a good laugh together over how goondu the construction team was. Who else would set up camp on the very ground that they were scheduled to dig up? It was as if they weren’t satisfied with having been transplanted from their home countries to try to make a little extra money. They had to go and settle in a stretch of jungle that would guarantee they would eventually be displaced from their temporary homes as well. No brains lah.

Kali stepped into the police post just as the MoM officers herded the last round of men out the door toward the waiting van. Over the sound of whispered exchanges in Thai, the head of the MoM team called, “Quiet lah. No talking unless someone talks to you.”

Kali doubted any of the illegal workers understood the words, but the tone of the command seemed to register with them. Anyway, they fell silent.

“Hey, Teo,” she called to the officer behind the desk, “is she here yet?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “I’ve assigned you two to Room C. We’ll escort the girls in one at a time.”

She walked past the row of girls who sat cowering on the plastic chairs that lined the corridor. All of them kept their heads lowered, eyes on the ground. No one spoke.

At least ten, Kali estimated. It was going to be a long day. Her colleagues had shared the task of questioning the team of male construction workers. Eight officers to a work crew of thirty or so. All ten of these women would be left to the ever-so- reliable Officer Kali, though. None would be forthcoming with a male interrogator. At least, that was the assumption. Kali, it seemed, would be able to relate better just because she came with the same equipment they did, from a biological perspective.

She entered Room C and greeted the interpreter. “I’m Officer Kali.”

“You can call me Jitra,” the other woman replied, returning Kali’s curt nod with one of her own.

“Sorry to have kept you waiting,” Kali said. “I was sent out to deal with a call from the neighbourhood while my desk sergeant located a Thai translator.”

“It’s fine,” Jitra replied. “I’m ready when you are.”

“Then let’s get started.”

Over the next three hours, Kali witnessed five versions of the same event. A girl entered the room, escorted by one of the male officers. As soon as she was seated, the man left, closing the door behind him. The girl turned toward Jitra, a stream of pleading Thai bursting from her mouth the moment the door clicked shut. Kali was already sick of the nasal quality of the language, and she was no more than half done. She never understood why others called the Thai language lilting or musical. To Kali, it was peevish and whiny, making all these women sound weak.

Before the initial burst of speech went too far, Kali made sure to cut the girl off with a taut command. “Enough. Just answer the questions. That will give us an orderly account of the events we are investigating.”

For each girl in her turn, Jitra translated the instructions. The girl fell silent, eyes glued to the table top as Kali spoke, and only occasionally glancing at Jitra as she translated. Kali doubted that any of the five girls she questioned would be able to identify her if they saw her again. Not one of them had given her more than a cursory glance.

All five of the stories had been variations on the same theme. The girls had been swindled in one way or another. Never overtly abducted, but lured with promises of jobs in factories in Southern Thailand. Once they had boarded the trucks, their journey seemed to go on forever. It had not occurred to them that they had left their own country, transported across Malaysia and into Singapore, until they were picked up that morning. They knew they’d been conned. All of them had figured that much out the first time one of the construction crew members had entered her tent and initiated her into the business she’d unwittingly been brought to Singapore to conduct. But it had never crossed their minds that they were outside of Thailand. After all, everyone they had seen during their months of ‘employment’ had been Thai.

How could they be so gullible? Didn’t it strike them that there was something wrong when they were forced to huddle into secret compartments in the cargo section of the lorry? Wasn’t that a pretty obvious clue that something was not above board? What reason could there be for that other than the illegal crossing of a border? And the jam! Even though it was no longer like the old days, lorries could still be back up for half a day or more. Wouldn’t that hidden compartment in the cargo hold have become almost deathly hot? What was wrong with these girls?

They were just acting blur. Had to be. No one could be that stupid.

“Let’s take an hour for lunch,” Kali said to Jitra. “There’s a hawker centre nearby. Just pass through the blocks and across the carpark and you’ll see it. You go and eat, and we can meet back here at two.”

“I brought my lunch from home,” the interpreter replied. “Is it all right if I eat here?”

Kali nodded her assent as she pulled out her cellphone and switched it on. Without bothering to take another look at the other woman, she checked her messages, then walked quickly out of the door and down the corridor.

*

“Hey, you’re not supposed to have your handphone in the interrogation room,” Teo said as soon as he saw her.

“I just turned it on,” she answered.

“Still, better not let the captain see you take it in. Leave it in your locker during your afternoon session. He said he’ll be back after lunch.”

She didn’t respond. She could only think of the message she’d just read, the one Priya had sent her an hour earlier. Goin to ur place. Don’t tell him. See u when u home.

She called the number. As soon as her sister picked up, she started in. “What did Ganesh do this time?”

“Nothing serious. More of the same.”

“That’s what you call nothing serious? Remember the stitches? What was it, five?”

“Aiyoh. If I wanted a lecture I’d go to Mum and Dad’s. And it was six. Six stitches.”

Kali sighed. “Right. Six stitches. And I doubt you’d hear a lecture from Mum. You’d just see ‘more of the same’ there too, you know. But at least you wouldn’t have to play the female lead in that drama.”

“Are you saying I’m like Mum?”

Kali caught herself before she answered. This question put her in a tricky spot. “No,” she said cautiously. “That’s not what I meant. Just… Don’t leave the flat, okay? Wait till I’m home and we’ll talk about it then.”

“What if he comes here?”

“Ganesh? He won’t. I’ve renewed the protection order against him. He’s not allowed within a hundred metres of my block. You’re safe there.”

“I know I am.”

“I’ll see you after work, okay?”

“Yeah.”

“You’ll be okay? You aren’t hurt or anything?”

“Now you ask.”

“Hey, at least I’m asking.”

“All right, all right. I’m fine. He didn’t hurt me.”

“Okay. you just stay in. I’ll get dinner on the way home.”

“I could cook.”

“I doubt it. The cupboards are empty.”

“So I’ll go to the market.”

“Don’t! It’s more than a hundred meters from my block.”

“All right. Then you get dinner.”

Priya hung up without saying goodbye. Kali put her phone back into her pocket and turned toward the hawker centre. She had worked right through tea break interviewing those goondu Thai girls. She was hungry.

*

When she walked back into the air conditioned lobby of the police post after lunch, the captain greeted her with a loud, “Where is your report from this morning’s call, Kali?”

“Haven’t written it up yet, sir. The translator was waiting for me with all those girls when I got back.” She pointed to the women who still sat huddled on the plastic chairs along the wall, eating rice from styrofoam boxes.

“Just leave it on my table along with your reports from each of the interviews, then. Make sure to finish all of the paperwork before you leave the office today.”

“Yes, sir,” she replied, then went back into Room C. The interpreter sat at her place, flipping through a magazine.

Kali wondered if the woman had even left that spot since their morning interviews. She didn’t know how anyone could endure such mechanical work without at least getting up and going outside to stretch her legs a bit. More like a robot than a human.

The door opened and the first girl of the afternoon walked in. She sat in the empty chair, turned to the interpreter, and uttered a stream of unintelligible gibberish.

“Enough,” Kali said. “Just answer the questions.”

*

The big hand ticked onto the twelve, forming a straight vertical line across the face of the clock. “Priya must be getting hungry,” Kali thought as the interviewee disappeared through the door. Another woman pushed her way in, her shoulder knocking against the other detainee as they passed.

The last interview. Finally.

This one looked a little older than the other girls, but that was not what really set her apart. Her most distinguishing feature was an ugly scar stretching from her left ear to the corner of her mouth, a raised red line along her cheek.

She sat silently, staring straight ahead. She did not speak, nor did she look at Kali or the interpreter.

“What’s your name?” Kali asked, pulling an empty form toward her as she glanced at Jitra.

“Kanda.” The woman did not wait for the question to be interpreted into Thai.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-nine.”

“How did you get to Singapore?”

“In a lorry. They put other girls under a panel. Make them hide.” Her English was jerky, unlike the fluid Thai that had flowed through the room all day, but her speech still bore the nasal quality of her native tongue.

“But not you?”

“No! I have passport. Legal.”

“That’s good. Can you show me your passport?”

“With Tan. you ask him.”

“We will.”

“Ask, then I go. I not like those girls. Legal! You let me go.”

“You might have entered Singapore legally,” Kali said, “but there are other matters involved here.”

Kanda looked at her. After a few seconds, she turned to Jitra. “What she say?”

A flurry of Thai crossed the table.

The interviewee turned back to Kali. “No problem. Everything legal. Singapore, this is legal. Passport legal. I am legal. You let me go.”

“Enough. Just answer the questions.”

The woman turned her face back to the wall. She sat staring again, silent.

“Tell me about how you were brought to Singapore.”

“I tell already. On truck. In front seat. Have passport.”

“Yes. I know. With Mr Tan. I wrote all of that down already. What I want to know is how you met Mr Tan and how you got your passport.”

Jitra started to interpret. The woman looked at her and snapped, “I hear already. I know Tan in Bangkok. Long-time customer. Visit every month or two. Pay well. He know I clean. No drug, no disease. When he come see me in February, he see this.” She pointed at the scar on her cheek. “I tell him another customer make this when he come see me one night very drunk. I tell Tan I cannot make money any more, now face so ugly. He say he help me because Singapore sure got work for me. Not dangerous like Bangkok. He say is legal, and I help Thai men far from home. I think good idea, so I let him make passport. I help him find other girls to come work here too.”

“True, prostitution is legal,” Kali said, “but you can’t freelance, you know. There are procedures. Are you licensed?”

Kanda looked at the interpreter, who spoke softly in Thai for several seconds.

“Ask Tan.”

“We will. When we ask him about your passport. Now, can you tell me his full name?”

“No.”

“Maybe where I can find him?”

“No. He see me every day in my tent since I come Singapore. I don’t know where he go. He brought me to work, not to marry.”

Jitra started to interpret. The detainee turned to her and spat out a single Thai phrase that made the other woman flinch.

“She understands,” the interpreter said, nodding to Kali.

“Good. We’re done for the day then. You can speak to the desk officer before you leave. He will help you wrap up your paperwork.”

She turned to the interviewee. “Please sit outside with the other girls. Wait quietly there until you get further instructions.”

As the two Thai women exited, Kali took the forms from the table top in front of her, straightened them into a neat stack, stood up, and walked out of the room. She turned on her cellphone as she made her way down the corridor and began composing an apology for the late hour.

“Kali,” her captain called. “I need those forms before you leave.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, stopping at his door. “I just finished the interview and will get them done now.”

Her superior leaned back in his chair, looking at her from behind his large, heavy desk. He glanced at her hands.

“Did you have your handphone in the interview room?”

“It was switched off the whole time.”

“It’s against regulations. And you’ve been warned before. You know what that means.”

“Yes, sir,” she replied, her jaw tight.

“Okay, then. Just remember this when you see your pay slip, and don’t make the same mistake in future.”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s all, then.”

“Yes, sir.”

She turned and walked to the front desk. Just as she passed the forms to the duty officer, her phone beeped. It was a message from Priya.

He called 2 say sorry. Misunderstanding only. Going home. Dont worry about me. Call u tmr.

“Aiyah,” she thought, “how can a smart woman be so goondu?”

 

From Balik Kampong 2A, edited by Verena Tay, Math Paper Press

Reprinted with the author’s permission

 

bk2a_peopleandplaces

—————

Shelly Bryant is a teacher, writer, researcher and translator. She is the author of four volumes of poetry, a pair of travel guides and several translations. Shelly’s writing has appeared in journals, magazines and websites around the world as well as in several art exhibitions. You can visit her website at http://www.shellybryant.com.

About her connection to Woodlands, Bryant writes:

I moved to Singapore at the beginning of 1993, and after staying in Bukit Batok for several months, I moved to Woodlands, where I have lived ever since. At the time, not only was it rare for an ‘ang moh’ to live in Woodlands, but the MRT had not even made its way to the neighbourhood yet. Things have changed rapidly in the twenty years that I have lived in Woodlands, but not so drastically that it is unrecognisable. It is, after all, my home.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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