Given the extensive help he’s provided migrant workers in Singapore over the years, it was surprising to hear Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen say that there was a point of time in his life when he actually wanted nothing at all to do with such members of Singapore society.
It wasn’t that Rev Samuel disliked migrant workers, or feared them. On the contrary, having grown up in an environment where he interacted with migrant workers on an almost daily basis, Rev Samuel was familiar with their beliefs and behaviours.
“My late father unintentionally arrived in Singapore from Sri Lanka in 1967, as a survivor of a ship that sank near the straits of Malacca. But, from day one, even though he was a foreigner, he was accepted by Singapore and her people,” Rev Samuel, 42, told The Pride.
“He appreciated how that acceptance and help allowed him to forge a new life here in Singapore, and so he made it his ambition to also give back to migrant workers in the country. That is why, from young, there were always migrant workers coming to my house to see my father for help, and it was through my interactions with them that I was exposed to the sort of struggles these workers face.”
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Despite these close and constant interactions, Rev Samuel admitted that he, too, had his own prejudices about migrant workers, and so, decided to turn away from them.
“I think it was because of a clash of cultures. Many of these workers have a different cultural upbringing from those of us in Singapore – which leans more towards the Western culture – which meant their beliefs and values were sometimes not aligned with mine,” explained Rev Samuel.
“So, there were things I did or said that they did not approve of. This caused them to form a preconceived opinion of me as a bad guy, which made me feel rejected. And in return, I hardened my heart towards them.”
However, as Rev Samuel grew older, he developed a deeper understanding of the cultures of these migrant workers after going on overseas mission trips.
“I finally realised that these workers weren’t against me personally. But, it’s just because they grew up in such a radically different environment from us in Singapore, that when they come here, it’s a culture shock for them, and natural that some of them find it hard to accept the differences,” said Rev Samuel.
And Rev Samuel, who is now the lead pastor at the Smyrna Assembly church, believes that these cultural differences are one of the main reasons why there remains some significant distance between migrant workers and Singaporeans.
“Because of certain episodes that has happened over the past few years, and because of a lack of knowledge or exposure to their cultures, it has caused some Singaporeans to stereotype migrant workers in a certain way,” said Rev Samuel.
“Migrant workers too, because of how they see their peers being treated, also begin to feel inferior about themselves. For example, there are many instances of people on the train moving away from migrant workers because they think they’re smelly. This makes the workers feel like they’re second-class citizens, and because of that mindset, they tend to put on a hard front.”
And so, it was with the intention of bridging the gap between migrant workers and Singaporeans that Rev Samuel decided to help start the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO) this year.
The AGWO – which is part of the Hope Initiative Alliance (HIA), a network of charities and NGOs that targets social inequalities – also aims to provide migrant workers with sustainable holistic care and support.
One of the ways that Rev Samuel hopes that AGWO can help migrant workers and Singaporeans better understand each other is through the simple act of having meals together.
As such, he is working with the Singapore Kindness Movement on the Christmas edition of its Just An Extra Chair initiative, which encourages people in Singapore to invite migrant workers into their homes for a meal this Christmas.
He explained: “An important element of AGWO is to be a listening ear to the migrant workers, to hear their stories, their joys, their sorrows…and what better way to do so than over a meal?
“So, at a lot of our functions, we make sure that we have meals for our migrant workers and Singaporean volunteers. Because when they start to converse over meals, it puts everyone at ease, and makes it easier for people to share their experiences. This, I believe, can go a long way to bridging the gap between migrant workers and Singaporeans.
“Because I find that once you make the first move to interact and engage with migrant workers, to try and understand them, you’ll realise that they’re actually very warm, lovely people who would enjoy nothing more than to be your friends.”
According to Rev Samuel, the AGWO has already impacted more than 100,000 migrant workers since officially launching in October this year. They hope to increase that number 10-fold to a million in five years’ time, either through the provision of meals, services or by organising special functions to appreciate them.
After all, Rev Samuel says that one of the things that migrant workers really want is simple: to feel appreciated.
“More than legal help, or educational and financial help, what most migrant workers want more than anything else is to feel valued. They love to hear the words ‘thank you’, and to know that they are loved and accepted by Singaporeans” said Rev Samuel.
“That goes a long way because being appreciated allows them to take pride in the work they do. Paying them their salary is no more than what they deserve. But to give them beyond that, that is appreciation. And you can do that through your words, or through your actions. Appreciating them is simple, but will do so much to make their lives here in Singapore that much more pleasant.”